All political parties are coalitions. And the messy reality of governing exposes these coalitions for the world to see. Even in the event that the UK economy is running on all cylinders by 2015 (looking increasingly unlikely), we all know that we’re going to be in a tight spot come the general election. So can we expect a debate between Liberal Left and Orange Bookers as we seek to define our message to the country? Between those who think that a distinctively centre-left message will take us back to the heady polling numbers of 2010 and those who argue that we actually need to be playing to naturally Tory-voting middle class southerners?
Whatever your personal inclination, most people don’t care. As this fascinating poll demonstrates (scroll down to the word cloud at the bottom), the average voter is unable to define what the party stands for at all. At the same time, there is an enormous public mistrust of politicians and ‘the system’ in general. People feel remote from government and from the decisions that affect their everyday life. And this shouldn’t be a surprise, given that the UK is the most centralised state in Western Europe.
So we have a challenge – to fight the 2015 election from a (probably) very weak polling position and a need for a distinctive message. And we have an opportunity: the public is fed up with politicians and with government, the system, the establishment, the people who always seem to be on the inside. The answer? Give the country back to the people.
What does this mean? It means that government will treat people as adults and give them back the power to run their own affairs. Real power returns to communities: power to set taxes and deliver education, policing, planning and health. We don’t need regional assemblies: we should just halve the size of parliament and use the money saved to give local government full devolved powers. The population of Kent is larger than the population of New Hampshire, yet we emasculate local authorities with Whitehall meddling. We should shut down all executive quangos, not just the ones we don’t like very much. Every Lib Dem candidate will be chosen in a party primary (that might at least make a few people re-join). Every local council will have the authority to hold binding referenda if 10% of the population signs a petition. The same will go for national referenda.
I haven’t offered a view on whether we should be raising local taxes, offering one type of school over another, or putting more money into healthcare. The Liberal Democrats should have the courage to say at the national level “this is for local communities to decide”. This is an answer that is distinctively ours, different and better.
A campaign that said, “we trust you; the other parties don’t” would return us to being the real alternative. It might even make the UK a better place.