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Lib Dem MPs must behave before the grassroots will

If the party's MPs want the leadership debate to go away, then they should stop talking about it.

He's behind you, Nick. Photograph: Getty Images.

Well, I’m in trouble. Me and the other 40,000 activists in the Lib Dems. As has been well documented, there has been more than a touch of debate about the party leadership ahead of conference (we’re at 10% in the polls - of course there has!) and the word on the street is that , generally speaking, this isn’t going down well with the Westminster crowd. Apparently the received wisdom is that if we don’t show a united front in Brighton, there’s a chance the world may spot that the membership isn’t entirely comfortable with the way things have been going to date. You reckon?

Well apart from the fact that it just wouldn’t be Lib Dem conference if there wasn’t a barney about something or other (in the last three conferences it’s been around the NHS, the NHS and the NHS), there’s a touch of physician heal thyself about all this.

It all started with Vince saying "I don't give any time to these personal criticisms of Nick Clegg which are being made at the moment", which is, by all accounts, code for declaring war on the leadership. Plenty of others in Westminster have been just as guilty. Adrian Sanders, for example, declared that Clegg must stop "bumbling along worrying about the future".

But it’s not all one-way traffic is it? I notice the term "the continuity SDP" has been slipped causally into the press to describe anyone who thinks the party may have just edged slightly to the wrong side of the centre ground. Then we had Ming declaring of the Cable-Miliband texts: "The truth is that the success of this coalition depends upon everyone who participates in it being a full subscriber, and we were using the expression pick and mix a little while ago. I don’t think it helps a partnership to suggest that you may already be looking for another partner."

Finally, Malcolm Bruce weighed in this weekend, declaring (in a fairly obviously targeted message) that we shouldn’t be laying the ground work for a coalition with Labour. Well, we should actually. And we should be laying the groundwork for another coalition with the Tories. And if the arithmetic works out in 2015, we need to be prepared. We were last time. So were the Tories. Labour, put simply, wasn’t, and, in any case, the electoral arithmetic didn’t stack up. Next time, (if there is a next time) we should take longer about the process– and all the major parties should be ready to negotiate whatever deal the will of the electorate throws up. (Plenty of readers have rushed to the comments section to shout "you see, you’ll deal with anyone who keeps you in power". No we won’t. We’ll talk to anyone the British people tell us too. Doesn’t mean we’ll do a deal).

But more to the point, the folk in Westminster can’t tell the grassroots to show a united front and then bicker amongst themselves through the pages of the press. If they really want the leadership debate to go away, then they should stop talking about it – no matter who you think is parking tanks on whoever’s lawn. But as long as they’re slipping quotes to the press, I don’t see why the rest of us shouldn’t stick our oar in.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Liberal Democrat Conference.