Thursday, August 05, 2010

The Liberal Democrats get established

There has been a whole load of ill informed, wishful thinking in the British media of late. In the face of the (sadly all too common) post election fall in Lib Dem support in the opinion polls, the usual suspects on both right and left have been quick to forecast an early end to the coalition. Yet, despite having no leader, no policies and no principles, Labour continue to hold a respectable poll rating. The journalists who continue to hope for the fall of the coalition do not understand the fact that an early election would probably not lead to a strong majority for the Conservatives: it could even lead to a Labour recovery, which would exclude both coalition parties from power. The coalition may not be a love match, but it is a marriage of convenience, and one where mutual respect has emerged on both sides.

Simon Hughes criticism of the idea of ending life tenure for council tenants is not the first breath of a coalition-ending storm, it is perfectly legitimate to voice an opinion on a policy which is outside the remit of the coalition agreement anyway. In fact I can see the point of the policy, but understand Simon's concerns- it is a legitimate debate. Likewise, Liam Fox' attempt to secure Trident outside the Defence budget is a legitimate debate too: but what is interesting here is that more Conservatives now understand that the Liberal Democrats' position on Trident was not a question of Unilateral Nuclear disarmament- which just for the record is not supported by the party. In fact it is a question of bringing our nuclear deterrent into line with the strategic stance of the conventional armed forces, which do not anticipate an unexpected nuclear attack from another state: which is what Trident is designed to deter. The cost of Trident is undermining our capacity to fight the wars we are already engaged with: that is the point we were making at the general election, and now many Conservatives understand this and even privately support it.

So, despite attempts by the press to suggest that the Liberal Democrats discussion of policy implies a desire to leave the coalition at the earliest opportunity, in fact the Lib Dems are still broadly supportive of it- after all the party held a special conference to discuss the proposal and they overwhelmingly endorsed the coalition. In fact the risk to the coalition lies not with the Liberal Democrats, but with the rejectionist Conservatives. However these are increasingly isolated within the party. Many journalists, like Simon Heffer, who have been most critical of the Cameron leadership are, of course no longer members of the party- giving their support instead to minor parties such as UKIP. Thus the influence of their siren songs against the leadership has inevitably fallen. Though many of the new Tory MPs are said to have profoundly anti-EU ideas, the fact is that no one in the Conservatives -left or right- wants to return to their bitter civil war, and the presence of Ken Clarke and the Liberal Democrats in cabinet means that more provocative ideas can be kicked into the long grass. The government's policy on the EU is friendly engagement, not integration, and that is a good balance- as we have already seen in the recovery of British influence in the Union itself.

So despite the pressure that the economic emergency puts on the coalition, in fact the government is at least as stable as the previous Labour government, only without the element of back stabbing soap opera that so disfigured the Blair-Brown fiasco. The Liberal Democrats have seen many local parties gain a large number of new members. The party, despite the loss of "short money", is learning to be more efficient. The leadership and the activists can see that their policies are indeed being enacted in the coalition programme, while Labour's betrayal of electoral reform will be remembered or a long time to come.

Meanwhile the party will kick off the conference season in Liverpool on 18th September, and it is already set to be a record breaker. More attendees, more exhibitors, and inevitably more security underlines the fact that the Lib Dems now matter. They are in government. Although the party will undoubtedly debate the issue of the coalition, the fact is that the party is already benefiting- whatever the short run polls say.

For a party that prides itself on being anti-establishment, it is a shock to be part of the establishment. I am sure that the debates in Liverpool will be undeniably "full and frank", but the questions are now not how to obtain enough power to implement our policies, but how to actually implement them.

As David Cameron faces the dissidents inside his own party, he may find that the Liberal Democrats give him a far more positive reaction when he addresses them. Now, now we can get to work to build a more Liberal Britain, and the realisation that this is what the coalition actually means will certainly make the conference justify the attention that it will surely get.