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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.

By contrast what do the Lib Dems stand for? Equally importantly, whom do they represent? They have hundreds of policies, but no overarching philosophy beyond vague internationalist humanism. There’s simply no consistent, positive definition of what it means to be a Lib Dem. To most observers, the party defined in negative - like the Conservatives, but less euro-phobic; like Labour, but more pro-civil liberties.

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.


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