One of the tragedies of the last Election and the coming of the coalition has been the way the LibDems have felt it necessary to stand by every government policy even if it wasn’t in the coalition agreement and even if it totally contradicted what the Party said before.
So previously decent people like Andrew Stunell, who took on a Ministerial role at Communities and Local Government, and Steve Webb, who did the same at Work and Pensions, have frequently had to defend the indefensible. Sometimes, it must be said, they have done it with the fervour of converts.
Collective responsibility in government makes it inevitable that people argue for, and support in public, policies that they privately disagree with – you only have to read any political diary to see this happen again and again. With a coalition you would expect people to show more consistency with their previous statements in opposition, and for more disagreement on policy to be expressed publicly. That surely is the only way that the junior partner in a coalition can preserve their separate identity and their integrity.
The conventional wisdom is that the local Election results in England tell us that the electorate has punished the LibDems for breaking promises made at the Election. I think the electorate are also saying that if we are going to vote for Tory policies we might as well vote for the real deal and not the pretend ones. That’s why a share of the LibDem vote seems to have gone Tory, bolstering their position.
The LibDems are the human shield, but the Tories are still the real enemy. A collapse in the LibDem vote will not help Labour to win the next Election, especially if a lot of LibDem voters get a taste for voting Tory instead.
Realistically, the LibDems are stuck with the coalition but they can and should assert their own identity more vigorously and contradict the Tories more openly. That’s where housing comes in.
It was depressing to watch LibDem members voting with the Tory Whip on the Bill Committees looking at both the CLG’s Localism Bill and DWP’s Welfare Reform Bill. If they had combined with Labour on specific amendments, they could have forced a rethink on some of the crazier and more damaging policies – policies that were not in the LibDem Manifesto or the coalition agreement.
If those opportunities have now passed, there will be others in future. It would do the LibDems a lot of good to rebel against items in the Welfare Reform Bill such as the total benefit cap, the underoccupation penalty, the linking of housing benefit to CPI rather than RPI and so on. When the Localism Bill goes through its next stages, LibDems could vote against 2 year tenancies and 80% market rents and they could tell the government that they will vote against the Bill as a whole unless funding is switched into social rented housing rather than the So-Called Affordable Rent product. None of these actions would bring the coalition down but they would in my view force the government to backtrack on some of their more unpleasant policies. And the LibDems might get some credit, even on Red Brick.
I suspect secretly many LibDems would quite like the chance to stick two fingers up to Pickles and Shapps and to Duncan Smith, the real villains. But in the cold light of the election results, such enjoyment may also the only route back to a respectable share of the vote.