That sunny day in May 2010 in the gardens of 10 Downing Street seems a long time ago. Nick Clegg and David Cameron had only just agreed to form a coalition, and no-one was very sure where this would lead. For a short while, political observers seemed slightly disorientated, unsure as to how a coalition would work in Britain, especially as hung parliaments have, in the majority of cases, led to minority governments. Coalitions were supposed to be times for national emergencies. Indeed, few people really understood how a small, third party with various ideological fault-lines within it might fare in a partnership with a larger, more ruthless and avowedly centre-right party.
It soon became clear: not well. Support for the Lib Dems imploded, in part because many people had only plumped for them as a protest vote, but also because their core constituents – students and the disaffected centre-left – were horrified by their endorsement of the coalition’s radical economic policies. When they agreed to back a rise in tuition fees, explicitly breaking a manifesto pledge, effigies of Nick Clegg were burned. The defence that the sacred document known as the Coalition Agreement had primacy over party manifestoes may have been true according to parliamentary principles, but was democratically dubious. It certainly did not please the public. After all, who had voted for it?
The Lib Dem gamble that they could extract the promise of a referendum on coveted electoral reform would have been a good one, had it worked. After all, any Conservative claim to suffer from a voting bias is not only rubbish, it is also breathtakingly hypocritical: as Vernon Bogdanor has shown, at the last election, it took 33,468 votes to elect a Labour MP, and 35,028 votes to elect a Conservative MP. But to elect a Liberal Democrat MP, it took an enormous 119,780 votes! Of course, the Conservatives showed their rather shameless side in that bitter, intellectually vacuous campaign, but as Andrew Rawnsley has written: “Lesson for Mr Clegg and his party: if you are going to strike a “gentlemen’s agreement” be first sure that the other party is actually a gentleman.” Quite.
That said, had AV replaced the archaic First Past the Post System, it probably would have helped secure the Lib Dem’s future, but its potential effect was vastly overstated. According to Professor Bogdanor, the perception of bias is predominantly the result of the geographic distribution of voters: Conservatives are over-concentrated in their constituencies, meaning they win them with landslides, whereas Lib Dem voters are under-concentrated, meaning they hardly win at all. Labour has it best.
So, in part, the Lib Dems sacrificed their popularity to help form a government that would do much that they claimed was against their principles, and in return did not secure electoral reform that would (perhaps) guarantee their future. Tory backbenchers believe the Lib Dems hold too much sway over the government, whereas the public generally appears to believe they are dupes. What now?
The launch of the Liberal Left website, presenting a new faction within the party, on Wednesday may signal better times for the Lib Dems. They are still stuck within the coalition, as trying to break it and force an election now would probably be disastrous, but they are showing signs of intellectual regeneration. Joining the coalition may have been a bitter pill, but they did it for the perceived national interest. Now that bond markets have been reassured (for the moment, that is) that a strong government is in place, the Lib Dems are quite right to redefine themselves to voters. The social democratic grassroots wing of the Lib Dems has kept fairly quiet since the election as the more liberal leadership has run the show, but if the Lib Dems are ever going to win back those voters who thought they stood for social justice, not just ‘fiscal responsibility’, the time is now.
It may be optimistic, but last May they saw what the Tories are willing do to them when head-to-head in an election. Come May 2015, if the Lib Dems are naïve enough to think that Labour is the enemy, they really will get hammered. It would seem much more prudent to reinvest in the social justice vote. And start doing it now.