Just to be clear upfront, I don’t very much care what happens to the Liberal Democrat party. I’d like to think I have a good personal relationship with our local MP, who I got to know well during the election, but the future of his party doesn’t really concern me. What does matter to me, however, is the future direction of this country and in considering this, it is impossible to ignore the impact of the Liberal Democrats.
I have been taken aback in the past three months just how quickly and easily the Lib Dems have absorbed the Tory rhetoric, in particular on the economy. The message they now jointly disseminate, in complete contrast to pre-election promises, is that dramatic deficit reduction through savage spending cuts is critical to the future of our nation. Ignoring the economic illiteracy this displays (in a low demand economy, excessive austerity fuels unemployment, attacks confidence and stifles growth), as a message, it has bound the Lib Dems tightly to the Conservative ship.
The problem for the Liberal Democrats as a party, and something the leadership seems to be ignoring, is that regardless of how popular or unpopular the coalition is, the junior partners will suffer. Success (in the eyes of the electorate) will be confirmation that the Tories are fit for power and in that case, why choose the pale blue imitation? Failure of the government will produce a backlash and the Lib Dems have lost their claim to be a valid opposition. Here, Labour wins. I would congratulate David Cameron on this brilliant piece of Machiavellian politics, but I don’t credit him with that degree of foresight. He was forced to act as he did and it’s turned out better than he can have hoped.
When the Lib Dem MPs line up at the next election and ask to be reselected, what will they stand for? Their candidates will often have positioned themselves as social liberals, an alternative to Labour and a block to the Tories. They will be asked why they said one thing and did another last time around. This is the reality of the situation. The electorate doesn’t vote for a government – it can’t choose a “coalition”, even if a large proportion of individuals would want it. Can you imagine the tactical guesswork required by an individual voter who wanted just enough Lib Dems MPs in government? It’s not realistic.
So, the Lib Dems are relying on local loyalty, on being strong in the constituency and perhaps some tactical support from the Tories, to avoid a crushing defeat next time around. Expect to see your local Lib Dem MP at the opening of an envelope in the next five years – it could be their only chance of rescuing the party.