Allow me to indulge the personal for a moment. I was brought up in Eccles, a solidly Labour-voting suburb of Manchester (the seat hasn’t changed hands in the post-war era), by Labour-voting parents, and even gave my first vote to the Labour party, although I stopped short of ever becoming a party member. I say this because I want the reader to appreciate that I come to the Liberal Democrats firmly from the left of the political spectrum, which may make what follows a little remarkable.
In recent days I’ve read so many diatribes against a perceived betrayal from those that have shared my political journey, so many impassioned articles critical of the decision to form a coalition with the Conservative party, that I felt moved to add my tuppence worth – and in doing so I’d like you to consider the counterfactuals.
By counterfactuals, a term the economist-blogger Giles Wilkes introduced me to, I refer to the ‘what might have been’ scenarios, the ‘what ifs,’ the ‘flipsides.’ For instance, to those convinced that any sort of deal with the Conservative party was wrong on principle, I point to the fact that, like it or lump it, the Tories did win 36% of the vote and that the flipside of our refusal to work with them would have left the country’s biggest party without a voice in government.
And no, I’m not saying we should feel sorry for Tories in this case, but could true democrats countenance such a distortion to the popular voice, having spent decades campaigning for an electoral system that rewards votes with Parliamentary influence? Nick Clegg certainly didn’t think so, insistent as he was that as winners of the most votes, the Tories had a claim to ‘seek first to govern in the national interest.’
Then there’s the simple counterfactual of which of the alternatives on offer critics of our current position would have preferred. A minority Tory government, unstable in itself and yet with the ability to push through its legislative programme without countervailing voices as there now will be? Many an argument was made for us to step aside; instead we will now see many of our most cherished policies implemented and the harshest Tory plans shelved, so which would you prefer?
Or perhaps we ought to have gone for a so-called ‘rainbow alliance’ with Labour, Lib Dems and assorted others? To put the Conservative creed to one side is seen as beyond the pale, and yet so many have rushed to exalt a union with a party that, lest we forget their record in the last 13 years, trampled on our civil liberties; sat back as the fruits of an unprecedented and unsustainable boom accrued to the wealthy; spent billions on PFI schemes whist scrapping the lowest tax band; and lead the nation to a disastrous and illegal war in Iraq. If this forms part of the legacy of a supposedly progressive party, who’s to say that as a counterfactual, the Tories can’t deliver government we can tolerate at worst?
Yes, many Conservative policies go against our instincts as a party, and yes we must now tread carefully to avoid our liberal agenda being trashed in favour of classic Toryism – yes, indeed, none of us are that pleased with the prospect of a largely Eurosceptic, instinctively anti-State Conservative party being in power. And yet, there comes a point where partisan dislike of the Blue (or indeed Red) Tribe is trumped by one simple truth. We don’t make and campaign for policies because they’ll fit better with either Labour or the Tories; we don’t champion our commitment to freedom, justice and equality because it will please one or other of the two Old Parties; we don’t believe in fair votes, far taxes and a fair start for all children for any other reason than we are, and shall continue to be, Liberal Democrats. And if we are to remain distinctive in our approach to politics, let’s look at the extraordinary coalition agreement positively and recognise that from the Pupil Premium to an increased income tax allowance, some of our very best policies will now be implemented. Of course we must continue, as strongly, passionately and clearly as ever, to hold those in power to account, to insist that the capabilities and freedoms of the most vulnerable remain at the heart of public policy-making, but no longer from the sidelines; we now have an historic opportunity to actually execute much of what we’ve promised as a part of the government.
Which brings us to our final counterfactual – the consideration of where we would be as a party without a commitment of bringing about fairer votes at the next general election. It’s the prospect of electoral reform that gives me the most hope for the future, the prospect of going to the electorate with a record of having made pluralist, transparent politics work – and that too on an equal footing with all other parties, to let our liberal democracy shine through on merit – and that is enough to seal any deal for this Lib Dem.