At Stephen Tall’s suggestion I’m giving advice to Lib Dems on what I’d do if I were in your shoes and, in return, he’s giving electoral advice to my ConservativeHome readers. You can read Stephen’s piece here
My first recommendation is to stay the course. There is no advantage for the Liberal Democrats in pulling out of the Coalition anytime soon. You’ll get the blame for having got into bed with horrible Conservatives like me but little of the credit if the economy does show signs of perkiness by the end of the parliament. I think it is to your party’s credit that there are no significant voices calling for an early exit. Although the public isn’t enjoying coalition government at the moment you will have achieved a strategic success if voters come to believe that hung parliaments don’t equate to national disaster. The two big parties will certainly lose an important propaganda tool if they can no longer scare voters with the spectre of an inconclusive election result.
Kill the NHS Bill. This seems more and more unlikely to happen but the Health and Social Care Bill is a millstone around both of our parties’ necks. I think it’s got worse since Shirley Williams et al starting amending it, and, no doubt, most LibDemVoice readers think it’s got better. Neither of us are enthused by it, however. The next few years are going to be very difficult for the NHS as the tightest ever spending settlement impacts hospitals across the land. Without the Bill the problems in the NHS will be blamed on the empty Treasury. If the Bill proceeds all problems will be blamed on the Bill and therefore the Coalition. Even at this late stage allies of Nick Clegg should find a pretext to stop the Lansley plan reaching the statute book. If Clegg acts you will have resonant proof that you made a big difference in government. The resonance will be all the greater because it will have been done at such a dramatic, last gasp moment. Every voter in the land will credit the Lib Dems for stopping the Tories from dismantling/ privatising/ ruining etc etc their health service.
It’s also important that the Liberal Democrats are seen as more than roadblocks. There is mounting frustration on the blue side of the Coalition that the Lib Dems are blocking Tory initiatives without offering many interesting ideas of their own. Mark Pack has also noted a lack of Lib Dem vitality on policy-making. One area where you have, however, been setting the pace is on funding tax cuts for the poor with new taxes on wealth. This is actually a policy I support. It’s good economics (it’s better to tax property than income) and it’s certainly good politics (the squeezed middle could do with a little less pressure). The theme is a win-win for you. If George Osborne moves on the issue you have scored an important victory. If he doesn’t you retain a popular campaigning message. The challenge is to broaden the policy and fix in voters’ minds that Liberal Democrats are always on the side of working families.
Fight for an elected Lords. An elected Lords is, according to Ming Campbell, in your party’s DNA but it is also absolutely in your party’s electoral interest. It is impossible to believe that an upper house connected to the electricity of democracy won’t become more legitimate, more powerful and more central to national life. Allied with Crossbenchers Lib Dem peers already hold the balance of power in the Lords. That advantage will become permanent if the Coalition ensures election is by thirds and by proportional representation. You are unlikely to remember this five year parliament for many political successes. You’re likely to lose MPs, many northern councillors and, of course, you’ve lost AV. Win control of the Lords, however, and politically you will have won a gift that keeps on giving.
Finally, you need to change party leader. Not now. Not, I suggest, until 2014. But you can’t go into the next election with Nick Clegg at the top of your ticket. I can see it now – Clegg in the televised debates looking into the camera and looking for another Manchester moment. After he’s delivered his lines the debate anchor will turn to the Labour leader (it might be Ed Miliband but I wouldn’t like to bet on it) and ask for a reaction. All the Labour leader has to say is “tuition fees”. “No student, no parent, no voter will ever believe a promise you make, Mr Clegg, after you promised to scrap tuition fees and then increased them dramatically.” To recover left-leaning voters you also need a new leader who voters might think could happily form a coalition with Labour. For once Lembit Opik is right (although I think I got there first). Clegg should carry on as Deputy PM until the end of the parliament but he should resign as party leader with 12 to 18 months to go before the election. A new leader can then start the process of establishing a distinctive Lib Dem pitch for 2015.
‘The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.
* Tim Montgomerie is the editor of ConservativeHome.com