The hard part of coalition is over. As the result in Bradford shows, three things are now true. Our Conservative colleagues have finally overreached themselves. Labour is now known to be as ineffective as it really is. And there is a howling void of dissatisfaction where our support used to be. The country has changed since 2010, and we must move to capture the mood, or we are done. Key to this is winning the votes of students, the young, and the disenfranchised.
We have, however we colour it, had a hard time. Most of our policy ‘wins’, like the tax refund and pupil premium, are in many cases tempered by the impact of the cuts. Nick and the leadership chose a strategy of proving our ability to govern by prioritising the Coalition’s survival, holding our noses through tuition fees, the 50p rate reduction, the EU veto etc. We watched our credibility with our student base and our PR hopes melt away. Trading much of our dignity for stability is not the strategy I would have chosen, but I believe that it has done much of the job the leadership wanted it to do. The public will not write us off as incapable of governing anymore, but we now face the opposite risk. Coalition is pulling us so far into Cameron’s orbit that we are viewed as Tories-lite. We are becoming establishment hacks, and there is precious little respect left for that.
A professional, cohesive government was what the country needed. Now it needs turbulence. We can stop digging in with Cameron, and start fighting him loudly, and in public. We need to make radical demands, to be implemented as soon as possible. There is no point making it to 2015 if we look like any other Westminster party with a laundry list of achievements nobody cares about.
A good start would be publicly shooting down internet snooping, an issue that we have shown surprising restraint in so far. We must, absolutely must, win back the students: without their votes we can’t make a difference. Rebuilding trust on campuses will take time, but it can be done – a public apology, for the pledge if not the policy, will go a long way to sending the message that we are still open and honest with the public. A long-term solution for university funding, fees, and intake must be found. We must look into seriously revising drugs policy: decriminalisation is an idea whose time has come. Galloway has shown in Bradford that there is no stomach left for Afghanistan. I believe that we should seriously consider scrapping Trident after all, an incredible waste of money at a time like this.
Land Value Tax must get a hearing. We have to take green policy further, and with blueprints for decarbonising whole cities in a cost-effective way, we just need the political will to make that happen. The banks, as our manifesto says, must be broken up, and a half-hearted Osborne promise to do it next Parliament is not enough. We need to take some of the money out of London’s Zone 1, and take it to the country.
We’ve been in government like the consummate pros the public thought Lib Dems could never be, now it is time to be in government like the brilliant, radical amateurs they voted for. If the coalition cannot stand up to the stress of a more belligerent approach, then we can leave it. It has done its job. Winning skirmishes here and there isn’t enough anymore. Now is the time to be bold, or else irrelevant, and we must start by reconnecting with students.