Earlier this week, I linked to James Graham’s piece on Clegg and the coalition, in which he mentioned my post on ending the coalition. This isn’t just incestuous blogging back-patting – James made some points about my post which I promised to think over and respond to. He wrote:
But Lib Dems who imagine that there is some dividend to be earned by leaving the coalition early are simply misguided. The public won’t thank them – they’ll simply conclude the Lib Dems are even more of a waste of time. By contrast, there is a historic, long term gain to be earned by simply allowing this coalition to last a full five years.
The electorate has a short collective memory; I’ve lost count of the number of people who hated the Labour government but now look back on it with rose-tinted spectacles. No matter how painful this coalition feels at the moment, or what damage it does, the fact is that if it lasts the full five years it will be seen as a success for coalition politics while if it falls apart it will be seen as a loss.
If the Lib Dems ever want to return to power again, persuading the country that coalition is not the scary thing that both Labour and the Conservatives insisted it was during the last election will have to be a priority. Adding another footnote to the argument that all coalitions fall apart after a couple of years will slow any chance of a Lib Dem recovery for the simple reason that people will see a vote for the Lib Dems to be a vote for chaos and weak government.
The proposition being put forward here – and James isn’t the only one to have put it forward – is that there’s a duty on the Liberal Democrats to prove that coalition government can work at a national level in the UK. If we break – or are perceived as breaking – the coalition, then we (and possibly all other small parties) will be damned for all time (or at least a few electoral cycles) by the electorate.
It’s a strong argument, and the public can have curiously long memories. Bringing down the coalition now would be a major step, and there is a strong possibility that it would poison the well for many years and that ‘coalitions don’t work in the UK’ could become part of the conventional wisdom. So, I don’t think this is a step to be taken lightly.
However, I don’t think it’s right to completely rule out ending the coalition in all but the most extreme circumstances. From my perspective – and I do have some local experience of working within one – one of the features of a coalition is an ongoing negotiation between the parties. (In the current Government, this is represented by the meetings of the Quad) The problem with the ‘we have to show that coalitions work’ argument is that it only applies to one side in the negotiations. The Tories aren’t working under that condition, which gives them an advantage in negotiations beyond the inbuilt one of being the largest party.
By saying – explicitly or implicitly – that nothing short of Cameron falling under the proverbial bus or it’s equivalent will make the Liberal Democrats walk away from the negotiating table, the party is drastically weakening its hand in any discussion. It emboldens the Tories to push further to the right, as there’s no counterforce to draw them to the centre if the Liberal Democrats have hidden their most powerful weapon in negotiations. Leaving aside my position that it should end now, I’m not saying that Clegg and Alexander should be threatening to walk out over everything, but if their counterparts don’t believe it’s possible that they will, then they’re dangerously weakened in negotiations.
Yes, there’s a significant risk of long-term damage in bringing the coalition down now, however that has to be weighed against the potential benefits that would be brought about by it ending. There is a strong argument that the Liberal Democrats need to prove a national-level coalition can work, but there’s also the counter that to make coalition work, there needs to be some desire to do so on both sides. It’s entirely right to leave a negotiation if one side is acting in bad faith – the problem then would be to explain the reasons why to the public afterwards.