Alex Massie

The Price of Nick Clegg’s Success

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As Pete says, Danny Finkelstein's column (£) today is characteristically excellent. The problems facing the Liberal Democrats now and, perhaps, at the next election are problems caused by success, not failure. The Lib Dems had three options after the votes had been counted: do a deal with the Tories, try and cobble something together with Labour or remain aloof from the hurly-burly and leave the Tories to govern as a minority - perhaps on a supply or confidence basis.

Given those options Nick Clegg followed his own instincts (and those of the country as a whole) and opted for the Tories. This was both the right thing to do and the couragous choice. Because to govern is to choose and for many Liberal Democrats not having to choose has been one of the great and most attractive things about the party. As Danny puts it:

Now, it is true that opinion polls show the Lib Dems being squeezed. The junior partner in a coalition often finds it hard going. But there is only one way that the Lib Dems could have avoided this problem. They could have avoided it by never holding power at all. They could have clung on to their 20 per cent or so then. But what on earth would be the point?

For a quarter of a century the Liberal Democrats have been approaching the moment when they would have to make a choice. Were they a party of the Centre, articulating the views of a rising class or a party of the Left, forming a progressive alliance with Labour? It was always obvious that at the moment they made this choice they would lose some support. And obvious, too, that this choice would have to be made if they were to take power. In other words, it would be the price of victory.

Everyone seems to have moved smoothly on to considering how the Lib Dems might be defeated at the next election, without pausing to consider that — since the purpose of fighting election campaigns is to gain power — they were one of the winners of the last one. They are paying a price for this that could have been postponed indefinitely only by losing indefinitely.

Quite true. Parties can be parties of government or parties of ideas. If, like the Scottish Conservatives, they are neither men of power nor of ideas that will, though radical now, eventually influence or shape the political landscape (that's what libertarians are for, perhaps) then they're of precious little use whatsoever.

Now, like Danny, I suspect that reports of the Lib Dems' demise are premature. Not least because they've clung on in Scotland. True, the Scottish party is less liberal than the Orange Bookers but it's not the Labour party either and, in fact, supported by people who really don't like the Labour party very much at all (if they did they might vote Labour). Furthermore, the Labour-Lib Dem coalition at Holyrood became so unpopular that Labour, with an assist from the electoral system, actually managed to lose an election in Scotland*.

And yet, while static in the polls athe Lib Dems retain 11 Westminster seats in Scotland. In general, their level of support has remained constant. Granted, the Lib Dems benefit from the fact that their support is much more concentrated than, say, the Tories'. Nevertheless, this is true in England too. Where is the Great Liberal Meltdown supposed to happen?

Take the Southwest. The Liberal Democrats hold 15 of the 45 seats in the region. (Indeed, Scotland and the Southwest contribute nearly half the Lib Dem caucus at Westminster). These are mainly Tory-LD contests. Disillusioned Lib Dems could, I suppose, stay at home or vote for Labour but that only means that they'll hand the seat to the Tories.This is probably also true if the election is held under the Alternative Vote. In either case, if Clegg's supporters desert the party they will, essentially, be telling the party leadership that We Don't Like Winning.

What about Yorkshire and the North-West? Sure, some seats are Labour-LD contests but rather more, such as Southport, Hazel Grove and Cheadle are Tory-LD affairs. Even in the West Midlands, where they hold just two seats, the Labour-LD seat of Birmingham Yardley is matched by the Tory-LD battle in Solihull.

Again, in these Tory-LD affairs tactical voters and erstwhile-social democratsl have a choice: vote Lib Dem or increase the likelihood of a Conservative majority whci, presumably, they would consider the worst of all possible outcomes. The incentives suggest they should vote Liberal Democrat even if doing so also means that the Lib Dems might remain in coalition with the accursed Tories. To do otherwise is, again, to prefer the comforts of opposition to the responsibilities of office.

All this, mind you, before one considers the possibility of a coalition joint-ticket in seats such as Burnley or in some of the London marginals.

So, yes, the Lib Dems may have a rocky time at the next election but, once ensconsed in a seat, recent times have shown that they have a certain stickability. Furthermore, as Graham Stewart points out, it's not as though the party han't endured much tougher times in the past. Whatever the polls say now they're much better than they were when Paddy Ashdown became leader: in 1989 some polls put the party on less than 5%.

In other words, it is hard to conceive how the Liberal Democrats, even if they do suffer a hammering at the next election, will be in a worse state than they were 20 years ago. Even if their parliamentary representation were cut in half they'd have more to crow about than any Liberal leadership in living memory - thanks to, you know, being in government - and remain well placed to have real influence on the future of British politics.

That doesn't mean an alliance with Labour is, as Pete hints, impossible. Merely that there will still be Lib Dems in the next parliament and that, thanks to the imagination shown by Clegg and Cameron, a Tory-Liberal Democrat alliance is, for the time being anyway, a more logical arrangement than anything else on offer.

Again, whatever their current difficulties the Lib Dems are suffering from being in office. That is, their supposed unpopulairty is a feature of success, not a bug or the consequence of failure or betrayal. I suspect that, come the next election, rather more of their voters will think so too.

*The extent of Labour's popularity in Scotland is easily overstated, not least because of First Past the Post. Even now, 60% of Scots reject Labour.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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