Nearly 2 years in and there are significant questions about how we operate within a Coalition with the Tories. Tensions have been high but muted. The party has been very defensive. Some have reached out to Labour and this seems to have been formalised in Liberal Left. Others have sought to form a right leaning group. A prominent Lib Dem blogger has recently observed the tension in the blogosphere as a fight. While this debate has got very personal for many, we may be missing an important lesson that if not learned will rip the party in two.
Linda Jack wrote in the Guardian about the importance of members of the party to feel that their values are being represented by the party. It was for this reason that she says Liberal Left has been formed to advocate for these values. Yet the argument by the hierarchy of the Lib Dems has been that they are fighting for Lib Dem values in Government. News papers across the country led with the headline ‘Liberal Democrats fighting for party’s values every day’ after Autumn Conference. So clearly something is not right.
So what is really going on for people in the party to feel like they want to quit, not support the party, or attack others in the party for disagreeing? Nick Clegg recently gave an interview to House magazine in which he said:
“Let’s be blunt: I am asking, day in day out, Liberal Democrat peers to vote on things that they wouldn’t do in a month of Sundays if it was a Liberal Democrat government.”
This should really be extended to anyone who is a member, supporter or voter to go along with what he would not expect if it was a Lib Dem Government. Roughly translated as ‘what we are doing, day in day out, is not representing our values’. This is causing a serious amount of tension.
A major bone of contention has been about priorities when it comes to values. All Lib Dems would probably agree in plural politics and Clegg has laid a stake in demonstrating that Coalitions can work in the UK. The issue comes at what stake to show this. Decisions that have been made have at times been perceived as harsh and even cruel to some. So maintaining the priority of making the Coalition work is in direct tension with other passionately held values. So while Clegg can argue that he is indeed upholding the values of the Lib Dems in Government, this is at the expense of other values, but he has made the decision that making the Coalition work is the most worthy of values, and probably politically beneficial in the long run. Others do not agree.
Interestingly, members who have been disillusioned with the decisions of the Lib Dems in Government have at times been buoyed by Chris Huhne. He has made some shrewd political gestures, even if he has not made many shrewd political relationships. His interventions, speeches and comments have hit the headlines and have resonated with many in the party. These events teach us a lesson.
The leader of the Lib Dems, or any party for that matter, is there to represent the values of the party most acutely. Nick Clegg is now the Deputy Prime Minister who represents the Government. This makes it extremely difficult for him to represent those values and, at times, has seemed confused as to where his loyalties lie (e.g. supporting Cameron the day after the EU summit) and has, at times, had to be led by others in the party (e.g. Shirley Williams on the NHS bill). Huhne served a very useful function in representing those values very well in Government (a fair amount of the time). So in many ways Nick Clegg is no longer the leader of the Lib Dems in the sense that we came to understand. What the Lib Dems lack is an effective voice for the values of the party and not just the values that are being represented in Government. Some may argue that Tim Farron should do this as Party president but I don’t think he is doing very well at this or the anxiety and tension would be much better contained as it has been at times (e.g. Huhne, Williams, Ashdown).
What the Lib Dems need when in Coalition is a senior position who has the permission of the Party to speak freely on behalf of the Party values. This means supporting the measures which represent the party values and criticising those which don’t. If this were in place, would there be a need for new groups to be popping up all over the place to represent some of the values the party represents. A well functioning party feels that all values are well represented, as they have been while we have been in opposition. Being in Coalition has changed things.
If we are not careful, the value of showing that Coalitions can work will destroy the value of unity. We need someone to bring that unity and it may be that this is not possible for the DPM to be that person.
Try not to become a man of success but a man of value – Einstein