For about fifty years, until Nick Clegg agreed to a coalition with the Conservatives, probably most people would have agreed that LibDems or Liberals, the third party in UK politics, were “for” providing an alternative to Labour or the Conservatives: a party basically on the left in politics, but edging towards the centre. Sometimes letting Tories be elected on a minority of the vote, since left-wing voters split between Labour or the LibDems.
Since May 2010, Liberal Democrats have voted to support massive cuts to funding for public services, terrifying attacks on support for the poorest and most vulnerable in our society, in favour of retroactive legislation on money due for unlawful workfare sanctions, and of course the privatisation of the NHS, and now are expected to vote for selling off the Post Office.
Support for the Liberal Democrats has crashed. To win back even half their seats in 2015, the LibDems will have to treat every maybe-winnable constituency as a by-election like Eastleigh – will have to recruit massive numbers of volunteers while their party is losing memberships. The current prediction is 23 LibDem MPs in Parliament after May 2015, while Labour should have a majority of over 100.
But supposing Labour doesn’t do quite so well and the LibDems do a little bit better than expected – these things happen – and the next Parliament is in a position where the LibDems offer themselves as coalition partners to Labour. This wouldn’t necessarily benefit Labour – the LibDems are now a toxic brand – but Ed Milliband might go ahead anyway and embrace Nick Clegg for new coalition – if Clegg doesn’t fall to the student vote.
We can assume that, just as the LibDems voted obediently for Tory policies, they’d vote just as obediently for Labour policies. While Jeremy Browne castigates Ed Miliband, Tim Farron loves him.
At present, the Lib Dems are trying to obviate this divide by stating that they will simply align with the largest party. Farron told me that “the electorate will decide who’s in power” and that “the chances of us having a choice [of coalition partner] are as close to zero as to be not even worth contemplating”. But in an election that could be the closest for decades, it is conceivable that both the Tories and Labour could be in a position to form a majority government with Lib Dem support
The LibDem MPs likely to retain their seats are those in the South East and elsewhere, where the two front runners are usually Liberal Democrat and Conservative. So the LibDem MPs in coalition with Labour might well find those constituents writing to them in anger, supposing that the next Labour government does anything left-wing enough to annoy the Tories.
After a decade in government, there would be voters unable to remember the Liberal Democrats in opposition. Serving half of this time with the Conservatives and half with Labour would reinforce their centrist claims. Which is why Clegg may favour changing governing partners in two years.
But after 10 years of obediently supporting Tory policies to keep LibDems in the Cabinet, and then supporting Labour policies to keep LibDems in the Cabinet, would anyone think the Liberal Democrats were for anything except keeping a significant fraction of their MPs on Ministerial salaries?