Are we any closer to knowing what the Liberal Democrats and their leader stand for now they have been in power for half a Parliament? Not given the evidence of this week in Brighton
The junior coalition partners speak out. No, they won’t accept what the Conservatives propose. Newspaper headlines report ‘coalition strife’.
Familiar? But that captures what has been happening this week not in Brighton but in Berlin where there is a dust up within the ruling coalition between the Christian Democrats and the Free Democrats over a cash benefit for stay-at-home mothers.
What’s different about Germany, however, is both the clarity of the argument and its transparency. The Free Democrats are ‘classic’ liberals, who favour less government and lower taxes: they say Germany cannot afford an additional welfare benefit (and interestingly enough on that point are supported by the Social Democrats). Their basic ‘small state’ viewpoint colours their every move.
The new proposal, seen as pro family by the Christian Democrats, wasn’t in the original coalition agreement, and is being opposed – in full public hearing – by the Frees.
What has been missing in Brighton, and Nick Clegg’s keynote speech didn’t fill the gap, is a clear sense of LibDem identity. Nothing new, there, you might say – they have always straddled the obvious lines of political division. Indeed, that’s what historically made them attractive to a minority of voters.
Their conference theme has simultaneously been ‘we are a party of high principle’ (why else would we sacrifice short-term political advantage by backing austerity?), but also a party willing (promiscuously) to contemplate bedding down with Labour, if and when electoral circumstances favour it.
Bed hopping is what happens in Germany and other countries with coalition politics, it’s true, but only up to a point. You broadly know where the parties are coming from.
The Free Democrats – when it comes to arrangements at the regional or Land level – have shown themselves willing to deal with the Greens and even the Social Democrats. But into coalition negotiations they carry their core beliefs. What is unthinkable in Germany is what happened last year when the Tories actively campaigned against the treasured LibDem commitment to secure a fairer system of voting for the Westminster parliament.
The Liberal Democrats’ very emptiness may now be making coalition more difficult to accomplish. Where exactly are their red lines, beyond which a coalition partner could never push them? Brighton’s airy talk about favouring fairness hasn’t helped define them.
Take an immediate question, raised by the CBI even as the LibDems convened in Brighton. The employers’ organisation claimed a third of public services, nearly £300bn worth were ‘available’ for contracting out, with a prospect of saving £27bn or more. Never mind dodgy methodology and breathless over-spinning of the ‘research’ by the CBI’s director general, John Cridland.
We know this is what Tories want. We know the Liberal Democrats have barely blinked as the Cameron government published its open public services white paper and pursues ‘any qualified provider’ in the NHS. So is this a principled belief of theirs, something on which you might rely on their consistency – a plank on which they would walk into negotiations with, say, Labour after the next general election?
Coalition politics is much more the art of the possible than majoritarian politics, which implies willingness to compromise and negotiate. As we learn to love coalitions at Westminster (lagging behind Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff), the Liberal Democrats need to appreciate a paradox. Coalition has made it more important than ever for us (and them) to know who they are.
David Walker is a writer and broadcaster. His book with Polly Toynbee Dogma and Disarray – Cameron at Half Time has just been published by Granta, £2.99 online