- Rt Hon Simon Hughes MP, Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats
- Martin Kettle, The Guardian
- Ben Page, Chief Executive, Ipsos MORI
Coleridge famously opined that history "and the light which experience gives is a lantern on the stern, which shines only on the waves behind us!", the future being the dark into which the ship sails with little or nothing to be done to illuminate it. This metaphor was helpfully raised by the Guardian's Martin Kettle at a joint CentreForum-Lib Dems in PR event on 'How to be an effective junior member of a coalition'. The evening started with a psephological deluge from Ben Page of Ipsos MORI, highlighting the plummeting popularity of Nick Clegg (the worst ever recorded rating of a Lib Dem leader at -32 per cent) and the marginalisation of the junior coalition partner in the public eye (with only 25 per cent of those polled thinking that the party had a meaningful role in the coalition in April 2011, compared with 41 per cent in June 2010).
Mr Page’s message was stark: being in government has been detrimental to the Lib Dems' public image and there is a need for the party to differentiate themselves within the coalition so that they didn’t lose out to their senior partner at the next election. If a snap election were to be held now (unlikely given the commitment to fixed term parliaments), the data indicates that the Tories would probably survive, but at the expense of the Liberal Democrats. His argument is certainly supported by academic opinion on the subject of coalitions in politics, which suggests that most electoral redistribution takes place between coalition partners, rather than between the government and opposition. In the words of Mark Oaten: "coalitions are always disastrous for the smaller party. It gets swallowed up, blamed for the failures, and only rarely credited for the successes, and then not nearly enough."
Nevertheless, Simon Hughes MP was able to provide some reasons to be cheerful, noting monthly opinion poll ratings from the point of the 2010 election to the present. Even after the buffetings from tuition fees and the NHS, Lib Dem approval sits at ten per cent, near the top of the range over those months. He also noted that the party was able to play a key role in policy making, with ministers across almost every ministry, including (most importantly) in the Treasury, something that clearly came across with the policies to raise personal tax allowances in the recent budget. Furthermore, with possible future balanced parliaments, the time spent in government has lent the party a credibility it would never have achieved if it had stayed in principled opposition.
This is not to say that there are no lessons to be learnt. Both Simon Hughes and Martin Kettle stressed that differentiation was key and that the party had to associate itself with policies that are distinctively liberal and then, most importantly, deliver on them. However, the party clearly has everything to play for, especially in an age where public opinion is so volatile. Mr Hughes stressed that the party had to create an image of being more competent than Labour, but fairer than the Conservatives. Mr Kettle also quoted Gus O’Donnell, "Do not assume that the future is a reflection of the past". It captured the spirit of the evening.
Report by Chris Bond
Click here to watch YouTube video of Ben Page's presentation.