The recent election must have been a major disappointment to the Liberal Democrats but that doesn’t matter because they have the ‘whip-hand’ in government formation. The party has ‘walk-away value’. If they don’t like a deal with the Conservatives they have other options (Labour & LibDems, with SDLP and Alliance brings you to 320). The Tories on the other hand don’t really have other palatable options other than a minority administration which Cameron has already indicated he doesn’t prefer. This makes the LibDems (despite their size) much stronger than any other party. This is akin to the position the Irish Labour party found itself in 1992, where Dick Spring could choose between the two larger parties both desperate for power.
But government is a difficult place for a party, particularly a small party. Parties in government (big and small) usually suffer electoral knocks from governing. Small parties are especially vulnerable. They tend to be more ideological and so the compromise of government is harder to take for them than for the larger, more pragmatic broad-church parties. And partly because of their size, this makes small parties are continually closer to extinction and so a small percentage point drop can be a large percentage drop.
But this isn’t always the case; some parties in government (big and small) achieve electoral gains from government. If we look at what differs between the ones who do well and the ones who do badly we can identify one major feature. The ones who achieve some major and clear policy achievement that has an immediate impact on voters and especially their own supporters can survive and even thrive. A good example is from here in Ireland. The Progressive Democrats, once a sister party of the Liberal Democrats, had tax reform (read tax cuts) as the main plank of their political agenda. This had a huge impact on people and crucially the party managed to be associated in the public mind with this policy. By contrast in the party’s 2002-2007 coalition with Fianna Fáil, the PDs didn’t have any clear, achievable policy priorities that it could push. Or at least it failed to achieve these, in part because, whereas in 1997 the PDs were crucial to the stability of the government, from 2002, Ahern could have conceivably governed without them.
The best case scenario for the LibDems might be to stay out of government and be free to oppose on any issue it chose to, but get electoral reform. But this is unlikely to be achieved. And even if they stay out of government in the form of a ‘supply-and-support’ pact, the LibDems will be associated with the government, and could still suffer.
They should go for full coalition – something Cameron is clearly offering. This would be more stable and ensure that the LibDems actually get into the policy making process. Remember constitutionally the cabinet makes the decisions, and if you are not there, you’ll find it hard to shape policy.
If I were Nick Clegg and had a relatively free hand within my party and trusted David Cameron I would consider these points;
1. Insist on at least five seats in cabinet. You need these numbers to have a useful input to cabinet discussions and influence on policies beyond those portfolios you hold.
2. Make sure you take a light workload portfolio (even minister without portfolio). But don’t look for symbolism like becoming Deputy Prime Minister. It’s just a title, you will have all the power of a deputy prime minister. There’s no need to rub it in the Tories faces by saying so. And don’t go to the Foreign Office – you’d be out of the country too often.
3. Try to get as many Tories with similar policy priorities into the right place in cabinet. Push for Ken Clarke in the Treasury (he’s politically close on most issues) and Cameron might be relieved of having someone to blame for not appointing the unconvincing George Osborne.
4. Be clear what your policy priorities are and get written commitments on these. You don’t need a very long document. Many coalitions work well with just a few points of principle set out explicitly. The more important factor is the working relationship between the party leaders, but if there are red-line issues then get them on paper. Lots of coalition governments have 30,000-word documents, but very often these are just PR documents that confuse aspiration for policy and slogans for ideology. In the current situation and quick government is more important.
5. Don’t push for policies that cannot be delivered. So accept a guaranteed referendum on Alternative Vote. It’s more likely to pass and in fact will benefit the LibDems more that you think (it is STV with single seats).
6. Be aware of Cameron’s needs. If you push them on issues you know will be very hard to deliver it will upset the relationship between the leaders and increase tension between the parties. Make compromises that aren’t really compromises. Allowing that there are no major shifts in power to Europe is not really a compromise (most pro-Europeans probably think it’s more important to get the current system working rather than try to push for new powers) but it will allow Cameron to claim he’s extracted a major concession. But the LibDems can, if they are in government, change the rhetoric the Tories use about Europe.
7. Conversely make sure there is some degree of tension in government and that there are clear policy areas that you are getting your way. Make sure these are policies that affect voters’ lives – so the tax exemption of the first £10,000 seems like a good one.
8. Quietly drop policies that weren’t that popular. The policies on immigration and Trident were sensible, but were unpopular with voters who were fed idiotic lines from other political leasers and the press. Despite the good arguments in favour of them, just forget about those policies.
Finally, the party will be getting a lot of attention; don’t look like you are enjoying it too much! Serious statesman plays better than wheeler-dealer.