Piotr Brzezinski: Concessions for Clegg won’t save the Lib Dems
Piotr Brzezinski is a former McKinsey consultant and Conservative Party policy unit analyst
Dear, oh dear. Last night was not kind to the Liberal Democrats, and it looks like the AV referendum will deliver a resounding defeat as well. No amount of spinning or "stabbed in the back" myth-making will ease the pain snatching defeat from the jaws of victory - going from a 30 point Yes campaign lead to a projected double-digit defeat will be a bitter pill to swallow.
Surveying the wreckage, the Lib Dems will no doubt go through a bout of introspection, back-biting and pointless leadership speculation. But no amount of policy give-aways from the Conservatives can address their fundamental problem: the Lib Dems haven’t set out a clear, distinct worldview or ideology.
Both the Labour and the Conservative parties, at their core, can answer Lenin’s ‘kto, kogo’ question – roughly translated, "who is screwing whom?" When it comes to a zero-sum policy, a clash of interests, both parties can ask themselves "whom does this help; whom does it hurt?" and identify the side that they represent.
Of course, we don’t live in a binary world but such quasi-Marxist clashes of interest still matter. David Cameron’s One Nation approach has muddied the waters a bit - to the resentment of many grassroots activists - but ultimately the Conservative Party has a sense of self and whom it represents.
Lib Dem activists’ yearning for a more intra-coalition tiffs reflects the fact that the even they don’t see clearly what or whom the party represents. This problem can’t be resolved by creating artificial coalition conflict; it requires that the party to identify and articulate a policy agenda and constituency distinct from both Labour and the Conservatives. Like the Tin Man, the Lib Dems need to find a heart.
This challenge can’t be underestimated. There are all sorts of niche agendas and interest groups – from libertarian to greens and socialists – but the difficulty is finding a large enough bloc for sustained electoral success in a non-proportional system.
Born from a shotgun wedding between two distinct parties, the Lib Dems have been a party of electoral calculation and intellectual inconsistency from the start. In opposition the Lib Dems could artificially stitch together such divergent viewpoints but in government they need to fashion a reasonably consistent philosophy that appeals to wide number of people.
The Lib Dems have many talented MPs – it’s hard to imagine the Conservatives would be as well served if they only had 57 MPs to choose from – but these are serious underlying problems that go well beyond their losses on 5 May. The Lib Dems need to become more than a vehicle for winning elections; they need a meaningful, distinct political constituency and agenda. Nick Clegg’s ability to set out that vision will determine the party’s fortunes over the coming years, not any post-referendum concessions or intra-coalition fireworks.