An interesting piece by Vernon Bogdanor on the future of the Coalition has just appeared online. His main point is that both Coalition parties are having to look out for their increasingly restless grassroots: Tories pulling to the right, LibDems pulling to the left. And this destabilises the Coalition. The odds of it failing to reach 2015 intact must be steadily shortening.
It is clear that parts of the Tory party – both at Parliamentary and grassroots level – are making attempts to pull the party to the right, and are seemingly getting plenty of sympathetic media space in which to air their views. The evidence that Libdem activitists are trying to pull the party to the left is a little less clear. There is a clear attempt at differentiation, but that isn’t quite the same thing.
The other difference is that the Tory right are trying to move the party to a position that it hasn’t previously occupied – to the right of the 1980s Thatcherites. Many Libdem activities see themselves rather more as trying to reclaim their party as a party of the centre-left, from a leadership that has sought to move it to the right.
A problem for the Libdems in all of this is that, as polling figures reported in today’s papers indicate, quite a large chunk of Libdem centre-left electoral support has broken off and drifted to Labour. Equally importantly, at the activist level some staunch social liberals have quit the party in the face of its complicity in the Coalition’s overtly (and overly) right wing agenda. They have not, however, defected to Labour. Many of them simply couldn’t.
Bogdanor highlights the way in which the two Tory-Liberal Coalitions of the twenthieth century fractured, in both cases inflicting serious damage on the Liberals. The fear is that this Coalition has been equally damaging for the party, possibly fatally undermining its claim to be a national party.
The more time goes on the more I feel it is possible that we are going to replay history. The calls from the Libdem grassroots for ending participation in the Coalition seem to me to be growing more frequent and more insistent. And something of a gap appears to be opening up between the grassroots and the Parliamentary party. The Parliamentary party are keen to keep the focus on all the liberal measures the Government has enacted. Many at the grassroots, while welcoming those achievements, are equally keen to recognise the Party’s support for all the awful Conservative measures that represent the high price that has been extracted to secure the liberal victories. Even some of the more committed Coalitionistas are having doubts.
The Leadership appears more comfortable with the Coalition than many among the (dwindling) membership.
Back in 2010 no one would have entertained the idea that we were destined to replay 1932 all over again. Perched out here in the West Country I’ve no particular insight into what’s happening in the metropolitan centres of political power. But I’m reasonably familiar with the ebb and flow of Libdem debate online. And I get a sense that there is now rather less certainty about how things are going to play out. It would seem unwise to rule out the possibility that it will get rather messy at some point in the not too distant future.
Image: © Irochka – Fotolia.com
“Back in 2010 no one would have entertained the idea that we were destined to replay 1932 all over again”
I can’t speak for anyone other than my wife and I, but we went to special conference and voted FOR coalition in the sure and certain knowledge that it would probably wipe out the party electorally and the membership would all desert rather than contract Toryism. We thought it would be awful, but worth it. We’ve actually been pleasantly surprised at how little vote share we’ve lost, and how few members have deserted.
@Jennie – Thanks for your comment.
Yes, I’m certain many didn’t think that going in to Coalition with the Tories would do the party any favours electorally or in terms of membership.
The mention of 1932 was a slightly loose reference to the formal split of the liberal party into several different factions (Simonites, Samuelites, Lloyd George’s Independent Liberals) for the 1931 General Election and after when the Samuelites resigned from the National Government.
While back in 2010 many thought that the Liberal Democrats would get an electoral kicking, there wasn’t the suggestion that the party itself would dissolve or break in to factions. But I’ve recently seen suggestions to that effect. Indeed I read a blogpost the other day, written from the centre-right/orange book perspective, that positively welcomed the prospect – suggesting that the Coalition had simply exposed the pre-existing division between the economic and social liberals in the party and now was the time to recognise that and split.
Personally I think that analysis is entirely wrong – and I believe I left a comment to that effect – but I don’t think it would be credible to declare a split to be completely beyond the realms of possibility. If, for the sake of argument, George Osborne embraces a further £10bn of welfare cuts (or, heaven help us, Steve Hilton’s suggestion of £25bn) and the LD leadership felt, for whatever reason, they had to support that move then I can see that triggering a major crisis.
I don’t think there will be a big split. I think there will be a steady drip-drip of people who never belonged in the party in the first place leaving (those who had never read the constitution or had joined because they thought we were “nice” or some other spurious reason), along with those few who HAVE thought about it and have reached decisions based on reasons I can respect (like LizW who left us for the Greens, or James Graham).
I guess it all depends on your definition of a split. If the Littlewoodian Libertarian individualist headbangers leave, they’ll call it a split, and the rest of us will call it what it is: a vocal minority falling off the wagon they never belonged on in the first place, never really signing up to the whole “freedom from ignorance POVERTY and conformity” bit of the constitution.
I wouldn’t be surprised if, AFTER the next general election, Clegg is defenestrated, though.
I tend to agree that there won’t be a big split. But a ‘split’ is to a degree in the eye of the beholder.
I think the scenario you describe in your second paragraph is not impossible. In fact, if there were to be a split then that would seem the most likely to me. If the bulk of the party decided that it couldn’t, for example, stomach signing up with the Tories to a joint and more severe austerity programme post-2015 but a sliver of party members thought that this was the right way forward then the sliver might be tempted to go their own way or throw their lot in with the Tories anyway. Depends on how big the sliver is as to whether it could be constructed as a split.
Your point about the constitution is well-made. It is hard to fathom how anyone who is committed to those values could be comfortable with some of the things that have happened over the last couple of years.