It’s been an interesting few days for Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, as the pre-election campaign skirmishing intensifies. Some ribald commentary about the past career of the Liberal Democrat PPC for Gravesham notwithstanding, the serious questions about the party’s attitude to a Hung Parliament have caused a degree of nervousness which the party needs to address.
There’s little doubt there are two distinct strands currently at work in the Liberal Democrats. One is a quite traditional liberal standpoint as advanced by Nick Clegg himself and the likes of David Laws. it emphasises liberal positions on the economy and society and is in many ways a reversion to the ideas of the 1950s and 1960s as advanced by Jo Grimond before David Steel took the party in a more interventionist direction.
The other, as advanced by Vince Cable, is part of the social democrat tradition and is instinctively more interventionist. This tradition, oddly enough, won the initial battle of ideas within the newly-merged Liberal Democrats in the early 90s as there was a general move away from neo-liberal laissez-faire economics to a more interventionist direction.
This reached its zenith in the Blair-Ashdown negotiations as both parties moved toward a common policy programme which might have found its way to a coalition but the Labour landslide and the duplicity of Tony Blair ended those hopes. The resulting failure of interventionist social democracy has seen a resurgence of traditional liberalism as evoked by many of the younger Lib Dems and now these two different philosophical streams are washing round each other.
There’s little doubt some Liberal Democrats would rather crawl over broken glass than have anything to do with the Conservatives while others consider Labour morally bankrupt and mired in its own authoritarian quagmire.
In some ways, it won’t matter as David Cameron almost certainly won’t pick up the phone so the question becomes – how will the party react to any prospective deal with Labour ?
Clegg cannot act in isolation and neither can the Parliamentary party. The “triple lock” introduced following the Blair-Ashdown negotiations effectively forces the decision back to the Conference, made up, as it is, of constituency activists. The argument against this is that it would take too long and cause Government paralysis but without that legitimacy, Clegg risks tearing the party apart.
For my part, I would resign my party membership were Nick Clegg to go in to coalition without proper consultation with the party and I would personally be opposed to ANY deal with Labour. That said, if the party chose to go into coalition with Labour, I think a number of members would leave.
In some ways, refusing to do a deal with Labour and allowing the Conservatives to form a minority Government might be the best the Liberal Democrats can expect from a Hung Parliament but it will leave them in a good position when the Tories run into their mid-term problems.