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Friday, 7 January 2011

Change that works for you?

The Lib Dems began 2011 with a dreadful poll. Just one poll admittedly, but it was the worst poll rating for the party since it was formed. Just 8% in a YouGov tracker poll for 2011. Another snapshot poll put them at 11%.

Whichever way you look at it, the Lib Dems are facing probably their most testing year since they were formed in 1988. They campaigned in the 2010 General Election with the slogan "Change that Works for You". Well, the country certainly got change. 2010 brought about the most dramatic change in British politics since the Second World War. A full coalition government; not the half-way house of the Lib-Lab pact in the 1970s.

Doing things radically differently in politics opens politicians open to huge political risk. That risk is harder to manage if the risk has, essentially, never been tried before. Britain's unfair electoral system delivers governments that make the public unused to parties working in partnership together. And with that lack of understanding comes the risk that the junior partner is seen as an annex to a larger party, irrelevant in its own status and purpose.

I don't think it is overdramatic to say that in 2011, the Liberal Democrats face a battle for survival. It is one they may well emerge from successfully, but the battle is there nonetheless. Nick Clegg took a gamble - and it's not yet clear whether the "Change that Works for You" that Nick Clegg has delivered for his own party will indeed be a change that works for the Lib Dems. Has he delivered his party into a fatal bear hug from David Cameron, in which the Conservatives can simply swallow up the Liberal Democrats? Would it matter if Cameron does swallow up the Lib Dems - can the Conservative Party safeguard the values that the Liberal Democrats have fought for since their formation in 1988 and in their various iterations before that? I believe it does matter that the Lib Dems survive.

I am in favour of the Lib Dems being serious partners in full coalition government. Nick Clegg promised on his first day as leader that he would be driven by a desire for "ambition and change". He has delivered both of those. Under his leadership, the party has grown in ambition and seriousness. The 2010 manifesto - notwithstanding a foolish promise on tuition fees - was the party's most credible manifesto promoted by a credible leader (gone were the wooly press conferences of the Charles Kennedy era when he struggled through a hangover to explain a local income tax).

Joining the coalition government was a necessary step in proving the value of three party politics in Britain. But the trouble with it is that three party politics does not exist yet. Britain still has a voting system that delivers two strong parties and leaves the smaller parties with a share of Westminster seats that barely does justice to their national support (how is it right that a party with 25% of the vote receives less than 10% of the seats in Parliament?). Clegg has gambled that he can create three party politics and win the voting reforms needed to make the Lib Dems more relevant and more powerful in the long term, by adopting a strategy which risks making the Lib Dems more irrelevant in the short term.

There are ways in which the risk can be managed. Supporting tuition fees was the right thing to do; it was wrong to have courted the student vote so transparently when it appears Lib Dem Ministers were always more open-minded than they suggested on the campaign trail. But they can't afford many more compromises - the decision on control orders, for example, needs to decide against them as a result of Lib Dem influence. It is, alongside tuition fees, one of the totemic Lib Dem policies that they need to be seen to deliver on in government. Otherwise, Lib Dem Ministers really are just window-dressing. Nick Clegg cannot afford another defeat on a core Lib Dem policy. Noone will vote for more pluralist voting systems if the coalition governments they produce are seen to be indistinguishable from a government where one party was in power.

But Clegg should also be given credit for what the Lib Dems have achieved, and tell that story more effectively. Many parts of the Lib Dem manifesto got into the Coalition Agreement and are now being implemented. But who knows how much of it? 65% of it is, and that should be part of the core narrative of the Lib Dems in government - otherwise they will keep being bashed for the compromises they will inevitably have to make rather than taking credit for steering the Tories in a more liberal direction in many cases.

In short, 2011 needs to be the year that the Lib Dems make this change work for them. Bold in standing up for core Lib Dem beliefs. Bold in telling a proud story of Lib Dems delivering and influencing change as a credible part of government.

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