LibLink: Stephen Tall – Lib Dems recontaminating the Tory brand? No, the Tories do it to themselves

Stephen Tall - resized - small - H&SOur Stephen Tall has been moonlighting over at Conservative Home again, this time pointing out that it’s the Liberal Democrats who are the good cops in the Coalition and that may not be the case in any future deal with Labour. Some of his comments will controversial amongst Liberal Democrats…

We’re lucky to be in coalition with the Conservatives:

Yet we are lucky and here’s why: we disagree with the Conservatives enough to protect our own identity within Coalition. The politicos call it differentiation. Most people would recognise it as “good cop, bad cop” politics. And it suits us Lib Dems down to the ground. It means that on many of the issues that matter most to the voters – especially tax-cuts for the low-paid and safeguarding the NHS, according to this YouGov finding– the Lib Dems are considered to have been a civilising influence on the Conservatives.

Stephen takes issue with Tim Montgomerie’s claim that it’s the Lib Dems who are retoxifying the Tories:

 If only we enjoyed such powers of persuasion! No, Radiohead put it more accurately in their song,‘Just’: “You do it to yourself, you do, and that’s what really hurts”. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that David Cameron himself was complaining of the Lib Dems’ restraining influence on his True Blue wishes.

The paradox for the Conservatives is that on a range of key issues – benefits cuts, immigration crackdowns, ECHR withdrawal – the party’s policies are individually popular, appeal to a wide spectrum of voters; yet, taken together, these relentlessly hardline stances give off a whiff of uncaring harshness.

Liberal Democrats fight as “party of moderate, centrist, pragmatic small l liberalism”

Stephen outlines what he sees as the rationale behind the party’s strategy for 2015 even if the activists don’t like it:

The Lib Dems, however, have a clear strategy. It’s defensive, unambitious, unloved by activists – but it’s the only option available to us: to fight as the party of moderate, centrist, pragmatic, small-l liberalism. The party will be the voters’ aspirin in the event of another hung parliament headache, promising to take the edge off the pain you’d suffer if either Labour or the Tories governed alone.

Politicians sometimes say they won’t settle for any half-measures: yet that’s exactly what the Lib Dems will settle for next time. The party has a fairly solid base of 10 per cent of the electorate. A further 15 per cent would consider voting for us, pretty evenly split between those who are currently Conservative or Labour voters, or who are undecided. If we can persuade half of those considerers to vote Lib Dem in 2015, the party will likely hold the balance of power once again. Call it our 17.5 per cent strategy, if you like (the optimistic end of the party’s share-of-the-vote forecast for 2015).

Be careful what we wish for – coalition with Labour may not be the bed of roses some think

We wouldn’t be that lucky with Labour, though: they would do their utmost to ensure it was the reds who got the bragging rights for defending the downtrodden and the dispossessed, the yellows who were seen as heartless scourges of the poor. However much we raised the fairness stakes, you can bet Labour would out-bid us. Though perhaps they’d make some concessions on civil liberties to ensure they can blame us for any terrorist outrages.

You can read the whole article here.

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  • Ian Hurdley 24th Oct '13 - 8:01am

    Between now and 2015, and certainly in any new coalition, we need to make it much clearer what are coalition policies that we have signed up to and will stand by in government. We also need to make it much clearer that policies out with the agreement are not part of the coalition programme and will be judged and voted on according to their merits. It is for the ‘senior’ partner to recognise that there are limits on their power to act, not for the ‘junior’ partner to grin and bear it.

  • A Social Liberal 24th Oct '13 - 9:40am

    Going into coalition with the Nasty Party has contaminated how people see us. We are now seen as the party of political expediency rather than one founded on liberal principles. We will not recover until we can demonstrate that we will not sell our souls for a tiny bit of power.

  • The ‘Social Liberal’ comment is right. and Geoff Payne is right.
    We must now make it clear to the public exactly what were the compromises in the coalition and tell the public what policies we would now wish to put into practice based on our principles if we were the sole party in government. Of course, many people will ask whether it is worth voting for us when we obviously will not be the sole party. Our answer to that is that we may be able to influence another party in our direction if we enter coalition, but they need to know where we come from in order to judge what we might be able to do in a coalition. Many people will respond to a vision of what kind of government we want as Lib-Dems even if they appreciate it to be idealistic. At the moment they think we have lost our identity.
    We must also say explicitly that it depends on what can be agreed and that unless we can get a suitable agreement we will not enter government with any other party; i.e. we do not want power just for the sake of a few small things.
    That means also that unlike the last few years, we would want an agreement that we stick to the agreement and only under exceptional circumstances countenance implementing policies that are not part of the agreement. Geoff Payne is right to point out the huge damage that has been done to us by being associated with policies that were not part of the coalition agreement.

  • I must add two further points.
    First that we must immediately go further down the road of disagreeing with the Conservatives (as well as Labour) in order to show we really mean it when we say we have our own distinctive vision. This will risk the coalition discontinuing, but we must be prepared to take that risk.
    Second, we must call for a longer period of time after the election result, should we attempt to negotiate a coalition agreement. Numerous commentators have already said that the speed with which the 2010 agreement was drawn up was a mistake. If we are to take up my suggestion of having an agreement to broadly stick only to the agreement, it will take some time to spell out what that means.

  • paul barker 24th Oct '13 - 1:03pm

    An excellent article but I have to disagree with the estimate of 18% as our upper limit in 2015, I would see that as our lower limit. Voters treat different Elections very differently even when they are voting in two at once. General Elections are treated far more seriously & given a lot more thought.
    When asked what sort of Government they want, Coalitions get in the 25-30% range & thats before most people start to think seriously about the next Goverment.

  • I think it is correct that Labour would indeed outbid us. For what it is worth, I believe that we will not be in this position … I think that Labour will gain an outright majority. I think we will make a net gain against the Tories, net loss to Labour, but Labour might win in some surprising areas as a result of UKIP.

  • Matt (Bristol) 24th Oct '13 - 3:10pm

    Being the party of ‘moderate, centrist, pragmatic, small-l liberalism’ may or may not be unnatractive to man; the question is how is this to be done; if it’s to simply be a reactive party, going round saying ‘they say this, they say that, we won’t do this, but we would do that’ and reacting to the other party’s policies all the time, then I think many within and without the party will be profoundly uninspired.

    But what if the party went for the same instincts in voters by setting out new policies which encapsulate those values? Then there might be some ground won (or at least, not lost so abjectly).

    An example of this sort of thing might be the former Labour minister Tessa Jowell (I think)’s proposal this week that the BBC could in future be made into a mutual company (with presumably some form of convenant to prevent its conversion to a PLC) with license-fee-holders becoming voting members. Centrist? Pragmatic? Check – no privatisation, but a removal of the increasingly unwieldy licensing arrangement, replaced with something positive for people to opt in to. Also, the BBC, to an extent, removed as a future political football, and Nick Clegg’s trumpeted agenda of ‘taking power away from the centre and giving it to ordinary people’ is moved along, and maybe the social-liberal cause of mutuallisation is progressed in a way that bickering with George Osbourne for 3-4 years about who owns the banks has failed to do (and Labour under Blair and Brown also failed to do).

    Why aren’t the LDs doing this sort of thinking, or if they are, when are we going to hear about it?

  • @ Matt

    “But what if the party went for the same instincts in voters by setting out new policies which encapsulate those values? Then there might be some ground won (or at least, not lost so abjectly)”

    But would voters trust the LIb Dems in this? Do you think they have they already forgotten the promises of the election manifesto?

  • Matt (Bristol) 25th Oct '13 - 10:27am

    @ John
    Note that I say ‘might’ in that sentence. I’ve squirmed long and hard about what is left in the LibDem stew for me post-coalition, and am coming round to the idea that they are still the only party currently going that will pursue the agenda I care most about, however shopsoiled they are by a ghastly 3-4 year period.

    I would hope that all parties would learn from the LibDem experience and be more careful in what they pledge to ‘definitely’ do at the next election.

    No one is denying that the tuition fees thing in particular was an enormous trainwreck which leave the Lib Dems with years of repair work to do on their public image and sense of purpose, least of all me. The problem the LDs have is that many on the left had assumed that LD coalition with the Tories was unthinkable, when in fact it was not, so the fact of coalition has been assumed to be a ‘breaking of promises’ when although it is awkward and difficult for many LD voters and supporters, it is not inherently traitorous.

    (Note that the party that stands the most to gain in the short-term from libelling the LDs in this way is the Tories, who can claim the credit for good ideas floated by the LDs, whilst the LDs are seen as Quislings by those on the centre and left.)

    Both the other two main English parties have been using the LDs as a think tank for years, nicking ideas as they feel free. My worry is at this time, the ideas seem to have temporarily dried up and we seem to be getting an agenda of ‘we will defend this institution by keeping this policy but blcoking this policy’ rather than ‘we will defend / support / promote this set of values by reforming this institution / proposing this measure’. There are two different ways to be pragmatic; one captures the imagination of the voter, the other does not.

  • “Most people would recognise it as “good cop, bad cop” politics. And it suits us Lib Dems down to the ground. ”

    Given that “good cop, bad cop” is a fundamentally dishonest strategy in which the “good cop” misleads the prisoner by making promises of favorable treatment which the “good cop” won’t actually deliver on — and that what’s going on is really a puppet show in which both “good cop” and “bad cop” are hand in glove in something which is definitely not in the prisoner’s interest– is this really a comparison any of us want to be endorsing?

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