Monday, 28 March 2011

Coalition in Crisis? Again? Maybe.

 My perusal of the news websites this morning uncovered several interesting facts around an underlying common theme. Noticing that, and realising that this blog hasn't returned to its favourite topic of "What are the Lib Dems thinking?" in a while, I decided to dig around and take a closer look. The stories were: Chris Huhne lambasts anti-AV Conservatives over the way they're conducting the referendum campaign; Chris Huhne is rumoured to be eyeing up the leadership; the party's left-wing base is getting more vocal; Nick Clegg is considering rebranding the party and resurrecting the word 'social'; Labour are convinced a No result in May will liquidate the Coalition; and the Conservatives are working out concessions to give Clegg to stop that happening.

 Are the Liberal Democrats preparing to throw a suicidal tantrum? As I've blogged before, walking out of the Coalition just isn't a good idea - but that is seldom enough to stop any party's grassroots doing something they have their heart set on, and the signs are there that the Liberal Democrat left might be plotting to do something foolish. 

 First, lets look at Chris Huhne's attack on the anti-AV Conservatives. Before beginning, I should point out that I'm personally embarrassed by the anti-AV campaign so far, and if it continues in its present vein it is unlikely I will do anything more to support it than give it my vote in May. Instead of focusing on the fact that AV will give us more coalition governments, with all the backroom deals and excessive minor-party power that that implies, they have instead simply gone on a scaremongering rampage. There is no reason for a newborn baby to be on an AV poster, really. While you can make the case that in a time of economic stringency we shouldn't be spending millions on something like this, that isn't the argument of somebody convinced of the demerits of AV. If we beat it this time and it comes back during the boom years, what do we say then?

  However, public attacks on the Conservatives also make sense if Huhne is starting to stalk the leadership. In addition to boosting his media profile, it will fire up the party base and demonstrate that he hasn't had his 'head captured' by being in coalition. As the cuts continue to bite and the grassroots grow ever more restive, a Huhne leadership challenge could pose a real threat to Nick Clegg. Clegg certainly thinks so, as he's trying to find 'good news' to be associated with and - if the Telegraph is to be believed - even considering a wholesale rebranding of the party to try to re-establish its left-wing credentials (I'll get to that). However, I feel that he might have less to fear than he might think. 

 The risks of a Huhne leadership are obvious. Having your leader in a marginal seat is avoided because the risk of a humiliating decapitation is so great - and Eastleigh is nothing if not winnable by the Conservatives. Additionally, as I addressed at some length in my analysis of Vince Cable's 'nuclear option' comments, playing hardball with the Conservatives and risking the coalition - let alone withdrawing from it entirely - is to invite electoral decimation, not to mention the risk of permanently discrediting both the party and the concept of workable coalition government in the minds of an entire generation of voters. After all, the coalition agreement only included a referendum on AV - the LDs have no moral case for withdrawing if they lose the referendum. There is always the risk that the party grassroots won't realise this, but I can't help but feel that Huhne is probably politically savvy enough to realise the risks.

 Now, the rebranding. Honestly, I'm not convinced that Nick Clegg is that desperate or that shallow. Changing the party name will fool very few, and again probably risk alienating those voters the Liberal Democrats still have, the pro-Coalition ones. It's hard to even work out what name they'd choose. The most obvious is the Social Liberal Party, although the Electoral Commission might not permit it as I believe another party (that ended up being called the Social Liberalist Party) tried it at some point. The Social and Liberal Democrats? Uninspiring. The Social Democratic and Liberal Party? Has a nice ring, as long as it never plans to stand in Northern Ireland. Whether they like it or not, the party is currently bound up in being the Liberal Democrats. Even when making the transition from oblivion to electability, the Labour Party never changed its actual name. The Conservative Party only changed its name to Conservative & Unionist when it merged with the Unionist Party. Name changes in British politics are rare, and the memories of the electorate long. A change of logo and image could work, if handled well. Apparently Clegg is considering replacing the dove with a set of scales, to represent social justice. 

Works better than you'd think.
 In short, for all the hype about the crisis facing the coalition, I think its more durable than many suppose. Liberal Vision carry the under-reported statistic that polling indicates a majority of the country is still behind the coalition. In an unusual reversal of their usual positions, Simon Jenkins has taken a sensible line on the probable impact of Saturday's protest, leaving Nick Cohen to write the left-wing wishful thinking that its going to bring down the government. Both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaderships have shown themselves to be (on the whole) remarkably good at operating a coalition and keeping their back-benches in line. We just need to trust that the Liberal Democrat leadership can stay disciplined, united and not indulge dissentient fantasists amongst their grassroots...

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