LONDON – As I am nearing the end of my time here in Parliament, I thought it fitting to reflect on the state of the coalition thus far. In an astute article for The Economist – aptly titled ‘The Liberal Democrats dig in for three years of pain’ – the new Bagehot columnist pointed out that Britain’s third party has been the biggest target for coalition critics. In debates, I rarely hear Labour members criticizing Conservatives; instead, they insult and pressure Liberal Democrats, urging them to see the error of their ways. Labour has vilified the LibDems, portraying them as unprincipled and power-hungry politicians.
Paradoxically, however, Bagehot argues that Labour’s vilification of Liberal Democrats is neither productive nor strategic:
[One] Tory notes that his Lib Dem colleagues are “taking much more flak than we are” from the press and the Labour party, when it comes to cuts. The same Conservative argues that the coalition is strengthened not weakened by this asymmetric pounding. Labour were behaving as if the LibDems belonged to them, he suggested, and the LibDems have noticed this. Labour’s rage was rather inept, he felt: it would be more clever for Labour to criticise the LibDems more in sorrow than in anger.
He’s right. It is common sense: if you want someone to join forces with you, you should court – not snub – them. Labour’s strategy has united the coalition because it has unwittingly transformed Labour into the common enemy of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Working in a Liberal Democrat office and having heard countless Labour MPs attack Liberal Democrats, I feel much more sympathetic towards the Conservatives than I do Labour, and I suspect my colleagues feel the same.
Yet Labour may end up on top in the end. Liberal Democrats and Conservatives appear to agree that much hinges on the state of the economy over the next five years. Should cuts and austerity lead to a deeper recession, both parties will suffer hard losses in the next election. On the other hand, if austerity leads to growth and balances the budget, voters may yet forgive them. Concerns over the economy, Bagehot notes, may even strengthen the coalition, as both parties have a common stake in the next five years.
But again, Liberal Democrats – whose electorate will be among the hardest hit by public spending cuts – appear to have the most to lose. Disgruntled voters may not forget, as one letter to my office put it, that they “voted Lib Dem but got Tories instead.” Liberal Democrats must rely on forgiving voters to realize that coalition requires compromise, and no compromise comes without tough trade-offs.