Much has been said and written about the current state of the Liberal Democrats, with seemingly desperate poll ratings and talk of a total sell-out to the Tories, and I realise a post like this gives free rein in the ‘Comments’ section to continue the kicking so willingly dished out by so many in the weeks and months since the General Election.
I am a Liberal Democrat, but that doesn’t mean I blindly love the Coalition and everything it does. Indeed, I could quite comfortably rattle off a list of government policies which, in my opinion, range from the ill-advised to the downright shameful. But equally, that doesn’t mean that I don’t understand the nature of coalition politics and the, at times painful, compromises which need to be made in circumstances such as those delivered by the electorate in May of this year. Nor does it mean that I don’t think this government is putting forward some good policies. The civil liberties agenda, for example, suddenly looks in much better shape now that the New Labour experiment is over.
Having said that, I would very much have preferred a coalition agreement to have been reached with the ‘progressive left’ in Parliament. Such an arrangement could have realigned British politics for good and marginalised many of the malign influences on the way we are governed (Murdoch, Ashcroft, safe seats) but I fully accept that, due to issues of arithmetic, legitimacy and lack of will, this was never really a viable option. Nor was allowing the Tories to govern as a minority administration. Nick Clegg is right to make the point that, after generations of campaigning for coalition politics at Westminster, the Lib Dems could hardly duck out when the opportunity finally arose. I understand the gulf between my ‘ideal world’ view and the harsh reality of government, even if it leaves me feeling highly uncomfortable at times.
My real concern is where Clegg intends to take the party philosophically over the coming years. I joined the party because its policies chimed with what I believe: freedom, fairness, support for the less well off, radical constitutional reform and so on. I viewed the party as less right-wing than the Labour Party and refreshingly free of the Tory/Labour need to tailor its message to the Murdoch press. I still believe that this is where the party stands. The difference, of course, is that the party is now in government for the first time in its brief history.
In interviews with The Independent and The Guardian over the weekend, Clegg made clear that he doesn’t see the Liberal Democrats as a comfortable home for those of the disaffected left in the coming years. This should probably come as no surprise since the ‘Orange Book‘ tendency have been been in the ascendant since the demise of Charles Kennedy, at least at the ‘top’ of the party. But, as Andrew Grice’s piece for The Independent portrays, the broader rank-and-file membership still sits to the left of British politics and this is something the party’s leadership would be foolish to ignore.
Since I joined the Lib Dems in 2005 I’ve always identified myself as belonging to the ‘social democrat’ wing, and I’ve always understood that this places me to the left of the party. I have no problem with that as the party is and always has been a comfortable place for a person with my views. It is my hope that this will continue to be the case. I have already been invited to defect by members of other parties but I have no intention of doing so. I’m more than happy to stay a Liberal Democrat because it is still the philosophy which most closely matches my own.
No thinking member of any political party will ever agree with every policy their movement puts forward, and there must always be a place for the sceptical supporter to advance a minority viewpoint from within. The Liberal Democrats will continue to be attacked from those disappointed with the decision to join the Tories in government – indeed, it seems that many on the left are concentrating their fire more against the Lib Dems than the Tories – and we will continue to hear the boring, unimaginative ‘Condem’ nonsense being bandied around, mostly by the same people who used to (quite rightly) find all the ‘Nu Lie-bore’ stuff so tiresome.
Regardless of this I will still hope that the Coalition proves successful, in spite of the many mistakes it has already made and in spite of the fact a deal with the Tories would have been just about my last preference. But it will not stop me, and many others within the Liberal Democrats, criticising when we feel a deeply-held principle has been surrendered or when the government too closely reflects the view of its resounding Tory majority. And I will still be happy to be a member of a party which makes the dissenting voice feel quite at home.