Comments made and misreported by Deputy Liberal Democrat leader Simon Hughes have caused the usual blasts of bile and vitriol from the usual suspects over on politicalbetting.com and elsewhere.
Simon Hughes was and remains a strong supporter of the Coalition but he has a vital role within the Party as a conduit for the justifiable concerns of the party membership up to Nick Clegg. It’s not been an easy three months for the party and although ICM showed party support still at 18%, it’s clear some former supporters have flounced off in dismay at the Coalition with the Conservatives.
In amongst the usual banal dross from what passes for political journalism these days, there have been two more interesting pieces. One, in the Guardian by Jonathan Freedland, is a sober and realistic assessment of the Coalition so far which makes thoughtful reading while the other, from Laura Kuennsberg on the BBC website, asks what might have happened had the Coalition deal not happened and the two most likely alternatives – a Labour-Lib Dem Coalition or a Conservative minority Government, come to pass.
I recommend them both.
As for Simon Hughes, he was NOT asking for a Lib Dem veto on Coalition policy but he was seeking a vote on those matters not agreed within the original Coalition document. Indeed, the original document recognises some areas of difference (Trident) between the two parties. In these and other areas, it will rightly be up to Parliament and whichever side can gain a majority of MPs. The Conservatives cannot manage that alone and they may need to court support from elsewhere as indeed would any Labour-Lib Dem proposal.
The other more interesting part of Hughes’s comments relate to the possibility of a Labour-Liberal Democrat after the 2015 General Election. Here there may be a more substantive difference of view between Hughes and Clegg. I don’t believe Nick Clegg ever thought a deal with Labour was possible in May even though many in the party wanted one. The attitude of Labour and the Labour negotiators was a huge disappointment to those supportive of a deal. Hughes is right to point out that in 2015 there will be a different Labour leader and the atmosphere might not be so corrosive but it seems at present that the sense of “betrayal” felt by Labour is very strong. We can but hope cooler heads and time prevail but I don’t see it and indeed Nick Clegg may well want to continue the Coalition into a second term which won’t please many Tories.
The Liberal Democrats may feel under the cosh now but there is a huge prize out there waiting for them especially IF the Coalition is successful in restoring public finances and economic growth. The Conservative-labour duopoly survived for decades on the basis they were the only game in town and that other parties were not serious about power.
The Liberal Democrats suffered for years from the tag of not being a “serious” party and that undoubtedly cost the party a lot of the support it got from the debates in mid-April. I believe there are many Conservative and Labour supporters who vote for their party out of fear of the other party. With the Liberal Democrats now a serious party of Government and able to restrain the ideological excesses of the extremes in both the other parties, the argument for supporting both the other parties fades and the argument FOR supporting the Liberal Democrats grows.
Indeed, I would predict that if by 2015 the Coalition is perceived as having been a success, the Liberal Democrats will gain both votes and seats from the Conservative and Labour parties.
It’s hard going now – Simon Hughes is doing a good job and that’s not appreciated by many, least of all those in the media intrinsically hostile to the party.