Self-denying … and self-defeating?

[Originally posted on Liberal Democrat Voice, 21/10/10]

It may have been a “miserable little compromise” back in April but AV would now appear to be the big prize. The coalition has to hold together, whatever the cost, at least long enough to allow a vote on electoral reform. But will the way we get from here to there impact significantly upon what happens when we get there?

Only those on the inside know what’s actually happening, but there are many competing readings of how things are playing out coalition-wise.

The most challenging reading for many Lib Dems is that the displays of unity between the coalition partners are genuine: the leadership has bought in to a right wing Tory agenda which could amount to the destruction of the achievements of the welfare state. Dark mutterings are rife about orange (book) Tories. Of leaders using the coalition as a pretext to ignore the party and jettison policy commitments they never agreed with in the first place. Some public pronouncements by the leadership don’t help to dispel these fears. Reports of LibDems in government “going native” can only fuel this position.

A more comforting reading might be that in private there are fierce battles being fought across clear ideological divides. But LibDems are having to hold the coalition line in public for the good of the country. There is also the possibility that disowning the agenda will come at an electoral price in 2015, if the Tories’ shock therapy actually works. Then the LibDems would not be able to claim any credit. Others have queried whether this approach, based on a unified front above all else, is self-evidently desirable.

An alternative reading is that the Lib Dems in government are denying themselves opportunities for dissent and differentiation from the Tories not so much for the good of the country but to hold the coalition together for long enough to achieve the prize of electoral reform. Conceding ground or agreeing to a range of measures that will be unpopular with sizeable portions of the electorate – from capping HB to doubling tuition fees to the horrors of the CSR – will be a price worth paying if it delivers significant constitutional change.

My question is whether these self-denying strategies are likely to pay off politically. Or might they be self-defeating?

What will be in play when we get as far as a vote on AV?

On the one side, we have a technical change to electoral rules that will be hard to sell, will be perceived as more likely to deliver coalition government, and our coalition “partners” will feel little compunction in campaigning against.

On the other side, the electorate’s only experience of coalition government. This entails a government “of millionaires” administering a massive fiscal shock in the knowledge that it will reduce the living standards of many, slash frontline services, and massively increase unemployment. The hope is for a medium term recovery in economic prospects: but that is still going to be a gleam in the Chancellor’s eye come referendum time.

These conditions are not, let us say, entirely propitious for delivering voting reform. The economic circumstances mean that whoever was in power now would be faced with some very tough and unpopular choices.

Could it be the party’s strategy of self-denial has made winning the AV game considerably more challenging? The Lib Dems could be seen as complicit with and/or no better than the Tories, so what is the point of changing the electoral system in a way that, primarily, increases the chances of the LibDems getting somewhere near power again? Voting down AV could be seen as sufficient punishment for the party’s ‘treachery’ in failing to deliver on its distinctive agenda, even though that would be impossible as a junior partner in the coalition.

It may be that by focusing on the long game – what credit can or can’t be claimed come 2015 – the party has not played its cards in a way that maximises the chances of success with AV in the shorter term. The worse case scenario would be that the AV vote is lost and the economy is still in the doldrums in 2015, so there is no credit to be had. That possibility can’t realistically be discounted.

This makes the issue of how the Lib Dems position themselves in relation to the coalition agenda ever more pressing. A pessimist might say it’s too late. The damage has already been done. An optimist might say that there is still time to demonstrate more clearly to the electorate what difference the LibDems have made to government. And why giving the party a greater chance of having a meaningful input into government would be a good outcome for all.

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