There are plenty of political parties hanging on to their ideological purity, where all the members pretty much agree on all the key issues. They’re easy to spot: they’re the ones that always lose.
The big parties are compromises – broad churches – people who work together because they agree a bit more with each other than with the rest, or simply because it’s the tribe they’re in.
Broad church parties are necessary in our electoral system. Under First Past the Post, you need to get to a certain size to have any real chance of success, and there simply aren’t enough people who agree on anything for a “pure” party to do that for any length of time.
But they have big downsides for those involved. The main one is the way you can be in the winning party but have absolutely no say, no influence and none of your preferred policies being put into practice.
Such was the fate of those on Labour’s left wing in the era of Blair and Brown. Not for them a negotiated plan. Not for them a deal that said “without us, Tony, you wouldn’t have had the numbers to get elected, so here’s what we get in the programme.” Not for them the ability to hold their more right-wing Labour colleagues to account and make sure they did what they promised.
Then we have the current coalition. Many Labour activists decry it as the Lib Dems selling our soul; but when you’ve been campaigning for fair votes and coalition government for as many decades as we have, the sell-out would be not to go into a coalition when its sensible to do so.
Coalitions of this sort don’t help you win elections – they aren’t an alternative to broad church parties under our First Past the Post system.
But, like our broad church parties, they provide a way for people who disagree on many issues to work together in Government on a common programme.
Coalitions even have some advantages; under our system at least.
For a start, all parties in the coalition have to get something. The one-party situation where a wing of the party is pushed into acting as impotent cheerleaders (or grumblers) is far less likely.
Under the current coalition, each party has a big chunk of its manifesto in the agreement.
But just having it written on a piece of paper isn’t enough – we all want those Lib Dem measures to be put into practice. Another coalition benefit. Under a single broad church party, the leadership normally gets its way whilst those who disagree are sidelined. Policies and pleges get quietly dropped when the leadership no longer want them. In a coalition, each party holds the other to account, and has the power to do it.
The Lib Dems won’t agree with everything the coalition does, just as few Labour supporters agreed with everything Brown and Blair did. But unlike those Labour activists, we Lib Dems have the power within the coalition to get our preferred measures through – and are doing just that.
Those who so vehemently attack the very idea of coalitions might do well to remember that we’re all – Lib Dems, Conservatives and Labour – in our own coalition parties, trading purity for an increased chance of power day in, day out.