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Ever Closer Union?

December 1st, 2011 Posted in Economics, Liberal Democrats, Policy, UK Politics by

The Liberal Democrat leadership had intended to fight the next general election on the basis that they had taken tough decisions and those decisions had paid off. The view was that by 2013 the economy would have turned around and voters who were angry with the party would forgive them by 2015.

After the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement it looks as though this strategy is no longer tenable. Danny Alexander made clear on Newsnight that he believes the party will go into the election arguing for more cuts to public expenditure in order to deal with a structural deficit that will not have been entirely dealt with. This is because in government, the party is committed to the plan set out by the Conservative Chancellor, George Osborne.

It is true that Ed Miliband has said that the Labour party needs to think hard about how it can deliver its social justice agenda while dealing with a difficult economic situation. If the leader of the opposition is making the case for continued cuts, it is not surprising that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury is too.

However, Alexander’s statement has already caused concern for some in the party.

That is not surprising given that Alexander’s comments have profound implications for the party.

If the good times had arrived by 2015, it might have been easier for the Liberal Democrats to distance themselves from their coalition partners. Now they will enter the election standing on a record of austerity with more austerity to come. The party will say that things would have been worse if the country had had a majority Conservative government. Whether the voters will make that distinction is open to question. Both parties will not only sound awfully similar as they fight for every vote they can get they will, apparently, be fighting on the same policy regarding cuts.

By now, the reader will have realised that this post is not about the ever closer union of Europe.

The fate of the Liberal Democrats will depend on the electorate’s verdict. It will be very difficult for the party to enter into coalition with Labour given the current political atmosphere. For those in the party who wold prefer that outcome, they need either Labour or the Conservatives to win outright and for the Lib Dems to have time to regroup and develop a different political agenda that will differentiate the party from its years in power. Then they need another election that produces a hung parliament.

If the 2015 result leads to five more years of a blue and yellow administration the parties will start to be seen as natural allies.

The upside of all this is that the party continues to govern and implement its policies. The downside is that it could lose its identity. The electoral consequences would then be bleak.

Assuming Lib Dem members would rather see the party carry on governing but not lose their identity in an ever closer union with the Conservatives, they need to ensure that the party offers a set of clear liberal policies. If people understand what the party stands for, that it is implementing some of these policies in government and that its vision for the future is consistent with the past, the party will stand a better chance of electoral success.

Crucially, it needs to be positive in government while being separate. It can’t appear as simply complaining about the Tories. It has to work with them in order to ensure its policies are successful.

It is not going to be easy. The public are rightly worried about the economy and what will happen in the next few years. Being in government is a great responsibility. A wrong decision can impact on many people. The party will need to think long and hard about the policies it puts forward.

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