The left is generally more interested in protest than power. And so, even though in terms of practical policy the Liberal Democrats are ensuring that the coalition government is far less brutal than it otherwise would be, many on the left are gleeful at the party’s electoral rout yesterday.
This is rather strange in terms of practical politics. It is almost as if the left wants the Conservatives to have more influence in the coalition, so as to punish Clegg and his party for daring to try to make a coalition work. The left seems to want the Conservatives to marginalise the Liberal Democrats in government. The left may well dislike the Tories; but they really do hate the ministerial Liberal Democrats, just as a religious fanatic hates the apostate more than the infidel.
This ferocity must bewilder and unsettle the average Liberal Democrat activist. They are more used to benefiting from the dislike voters have for the main two parties, rather than being disliked themselves. However, it may be that yesterday’s electoral disaster, and the underlying antipathy which many now have for the party, has a silver lining.
If the Liberal Democrats are to be a serious party in respect of central government, there are two things to be done. First, they need to be more realistic and consistent in what they campaign for: manifestos and pledges now need to practical and attainable. The luxury of striking populist poses is for politicians in opposition, not those who actually have to implement policy. One hopes the Liberal Democrat MPs who made the pledge not to raise tuition fees and then voted to do so have learned this lesson.
Second, the party has to be distinct. As this blog has said previously, the blurring of lines between Tories and Liberal Democrats makes one want to adapt the ending of Animal Farm:
“The voters outside looked from Tory to Clegg, and from Clegg to Tory, and from Tory to Clegg again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
The Liberal Democrats in the coalition need to emphasise differences with the Conservatives. Clegg should ration his appearances alongside Cameron. One realises it is perhaps not practical politics for the Liberal Democrats to go into opposition and offer their support on a vote-by-vote basis (though there is no constitutional or legal reason why they cannot); but it is crucial that the party develops a ministerial reputation separate from that of the Conservatives.
Both the Conservative and Labour Parties have come back from setbacks similar to that suffered by the Liberal Democrats yesterday. The loss of so many local councils will of course have an adverse and lingering effect on the party’s activist base.
But it is not the end. Instead, it is a signal to the party that it has to take exercising and retaining ministerial power seriously; to think and act and campaign as a left-of-centre party of power, making a substantive and positive difference to actual policy. And then the self-indulgence of opposition for its own sake can be left to the Labour party.
David Allen Green is legal correspondent for the New Statesman