Poor Lib Dems. It all seemed so exciting and new when the Coalition was formed… then they increased Tuition Fees to £9,000. In a stroke they lost the nearest thing to a natural constituency they had – namely students – and left everyone else not quite able to shake the idea that Lib Dems are untrustworthy mercenaries interested only in the fortunes and successes of the Liberal Democrat Party itself.
Is that unfair? Well, yes, up to a point. There’s only one real policy that the Lib Dems as a whole care about, that’s not open to negotiation, and that’s Proportional Representation – which, sadly, reinforces the idea that all Lib Dems really care about is the fortune and success of the Liberal Democrat Party.
Still, because of this, the one non-negotiable concession they wanted from the Conservatives was the referendum on electoral reform, in this case on AV (which, just possibly, might lead to another Coalition and a further referendum for PR). It was a classic example of short term tactical thinking triumphing over long term strategic thinking.
What astonishes me is why anyone imagined that any referendum put forward by the Lib Dems so soon into the life of the Coalition would ever be supported by the public. We all know the circumstances that led to the referendum, and we all know that the Lib Dems desperately want it to succeed. It’s my belief that no matter the question, people would always have voted against the Lib Dems out of spite. Labour and Tory alike, the Lib Dems aren’t where they should be and their wrath will not be easily diminished. If the Lib Dems said that food was good, people would stop eating.
The Lib Dems had one strategic objective going into the Coalition, and that was to prove to everyone how trustworthy and competent they were, how their ideas when put into practice delivered real benefits and improved people’s lives. They blew it, instantly, and for what? A shoddy referendum for a pointless reform. Without trust, politicians are nothing.
If they’d been willing to go into Coalition without the referendum promise then people might – just might – have been willing to believe that they went into the partnership in the national interest rather than their own. If they’d successfully established themselves as trustworthy and competent then maybe, just maybe, the next time they were in Coalition people would see it as a good thing and look more kindly on their efforts at reform.
Yet this whole strategy of reforming Britain’s electoral system by exploiting hung parliaments looks as squalid and desperate as it ever did. This is a party that has long since abandoned any ideas it might have of winning an election in its own right and has instead taken a path which the voters, quite rightly, resent and object to.
If they want PR, they need to win a bloody general election. That’s all there is to it.