Watching the Liberal Democrat angst over tuition fees takes me back to 1989, when I was a young, considerably trimmer and clean shaven young Progressive Democrat activist. There had just been an Irish general election, and we had been devastated, dropping from 14 seats to just 6, which in Westminster terms would be like dropping from 50 odd seats to the early twenties, so you can imagine the howls of anguish. But that wasn’t even the worst bit: we were now faced with the nightmare scenario of entering coalition with Charles Haughey’s Fianna Fail, which in British terms was like asking David Owen to provide the final vote to elect Tony Benn prime minister.
It tore the party apart, as there were people who had fled Fianna Fail to form the Progressive Democrats because of Haughey’s corrupt and thuggish no-dissent leadership style, and the idea of going into government with the man was personally sickening to many of them. Friendships were lost, significant resignations occurred, and the party plummeted to, at one stage, 1% in the polls. In fact, given the 3% margin of error, the standard joke doing the rounds in political circles was that the PDs were actually in minus figures, and as such actually owed votes.
Yet, in the 1992 general election, the party bounced back, and won 10 seats. The party stunned the commentariat by being the first ever junior coalition partner to come out of government and gain seats.
What are the lessons for the Liberal Democrats?
1. Tension with your coalition partner is very healthy, especially if it is public. Your job is not to get on with the Tories. Your job is to stand up for your voters, and if that occasionally means getting savaged by Tories, all to the better. Point not only to the things that you achieved, but the things that the Tories would have done on their own if you had not stopped them. The PDs were wiped out in the 2007 general election because voters could not see a reason to vote for them rather than Fianna Fail. David Cameron isn’t a fool: he knows that Nick Clegg has to occasionally go off-reservation to protect his political flank, and as long as the two have a solid personal understanding of where they both stand, a bit of rough play and “shouldering off the ball” in public is permissible.
2. Keep your bottle, and eye on the horizon. Politics is for the long haul. Britain in 2015 could be a different place from Britain in 2010, and it is that Britain you’ll be seeking re-election in. It is painful to see the Nice Party being savaged by some students. But look at it the other way: here’s a tough party that has fashioned a compromise but is also standing up to vandalising thugs who probably don’t even vote. Is the average Lib Dem voter really siding with people smashing up Prince Charles’s car against Nick Clegg?
3. Be selfish. The fact is, the Lib Dem demographic was going to change no matter whom you went into coalition with, and as a party that supports PR, you have got to accept that. You have lost centre-left voters. If you had gone in with Labour, you would have lost centre-right voters. The same happened when we first went into coalition: The purists hit the eject button, defected elsewhere, and are now bitterly unhappy at someone else selling out in some other party. That’s politics. But don’t discount the positives, especially if AV is passed. There are moderate Tories and Blairites (they’re still around, you know) who can now see that the Lib Dems aren’t Citizen Smith in sandals, and will be disposed towards you even as a means of tempering the right of their own party. On the doors canvassing, I used to regularly get loyal FF voters who would transfer to the PDs to “put manners” on their own party. Of course, we have a history of coalition government, but you’d be surprised how quickly an electorate adapt to reality. After all, coalition and minority government are no longer End-of-the-World terms in Scotland.
Of course, even AV won’t save you if your vote is too low to keep your candidates in the race for transfers. There is no hope of PR for the Commons, but getting PR for the reformed upper house needs to be made a Lib Dem priority, as it may be the redoubt from where you (and your voters) can hold out if things get nasty.
In short, don’t panic. You are in government, for Christ’s sake. Your ministers are making decisions that are affecting people’s lives for the better. That is what you all went into politics for, surely?
Jason O’Mahony is an Irish political blogger and former Irish Progressive Democrat activist and candidate.
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