The five years since the last general election have been brutal for the Liberal Democrat’s popularity. But in key areas they have proved the party right.
1. Coalitions can work
Our first peace time coalition in decades survived for a full term. It retained a working majority and had little trouble delivering its legislative agenda. Ministers from different parties worked together more constructively than Blairites and Brownites from the same party did.
Even accepting those points, you may still disapprove of what the Coalition has done. But in that it’s worth asking, whether your objection to the government arises from the fact it was a coalition or rather the fact it was mostly composed of Conservative MPs?
I’d suggest that this past parliament is a clear demonstration that coalition is a viable form of government.
2. First-past-the-post sucks!!!
Voters may have decisively rejected changing the electoral system but that just demonstrates their fallibility.
The advantage of our current electoral system is supposed to be that it delivers strong, stable governments with clear majorities. If you are still expecting one of those come May 8th, then may I ask: would you be interested in buying these tickets to Danny Alexander’s reelection party?
The mood of voters is such that they are no longer going to be corralled into a binary Labour/Conservative choice by the electoral system. Trying to make them do so will, however, produce perverse results. Like how the SNP will probably wind up with fewer votes than any of UKIP, the Lib Dems or Greens but more seats than them all combined.
The Lib Dems have been warning you about this for a very long time indeed.
3. We can wield power
There used to be people who scoffed that we were a party for people who didn’t take politics seriously and were doomed to perpetual irrelevance in opposition. They proved to be wrong on both counts.
Not only did we enter government in 2010 – and may yet reenter it in 2015 – but it turned out we knew how to behave when we got there.
Our ministers were on average at least as component as their Conservative counterparts. The not normally Lib Dem friendly Telegraph called Steve Webb, ‘the best minister in the coalition‘ and suggested he stay on in his job whoever forms the next government.
And our backbenchers have proved decidedly more disciplined than their surprisingly rebellious and at times positively petulant Tory backbenches.
Which has all been the means by which we achieved these ends:
4. The middle ground needs filling again
Back in 2006, Polly Toynbee wrote a piece for the Guardian comparing the SDP with the Liberal Democrats. She pronounced that:
“The vast space between the extremes of Foot and Thatcher left a great need for a new progressive party…[but]…Where once there was a great savannah of available political space, now the air is too thin to breathe between New Labour and Cameron Tories.”
Boy has that changed. Both parties have turned away from each other to try and shore up their core votes. The differences between their economic plans are now vast. And the siren call of UKIP and the SNP is likely to draw them towards even further apart.
Without the Lib Dems to provide a balancing force in the middle then we are likely to see the return of what Roy Jenkins called the ‘ideological big dipper‘. His worry was that if governments with sharply differentiated platforms alternated in power then there would be constant upheavals as they reversed each others programmes. Jenkins thought we needed a third party to balance the other two and thereby provide some continuity. With some adjustments that’s a role that still needs filling.
Of course, I’m not bringing this up now (just) to say ‘we told you so’. Rather, I am making a point about the elections on Thursday. We are in a state of constitutional and electoral flux. It is going to be a challenging time for our political system. And it is more likely to respond constructively if it has input from a party that has understood these issues and has the right instincts for dealing with them.