Yup, I know that I've done it before, but with the Liberal Democrats embarking on yet another agonising crisis of identity/conscience, I think the topic deserves a fresh look. Talking to most of my Liberal Democrats friends in the last few weeks has been an illuminating experience. Most of the left-leaning ones have chosen to openly condemn their own party and the fees, attending the various rallies the protestariat has held in the last couple of days. Right-of-centre LDs have been rather more muted, agonising over whether or not they should support the fees or maintain party unity. All this raises the question of what will happen to the Liberal Democrats in the coming years, and I've been mulling over some of the options.
Note: All of this analysis will obviously change if the the Yes vote wins the AV referendum. But this blogger doesn't think they will on current evidence, so until that changes the arguments below assume we still have the Simple Plurality voting system come the next election, with no room for second-preference campaigning.
1) Reassertion of Leftwingedness: Richard Grayson over on Comment is Free argues that the Liberal Democrats should begin preparing - right now - for a coalition with the Labour Party and the Greens after the next election. From the Labour perspective, Jackie Ashley argues for what looks like the same thing.
This line of argument was also in evidence before and just after before the election, usually from Labour supporters using the language of the "progressive/anti-Conservative majority" - for example, Polly Toynbee asking why the Liberal Democrats were putting any effort into the north*, as surely they should be maximising the progressive vote in the south. Whilst this might happen, I think that pursuit of this policy would be a bad move on behalf of the LDs. Why?
First, leftwing LDs should be very careful to consider the difference between a genuinely pluralistic Labour Party (which would be an incredible volte-face) and a Labour Party attempting to wreak as much havoc on Coalition morale as possible with conciliatory siren songs. Labour weren't keen on cooperating with anyone else before they lost the election, and in my view are unlikely to be keen on sharing power if they think they can win the next one. So Liberal Democrats like Grayson should be wary of how much of their considered view that cooperation with Labour should be planned for now is based on a genuine understanding of Labour's intention, and how much on wishful thinking.
Furthermore, re-aligning to the Left could spell electoral doom for the party, despite what the impressions of current polling may be. Because all those 'betrayed' voters who the Liberal Democrats have shed since the General Election are their left-wing voters. The remaining Liberal Democrat support (and the support they'll find easier to win back whilst they're in coalition with the Conservatives) is their right-of-centre base, largely in the South. Tacking to the left will cost the party much of that support (which could easily flit back to the Conservatives) with the risk of not making much headway amongst their once bitten, twice shy left-wing support (which will find it much easier to support Labour, especially after that party has had five years under the Halo of Opposition where they don't need to be accountable or make any unpopular decisions.
Not only will shifting left cost them what right-of-centre support they have presently held on to, but it also risks costing them the right-of-centre Liberal Democrats (i.e. a lot of the present LD 'big names' in the government) along with it. Because its one thing to be right-wing in a leftish party which you know might well go into coalition with Labour, but its quite another to remain as a rightwinger in a party that has proven itself incapable of going into coalition with the Conservatives, the only viable right-of-centre option out there. This risks many of the Liberal Democrat's most recognisable figures either schisming into a pro-Conservative 21st Century National Liberal Party, or joining the Conservatives outright, taking a lot of 'Liberal' LDs with them to further encroach upon Liberal Democrat support in the country and weakening further the less electable, extremist branch of Toryism.
And the final and most serious problem with this course? It makes a joke out of the very argument that the Liberal Democrats have based themselves around: that coalitions work and that compromise is good. Undermining the coalition, let alone making a habit of voting against it, will despoil more utterly than any anti-AV propaganda the image of coalition politics in the minds of the British electorate. Because if sections of the membership, let alone the parliamentary party, start openly disowning their party's leadership and calling for a coalition with the other side against both parliamentary arithmetic and considered negotiation, it will do great damage to the ability of the party to be able to claim to be a genuinely independent third force. Instead of being the party that would work with either party (as argued in the now legendary PPB featuring John Cleese), the Liberal Democrats would become an addendum to the Labour Party. And if they do that, what is the point of operating separately at all?
2) The Formal Split/Split by Decay: Personally, I think the former is rather unlikely. Nevertheless, if the opposition of some elements of the party to the coalition continues to intensify despite tuition fees now being out of the way, there's some prospect of a formal division of the party occurring unless the rebels can find a cause convincing enough to bring the government loyalists out of the coalition with them.
The hardest thing to envision about this scenario is what form the parties would take after the split. If the left-wing LDs voted to leave the coalition and the loyalists subsequently defied that to support it, then you'd see the return of a left-wing protest-vote Liberal Democrat party. As for the loyalists, you'd see either the emergence of a truly independent but utterly doomed right-of-centre Liberal party, the emergence of a Conservative-dependent Liberal Party (similar to the situation in Australia), or the absorption of the remaining Liberal loyalists into the Conservatives outright. If the loyalists retained control of the party and the rebels split, then either the rebels cross straight to Labour or attempt to re-found the SDP while the Liberal Democrats try to find their footing as an outright right-of-centre political force.
More likely (if less exciting) is the 'split by decay' - essentially a drip-feed of disgruntled leftwingers resigning the whip or crossing to Labour, without anything so dramatic as a split. This scenario is certainly easier on the government, as they're likely to see less defections than a mass walkout might elicit. Its likely effect on the Liberal Democrats would be a relative strengthening of the Orange Bookers without expunging a more leftist element of the party - essentially changing its nature without properly resolving the underlying issue. Provided that it didn't get too close to costing the government its majority, the Liberal Democrats would probably survive this, albeit in a reduced state. But both of these scenarios entail a de facto return to two-party politics, with either one or two post-Liberal Democrat parties beholden to one side or the other.
3) The Coalition Holds: Given that the coalition is unlikely to face again a topic as divisive for the Liberal Democrats as tuition fees, there's a good chance in my mind that the Coalition will pull through from this particular incident and last the planned five years in office. After all, the Liberal Democrats are getting policy through for the first time... well, ever. Clegg's tax break for low earners will help those who need it most, and the concessions wrung from the conservatives over the fee model demonstrate the advantages of being in government. Furthermore, at least the leadership know that if they screw up this golden opportunity to demonstrate how awesome coalitions are, they're unlikely to have another shot at being a relevant party for decades.
Where this will put the party at the next general election is hardest to judge, dependent as it is on at least four more years of tough decisions and random events, so this section of the article is shortest despite it being in my view the most probable. But whether or not the LD's go into the next election vying for a Labour coalition or a Conservative one, with high poll ratings or low, sticking with the coalition is unlikely to put them in as poor a position of either non-existence or irrelevance as the alternative courses of action.
*Can't find it, but not kidding.
UPDATE: Liberal Vision carries a related Ashcroft study here.