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Liberal Democrats in a

ConDemNation:
Strategy, identity and survival
Alex Marsh
School for Policy Studies
University of Bristol

April 2015

Liberal Democrats in a ConDemNation: strategy, identity and survival1
Abstract
When the Liberal Democrats entered government in May 2010 it was already reasonably wellknown that coalition is not kind to the junior partner. That is the case in countries where multiparty government is not unfamiliar: the political cost in the UK was always likely to be greater.
The risks were magnified by entering government at a time when making, or supporting,
unpopular decisions was almost inevitable.
This paper focuses upon the way in which the Liberal Democrats have managed their role in
Coalition with the Conservatives, how this has played out with the electorate, and how the party
moves on from the 2010-2015 Coalition.
The party adopted a two stage strategy: ownership followed by differentiation. This was always
going to carry significant risks in a low trust environment. Difficulties in reading the party’s role
in coalition were further compounded by lack of clarity over the identity of the Liberal Democrat
political project, represented in popular discourse by the battle between Orange Bookers and
social liberal wing of the party.
Issues of strategy and unstable identity intersect in the preparations for the 2015 General
Election, which will be conducted in the febrile atmosphere associated with rising right wing
populism. The political environment is, arguably, increasingly hostile to many core liberal
concerns. While prominent liberal politicians might assert we have arrived in a Liberal Age, the
reception for a distinctively liberal agenda would appear to be characterised by growing sceptical.
The future of the party as an independent political force is by no means assured.

This is a revised version of a workshop paper presented to the Political Studies Association Annual
Conference, Sheffield, 30th March-1st April 2015. Thanks to participants in the panel organised by the
British Liberals and Liberalism Specialist Group for their questions and comments. And thanks, also, to
members of the Liberal Democrats for comments on an earlier draft. All remaining mistakes of substance
and interpretation are the responsibility of the author.
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1.

Introduction

When the Liberal Democrats entered government in May 2010 it was already reasonably well
known that entering - and exiting - coalition is not necessarily kind to junior partners. The
history of the British Liberal party and experience elsewhere provide some salutary lessons. In
countries where multi-party government is relatively familiar the junior partner can find itself
bearing the brunt of voters’ dissatisfaction with coalition performance. The political cost in the
UK was always likely to be greater. There is no modern experience of Westminster coalition to
draw on, and the advent of coalition throws into question one of the great strengths claimed for
our electoral system – that it delivers decisive results. The risks to the Liberal Democrats were
magnified by entering government in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis. The rhetoric
of austerity had been embraced by both major political parties, albeit more fervently by the
Conservatives: it was almost inevitable that the Liberal Democrats would be making, or
supporting, unpopular decisions.
This paper focuses upon the way in which the Liberal Democrats have managed their role in
Coalition with the Conservatives, how this has played out with the electorate, and how the party
moves on from the 2010-2015 Coalition.
The party adopted a two stage strategy: ownership followed by differentiation. This was always
going to carry significant risks in a low trust environment. Difficulties in reading the party’s role
in coalition were further compounded by lack of clarity over the identity of the Liberal Democrat
political project, represented in popular discourse by the battle between Orange Bookers and
social liberal wing of the party.
Issues of strategy and unstable identity intersect in the preparations for the 2015 General
Election, which will be conducted in the febrile atmosphere associated with rising right wing
populism. The political environment is, arguably, increasingly hostile to many core Liberal
Democrat concerns. While prominent liberal politicians might assert we have arrived in a Liberal
Age (Browne, 2014), the reception for a distinctively liberal agenda would appear to be
characterised by growing sceptical. The future of the party as an independent political force is by
no means assured.
2.

Strategy

Junior partners contemplating going in to coalition face some profound strategic choices. The
most fundamental question is arguably the stance to adopt on the question of unity versus
distinctiveness (Boston and Bullock, 2010). The second key question is the strategy towards
portfolio allocation – whether to go for breadth or depth in office holding. Clearly, the two
questions are interrelated: going for depth in office holding – so that particular policy areas are
clearly ‘owned’ by the junior partner - makes it easier to demonstrate distinctiveness and
influence when compared to the alternative strategy of seeking involvement across a range of
policy areas. On the other hand, it risks the junior partner being perceived as being narrowly
focused in its concerns and marginal to the broader programme of government.
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A number of authors have analysed in detail the formation of the Conservative-Liberal
Democrat coalition, the strategy adopted by the Liberal Democrats, and the implications of
coalition for the machinery of government (eg. Lee and Beech, 2011; Matthews. 2011). David
Cameron’s apparent repositioning of the Conservatives towards the political centre ground
during the latter 2000s, coupled with the Liberal Democrats being nudged by their leadership
away from the centre-left (Jones, 2011) had increased the plausibility of a sustainable coalition
between the two parties. There was a narrowing of the political distance between the parties, as
indicated by their manifesto commitments (Debus, 2011): indeed there was a notable degree of
policy overlap. While major barriers to forming coalition had to be overcome – in particular
reconciling the parties’ positions on voting reform - arriving at a coalition agreement was
perhaps less painful than expected. This was a period in which David Cameron was championing
“liberal conservatism” and the coalition was going to place “freedom, fairness and responsibility”
at the heart of its agenda. The parties appeared to share an ideological commitment to enhancing
freedom, while the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives placed relatively greater emphasis
upon fairness and responsibility respectively. The resulting coalition agreement represented a
genuine combination of policy proposals shared by the parties, proposals distinctive to the
Conservative manifesto, proposals distinctive to the Liberal Democrat manifesto, and proposals
that had featured in neither manifesto (Matthews, 2011). In terms of portfolio allocation the
Liberal Democrats appeared to be more strongly represented in the Government than might
have been predicted on the basis of strict proportionality (Debus, 2011). Cameron was making
his “big, open and comprehensive offer” to the Liberal Democrats.
The Liberal Democrat strategy towards forming the coalition was, firstly, to opt for breadth
rather than depth in portfolio allocation and, secondly, to prioritize unity over distinctiveness.
Given that the Liberal Democrats were seeking to overturn the popular perception that as the
third party they lacked experience of government it is perhaps understandable that they opted to
seek to demonstrate the ability to work productively in partnership with the Conservatives across
a range of policy areas by placing junior ministers in several departments. Similarly, given the
Liberal Democrats’ emphasis upon constitutional reform, it made sense for the Nick Clegg to
take the role of Deputy Prime Minister. However, while the Liberal Democrats may have done
relatively well numerically out of portfolio allocation they held only one of the core executive
roles (DPM) and by spreading themselves relatively thinly across departments, typically working
under a Conservative Secretary of State, they set themselves a significant challenge in
demonstrating distinctiveness and effectiveness. Whether the alternative depth strategy was ever
a serious proposition is a separate question: the major policy areas where the Liberal Democrats
might have seen a possibility of demonstrate a distinctive agenda if they were allowed complete
control – education, home affairs, work and pensions, perhaps – are policy areas the
Conservatives were never likely to countenance stepping back from entirely.
We could get a hint of what might have been possible by looking at the activities of the Liberal
Democrat-led departments: DECC and BIS. Here there are initiatives such as the Green
Investment Bank that are genuinely innovative and bear a clear Liberal Democrat stamp. But, we
might argue, these are relatively peripheral areas of policy from the Conservatives’ perspective:
whether the Liberal Democrats would be allowed to pursue a similarly distinctive strategy closer
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to the heart of government is a moot point. Equally, we can look at totemic policies such as the
rise in tuition fees and see that Liberal Democrat-led departments were obliged, in a spirit of
coalition unity, to implement and defend Conservative policy commitments at substantial
political cost.
McEnhill (2015) has recently discussed the challenges that the breadth strategy presented to the
Liberal Democrats in demonstrating distinctiveness in policy areas dominated by the
Conservatives, focusing on the area of welfare reform. One important point is that the sort of
roving brief that the Liberal Democrats envisaged for their junior ministers is not one that
formally exists. So while some Liberal Democrat ministers were kept in the loop by their
Conservative Secretary of State, others were not: they were expected to stay within the
boundaries of their ministerial brief (Harvey, 2015). This meant that even though there was a
Liberal Democrat presence in the department, Liberal Democrat influence over policy could be
tightly bounded.
In contrast, where a Conservative-led department has implemented a headline Liberal Democrat
policy – such as the pupil premium or raising income tax thresholds – the policy has not only
been owned by the Conservatives but credited to the Conservatives by substantial sections of the
public.
The debate over the wisdom of the breadth rather than depth strategy will no doubt continue.
Harvey (2015) takes the view that it was precisely the right strategy and that the Liberal
Democrats should pursue the breadth strategy more vigorously in a future coalition negotiation.
On the other hand, Goes (2015) labels the Liberal Democrats’ strategy of taking the role of
DPM rather than Foreign Secretary – as would often be the case in coalition governments in
continental Europe - a mistake because it meant that the party ended up with limited leverage
over the coalition’s rather unsubtle populist policy towards Europe. A strongly pro-European
party finds itself in the awkward position of being part of a government that significantly
increased the risk of Brexit.
The fact that during the early phases of the coalition the Liberal Democrats prioritized unity over
distinctiveness meant that the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition was able to address one
criticism of multi-party government. The agreement of May 2010 did not deliver weak
government as a result of perpetual horse-trading and compromise. Strong party discipline from
the Liberal Democrats in particular meant that the government was able to pursue a radical
agenda renegotiating the role of the state. It set in train structural changes in a whole range of
policy areas – on welfare reform, the National Health Service, planning deregulation, social
housing, and the defunding of local authority services - that have yet to fully work themselves
through the system. This was possible in large part because for much of the Parliament the
Liberal Democrats were willing to put aside dissent, in public at least, and support a wide range
of Conservative projects.
As Atkins (2015) has pointed out, this unity relied upon deploying powerful narrative strategies
that emphasized the parties’ shared values, the importance of placing ‘the national interest’ above
party interest, and the need to put aside inter-party difference in order to battle with the deficit
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created by a “fiscally irresponsible” Labour party. In so doing it required the Liberal Democrats
to abandon some well-established policy positions or suppress a concern for core ideological
principles for the sake of coalition unity.
The Liberal Democrats’ early commitment to coalition unity led to them paying a substantial
price. Voters and members who had supported the party because its policy platform was to the
left of Labour abandoned the party. The negative electoral consequences of coalition quickly
became apparent in substantial losses in local elections and lost deposits in by-elections.
Only in the last year of the Parliament has the party made any real effort to differentiate from the
Conservatives. Whether that was the plan from the outset or a response to the fact that the
Liberal Democrats seemed to be absorbing the vast majority of the political fallout from the
implementation of the Coalition’s austerity-dominated agenda is not entirely clear.
This two stage strategy of fully owning the coalition agenda – of hugging the Conservatives close
- and then seeking to differentiate was always going to carry significant, and rather obvious, risks
in an environment where trust in politicians is low. As the junior partner, supporting policies that
you would in other circumstances oppose comes with coalition territory. Explaining that you are
doing so under sufferance would at least make it clear what was happening. But keeping your
disagreements private while showing a unified front with the Conservatives in public, and doing
so with seeming enthusiasm, means all distinctiveness is rendered invisible. Viewed from the
outside “unity in the national interest” and “a coup by Orange Book liberals/Cleggite faction of
yellow Tories” can look rather similar, if the party is unable or unwilling to provide a convincing
narrative to accompany its actions. Liberal Democrat support collapsed as a consequence.
And once the junior partner moved to differentiate it opened itself up to accusations of
hypocrisy. The party starts disagreeing with policies that it only a few weeks previously it had
enthusiastically voted in to law. Sceptical voters might reasonably ask: does that mean you
weren’t telling us the truth back then? After the initial damage caused by reneging the key tuition
fees pledge and reorienting the position on the desirability of rapid deficit reduction (Dommett,
2013), trust is potentially further undermined. The credibility of all future public
pronouncements is likely to be questioned.
3.

Identity

The difficulties in reading the party’s role in coalition were further compounded by lack of clarity
over the identity of the Liberal Democrat political project. This is frequently represented in
popular discourse as a battle between the Orange Bookers and the social liberal wing of the party
(referring to Marshall and Laws, 2004, and, for example, Brack et al, 2007, respectively), although
we can arguably trace debates about whether the party looks predominantly left or right much
further back into the party’s history.
It would be wrong to see the arrival of Nick Clegg as party leader as representing the dawning of
an entirely new era in policy or ideological term for the Liberal Democrats. Some of the currents
in policy thinking that have emerged to prominence were arguably already developing under
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Charles Kennedy and earlier. Equally it is wrong to think that “Orange Bookers” – or social
liberals for that matter – cleave to a coherent and tightly specified philosophy. In fact, the
contributions to the Orange Book itself take a range of different positions on questions such as
the desirability or otherwise of state action and intervention. What is typically referred to as
“Orange Book” liberalism – that is, the promotion of economic liberalism alongside – or, critics
might argue, above – personal, political and social liberalism is most clearly articulated by David
Laws’ contribution to the edited collection (Laws, 2004). It is largely a belief in the benefits of
market mechanisms, driven by non-state actors, in delivering desirable social outcomes. It would
perhaps be more illuminating to focus on some of the work of the think tank CentreForum or
the ginger group Liberal Reform in taking this agenda forward than to keep referring back to the
Orange Book.
The idea that the Liberal Democrat policy agenda has been taken over by the Orange Bookers –
that there has been a Clegg Coup – tends to be treated as relatively uncontroversial in the
academic literature (Dommett, 2013). Certainly many of the contributors to the Orange Book
now occupy senior, frontline positions in the party. The assertion of a coup is perhaps more
controversial in internal party debate. But that is, perhaps, explicable. On the one hand, a core
tenet of liberalism is tolerance and therefore self-professed liberals tend to be treated as such,
even where the content of that liberalism starts to look suspiciously like market fundamentalism.
On the other hand, if one were seeking to effect a coup then a useful discursive strategy would
be to deny that that is what is happening: that differing policy positions represent no more than
differences of emphasis. The party leadership has tried to defuse these debates by seeking unity
behind slogans arguing the party is neither left nor right but liberal. This does not, however,
bring much greater clarity regarding what the party stands for in a context where most of the
public debate is framed in one (left-right) dimension.
Less controversial is the argument that the Liberal Democrats have gone through a process of
professionalization (Evans and Sanderson-Nash, 2011). The party has a federal structure and
formally policy making sits with biannual Federal Conferences. However, over time the
professionalization process has meant that the party has moved from a largely bottom-up
process towards a more top-down process where the party leadership and the parliamentary
party are able to shape policy agendas in ways seen as beneficial, using the Federal Conferences
primarily to ratify such positions and commitments:
The reality is that increasingly spokespeople are adopting [this] … approach to their
parliamentary portfolios, leaving the conference as more of a ‘washing up’ exercise that
brings parliamentarians’ statements and written policy together (Senior party official cited
in Evans and Sanderson-Nash, 2011, p486)
This structural issue has increased salience under the coalition government. While it can plausibly
be argued that the Liberal Democrats were the party best prepared for the coalition negotiations
of May 2010, they were less well-prepared for the rigours of policy making in government.
Biannual Federal Conferences were obviously not going to be sufficiently nimble. It was
inevitable that in government the party was going to have to respond to emerging issues about
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which it had no settled policy. But it took a while to develop mechanisms that allowed the party
to input into decisions so they were not based primarily on views within the leader’s inner circle.
This issue of top-down versus bottom-up goes to the heart of the Liberal Democrats’ identity.
On the one hand, the Liberal Democrats’ internal Bones Commission on party structure noted:
Leaders define and deliver political strategy, appoint the best teams to support delivery
and are the focus of the party nationally to communicate and ‘sell’ our vision of a liberal
democrat Britain. They need professional support and to be given the freedom to act;
but they too should continue to face scrutiny (Bones Commission, cited in Evans and
Sanderson-Nash, 2011, 471).
That is, the leader is not there to represent the collective views of the membership but to define
political strategy and articulate a vision of liberal democracy in a way that will resonate with the
electorate.
On the other hand, activists emphasize the Liberal Democrats as a federal party because this is a
key strength which brings authenticity and genuine internal democracy. The party is different
from the Conservatives and the Labour party because the members make policy: it is central to
the party’s self-identity and self-understanding.
Coalition has placed the leadership into conflict with the activist base on a number of occasions.
The parliamentary party has supported a number of policy measures into law only for Federal
Conference to pass motions either condemning those policies or calling for them to be modified.
Several motions critical of welfare reform, cuts to legal aid and advice services, and the bedroom
tax would fall into this category. The party leadership is then in the dilemma of supporting a
policy in government that conflicts with official party policy. Here again the leadership has
tended to favour unity over overt conflict with their coalition partners. This is felt particularly
sharply around the edges of the coalition agreement: policy areas which do not feature in the
coalition agreement, where Conservative policy proposals conflict with some principle deeply
held by Liberal Democrat activists, and yet the party leadership supports the proposals into law.
Civil liberties have provided a number of flash points.
One of the most intricate examples of the way these tensions play out is the case of the bedroom
tax. The Liberal Democrats supported the policy into law as part of the welfare reform agenda,
in the face of criticism. Federal Conference passed a two motions calling for the policy to be
substantially modified and for mechanisms to mitigate the worst negative impacts to be put in
place. The first of these motions put the leadership’s position of support for the policy in its
(then) current form at odds with party policy. However, it did allow leverage to be exerted to
secure some increased protections via Discretionary Housing Payments. Nick Clegg also stated
that support for the policy would be reviewed when the results of the official interim evaluation
became available. When these results were finally released – having been available within
government for several months – Nick Clegg publicly withdrew the party’s support for the policy
in its current form because it was felt to be perpetrating unacceptable unfairness and hardship. In
doing so he did little more than bring his public position in line with what was already official
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party policy. This looked like solidly evidence-based policy, except that almost all the problems
identified in the interim evaluation had been identified by expert commentators even before the
policy was implemented. The evaluation provided very little new information. But it provided
cover for a realignment of policy position in a period where differentiation was becoming a more
pressing concern.
There are also lessons here about how and where power is most effectively exercised by the
junior partner. For example, McEnhill (2015) argues that it was Simon Hughes as deputy party
leader, outside the Government, who was able to push for concessions on the implementation of
the bedroom tax rather than Steve Webb as DWP pensions minister. We might reflect on how
much leverage Hughes was subsequently able to exercise over Chris Grayling’s agenda – which
many Liberal Democrats roundly condemn for being fundamentally illiberal - once he joined the
government as an MoJ minister.
One of the biggest challenges for the Liberal Democrats in coalition has been the realization that
the foundation upon which it was built – a convergence in policy position between the Liberal
Democrats and David Cameron’s “liberal conservatism” or “compassionate conservatism” – was
shaky. It turned out that the Conservatives’ modernisation was only skin deep. It also became
apparent that while the coalition agreement may well have played to Liberal Democrat priorities
when it came to delivering on that agreement the Conservatives were going to approach it
through the lens of their own party interest. One trigger for the fraying of coalition relations was
the way the Conservatives campaigned to ensure that the move to the Alternative Vote was
rejected. It was a campaign that was conducted in precisely the opposite of the non-partisan and
non-personal spirit that had been hoped for.
Coalition politicians have spent five years emphasizing the “difficult decisions” they have had to
make to cut the deficit. In 2010 the claims were that “fairness is at the heart of those decisions”
and “those most in need are most protected”. As the threat from the populist right strengthened
and geopolitical threats from ISIS emerged the Conservative party reverted to a more
authoritarian and divisive stance. The way in which new “compassionate conservatism”
manifested itself in implementation looked rather familiar. In welfare reform it has entailed a
stigmatising rhetoric and increasingly harsh compulsion and sanctioning. The early coalition
commitment to “freedom, fairness and responsibility” has played out rather differently in
practice (Bell, 2015; Lakin, 2013). As more evidence is gathered it becomes clearer that criticisms
of policies such as welfare reform are well-founded. The argument that fairness is at the heart of
policy becomes harder, if not impossible, to sustain.
The Preamble to the Liberal Democrat constitution states that: “We champion the freedom,
dignity and well-being of individuals” and that “no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance
or conformity”. Many of the reforms that the Coalition has overseen – for example, changes to
disability benefits, work capability assessments, the benefit sanctioning regime, the effective
removal of rights to many types of legal redress - are policies that can be seen as challenging core
principles. Had the Liberal Democrats been in opposition they would most likely have
condemned these policies in the strongest possible terms.
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As a consequence, while most party members continue to support the decision to enter coalition
with the Conservatives, fewer are content with the way the coalition has gone about
implementing its agenda.
4.

Survival

Issues of strategy and unstable identity intersect in the preparations for the 2015 General
Election, which will be conducted in the febrile atmosphere associated with rising right wing
populism. The political environment is, arguably, increasingly hostile to many core Liberal
Democrat concerns. The 2014 European Elections – which the Liberal Democrats approached
from an unambiguously pro-European perspective – demonstrated the scale of the problems
facing the party. Similarly, messages on migration, drug liberalisation, or prioritising freedom
over the desires of the security state would appear to run against the grain.
The Liberal Democrats can identify a long list of Coalition policies that have the Liberal
Democrat stamp all over them. But most of the headline policies upon which the coalition
government will be judged – on NHS reorganisation, welfare reform, immigration, security, and
most notable on the economy – carry the Conservative hallmark. That is perhaps inevitable for
the junior partner. It comes as no surprise. Indeed, writing presciently not long after the
formation of the coalition Stuart (2011, p51) argues:
The Liberal Democrats became too fixated on the minutiae of what they had gained in
terms of policy concessions from the Conservatives, particularly their long-term
obsession with electoral reform. What they seemed unable to realize at the time was that
their central concession to the Conservatives on the economy – agreeing to cut the
deficit further and faster than Labour – trumped all their anorak manifesto commitments
put together. Nor were they able to foresee that they would take nearly all of the blame
and gain virtually none of the political credit for taking the tough decisions on spending
within the Coalition.
While it may not be a surprise that the coalition agenda has a Conservative flavour, in many cases
those policies not only conflict with principles that Liberal Democrats hold dear but are badly
thought through and/or poorly implemented.
The challenge for the Liberal Democrats is to tell the story of coalition in ways that get beyond
the accusation that they have been useful idiots propping up a radically illiberal Conservative
government and highlight the Government’s positive, liberal achievements. In the public mind
these are unlikely ever to outweigh the broader thrust of policy originating with the dominant
partner. But that highlights the point that the UK electorate is yet to fully recognise and accept
the nature and limitations of coalition government.
It is hard, in this context, to see beyond the party suffering badly at the polls in May 2015. The
main question is how badly. While the political commentariat might argue that the party is going
to suffer a collapse in support, examination of its presence on the ground – in key seats with an
incumbent MP at least – indicates that it remains relatively healthy (Johnson, 2014). Its
performance at the General Election might therefore turn out to be better than that assumed on
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the basis of national opinion polling. It may well be that one of the Liberal Democrats most high
profile failures in constitutional reform – the AV referendum – will mean that the party does not
do quite as badly as it otherwise might.
The party’s challenge now and for the future is how to reconcile its actions in coalition with its
fundamental principles and how to credibly rearticulate what the party stands for in a way that
will be given a hearing by the electorate.
At the same time, given that the likely outcome of the May 2015 general election is a hung
parliament there is a question of how it should respond. If the Liberal Democrats were to
participate in another coalition then how can they retain greater distinctiveness and a stronger
sense of identity? A second coalition with the Conservatives that isn’t conducted on different
terms could spell the end of the Liberal Democrats as an independent party, in a replay of the
history of the Liberal party. Would a coalition with Labour mean that the party will be branded
unprincipled and only interested in clinging on to power? Or does the party’s survival ultimately
depend on it not participating in a second coalition and rebuilding its identity in opposition?
It is clear that thoughts within the party are turning to who will succeed Nick Clegg, either if the
party loses a lot of seats, Clegg himself loses his seat, or his head is the price for the formation of
a coalition. A clear component of the manoeuvres that are being played out in public by potential
successors is the future direction of the party. Tim Farron is seen as centre-left, looking towards
Labour, and a favourite among many activists and members. He could be seen as taking the
party back in the direction from whence it has come. The other potential leaders – Norman
Lamb or Ed Davey – are much more likely to be seen as trusted with the stewardship of the
worldview Nick Clegg has tried to promote. The outcome of the election in May will very likely
have a profound effect the future trajectory of the party both in terms of where it locates itself
ideologically and whether it has a long-term future.
If the electoral arithmetic is such that the party is in a position to opt for coalition the party
needs to think carefully about how it makes sense of itself. There are unresolved issues about
how party policy relates to coalition policy. Greater thought needs to be given to how the party
at large can be helped to understand what is going on when the Parliamentary party not only
doesn’t follow party policy but actively votes against it. There may well be reasons. It may well be
tied up with strategy and the long game; with tactics and the realpolitik of coalition. But there
needs to be a better way of communicating this. Otherwise, Federal Conferences increasingly
become a charade. The alternative is to recognize that the bottom-up model is being supplanted
for a top-down model that looks rather more like those used by the other parties. This may be
judged the only way to ensure clarity of vision and message discipline. But it would precipitate an
identity crisis in the party.
5.

Conclusion

The Liberal Democrat’s experience of coalition government 2010-2015 has highlighted the
potential costs of coalition for the junior partner. However, those costs must be interpreted in
the lightly of the strategies adopted – breadth not depth, unity followed by differentiation. These
were distinctive choices, for reasons that were plausible at the time. But they are clearly not the
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only choices. In light of the difficulties the Liberal Democrats are having demonstrating the
difference they have made in coalition – restraining the worst impulses of the Conservatives may
be a valuable service, but it isn’t an easy sell to the electorate – it is tempting to argue that the
party made strategic mistakes. It is, however, hard to see whether the alternative approaches –
depth, differentiation – would have played out any better either for the party or the country.
The choices that may face the party after the election in May 2015 are no more obvious. There
are risks in all directions. Entering coalition again will mean continued influence over policy in
the short term but a more problematic long term future. Returning to opposition might allow the
party to recover some of its distinctive identity, but means that it foregoes the opportunity to
influence policy in a period where a concern for fairness and liberty are going to be a key
counterweight, whichever major party emerges as the biggest after the election.
The Liberal Democrats have undergone a crash course in coalition government since 2010. How
– or indeed whether they get the opportunity to – put that knowledge to use after May 2015
remains to be seen.
I am reminded of the words of John Curtice concluding a piece written in the late 1980s:
Its ability to regain a long-term position as a party of government must be in doubt for
so long as there is a widespread ignorance amongst the electorate of just what the British
Liberal Party and the Alliance believe in. (Curtice, 1988, p122)
It may be that we find ourselves back where the party began.
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References

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About the author
Alex Marsh is Professor of Public Policy at the University of Bristol. He has been Head of the
School for Policy Studies since 2007. Alex’s research and writing has encompassed a wide
range of topics in the fields of housing studies, public policy and regulation. He is currently
on the Advisory Board for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation Housing and Poverty Programme
and for What Works Scotland.
Between 2005 and 2009 Alex has been managing editor of Housing Studies, the leading
international academic journal in the field. He continues as a member of the journal’s
Management Board. He is a trustee of the Housing Studies Charitable Trust.
Alex worked part-time as a Visiting Academic Consultant to the Public Law team at the Law
Commission between 2006 and 2010. His work with the Commission addressed compliance
issues in the private rented sector and systems of redress against public bodies.
Between 2004 and 2012 Alex was a trustee of Brunelcare, a Bristol-based charity providing
housing, care and support for older people. For six years he chaired Brunelcare's Audit and
Scrutiny Committee. In October 2013 he joined the board of Curo Group as a Non-Executive
Director.
All views expressed here are personal. They should not be attributed to any of the
organisations with which Alex is associated.

www.alex-marsh.net

The material in this note is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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