Oh dear, oh dear. It was all going so well.
I wasn’t at party conference and was having a nice lazy lie in when Ming’s speech was going on, but I’ve been following how the BBC’s line on his “five tests” for Gordon Brown has been developing. And it ain’t good.
Ming began his leadership by pledging that there would be no feverish talk of ‘deals’ while he was leader, yet he seems to be the one doing the talking, first in his interview with the Times last week, and now with this speech.
To be fair, as far as I can see the problem with the speech was not the content but the spin, but why are we setting Gordon Brown tests at all?
Curiously, Kennedy had a lot of flaws but he feverish talk of coalitions was something he managed to put a lid on under his leadership. Ming, of course, has form: in the late 90s he was part of the triumvirate that Earl Russell called MÃ–O – three MPs who had allegedly told Paddy they would defect if he pulled out the Labour-Lib Dem joint cabinet committee (the M stood for Ming of course; you can probably work out the other two). Of course, there has been a lot of water under the bridge since then, and curiously a lot of the people most gung ho about a coalition with Labour at that time seem to now be maneuvering towards formal coalition with the Tories. Some third party politicians are the political equivalents of Anna Nicole Smith: obsessed with finding a sugar daddy with whom to get hitched, it doesn’t really matter who, because of the perceived riches that will follow.
I don’t consider Ming in that category; his support for working with Labour was always much more (like Paddy) about some Grimond-style realignment of the left rather than a desire for his bum to be in a Daimler. I’ve found it interesting to observe an increasing number of people in the party are now looking for reasons to form a coalition with Labour, less out of a desire for some broad progressive consensus and more out of a fear of the Conservatives, and I suspect it was an individual with similar views to this who gave the BBC the line about Ming wanting to jump in bed with Gordon.
The fear is well founded: one only needs to skim through the Tory blogging community to find that there are plenty of people out there who regard themselves as hardcore Cameroonies but whose personal politics are somewhat closer to Edward Leigh’s. They may pay lip service to the rhetoric, but it is all the means to an end. New Tories may counter that people said the same thing about New Labour in the 90s, but for me the change in Labour back then was much more sincere. The nasty hard left that had dominated Labour in the 70s and early 80s was never really integral to the traditional Labour Party. By contrast, even though Cameron now embraces cuddly concepts such as hugging hoodies and huskies, his power base lies in the Tory right. Norman Lamont and Michael Howard are his political forebears, not Ken Clarke or Malcolm Rifkind. It is that fact that has allowed Cameron to do what he has done, but we can be forgiven therefore for believing it is a strategic shift rather than a practical one.
Cameron’s big test will be the publication of all these policy reviews, many of which will almost certainly be contradictory, some of which (particularly the Quality of Life one) are likely to demand the party goes off in a direction it is unlikely to be comfortable with. I remain of the opinion that much of the sheen will come off at that point: maybe not enough to prevent Labour losing their majority but enough to deny the Tories one themselves.
Yet for all that, I’m not one of those people who feel that the Lib Dems ought to be in any hurry to jump into bed with the devil we know (Labour). The public would rightly ask why we were propping up a tired government who we are much further apart politically now than when they first sought office. I’m sceptical about the desirability of us entering into coalition with either side. For all their shouting, both Labour and the Tories are far more similar politically than the Lib Dems are with either of them. Why should we be under any more of an obligation to form a coalition with one of them than they have to form one between them? Nothing is written in stone – just ask the Germans.
There is a lot of merit in the party staying out of any coalition. First past the post, in which a few random votes in the right places can have massive impacts on the number of seats each party gets is particularly unkind to third parties who take part in them. Worse, because the party has excelled in recent years at hoovering up anti votes against both the other parties, we have more or less made it impossible for us to go into a coalition on either side without paying a heavy political price. It isn’t the Promised Land that some people in the party think it is; it’s an opportunity to get well and truly shafted. The benefits would have to be pretty huge to outweigh the price, and yet paradoxically the party is unlikely to see them if it is seen to be too eager.
Campbell should have stuck with his far more useful rhetoric of maximum seats and maximum votes. There is a real danger that talk of coalition now will make it the key issue that the media decides is the Lib Dem ‘agenda’ (and what a surprise to learn that Mark Oaten looks set to make the matter worse). In some ways this is much better than the current one about our leadership woes, but it is a corrosive one. Ming should be working to shut down this debate. After this week he can no longer avoid the issue, so instead he should be ruling it out as far as he can, talking up the possibility of the Lib Dems remaining independent in the case of a hung parliament.
Ultimately though, even staying out of coalition can have a heavy political price – there is no ‘easy’ solution. If the party is to survive relatively intact over the next decade, it has to become much better at defining itself. This is make or break time: if the party manages to hold firm over the next decade it is likely to come out of it much stronger; it it doesn’t then the party will be set back for a couple of decade. Ming deserves credit for working to improve the party’s sense of identity, but feverish talk of coalition will only undermine it.