This week's post veers quite heavily into supposition and cynicism. You have been warned.
It is a bad time to be a Liberal Democrat supporter. After the excitement leading up to the election ("I agree with Nick", anyone?) and the somewhat disappointing election results, there were mixed feelings as the results came in, and the Lib Dems had more votes, and fewer seats than before, but some felt they held the "balance of power" as they could choose which party to ally themselves with.*
At the time of the coalition the mood was one of cautious optimism. Some felt it would be a good time for the Lib Dems, as they keep the Tories from going too wild. Some felt the Lib Dems would end up being the Tory whipping boy.
And now the Lib Dems are losing members and losing voters as the public perception of "whipping boy" bites hard.
It's easy to see why. The major - ahem - "successes" - the Lib Dems gained were a meaningless referendum on AV**, a bill to massively increase the tuition fee cap, rather than remove it and a larger presence in the cabinet.
So, here's my N step plan to save the Liberal Democrats, and give them a fighting chance next election:
1. Publicly disagree with the Conservatives
I understand that this won't make you popular with the Tories, but it will make you more popular with voters. When you support their policies, make a point of why, and make sure we know what concessions the Tories made to get your support. That way we know that you're not just yes men and are actually participating in government, we know whether you're actually representing the views WE ELECTED YOU to represent.
I realise it might be important to you for the coalition to appear at ease, but we'd be much more comfortable about it if we could actually see the debate between Lib Dem and Tory viewpoints, and how they get synthesized.
Part of the problem here is that, with a Tory majority, most of what goes through appears Tory. When it appears that the Lib Dems are just smiling and nodding, that makes them look weak, and it is impossible to know what contribution you make (or wanted to make) to government.
2. Stop letting the public blame Nick Clegg for everything
There seems to be this thing Cameron does. Whenever something really unpopular happens, like passing a disastrous NHS bill, Cameron suddenly disappears for a while to let Clegg take the flack for it during Prime Minister's Questions and around the media. Nick Clegg, please fight back against this. Make the point that you argued against it, and make it known what concessions you achieved. Once in a while put your foot down - you probably should have over the NHS bill. When Cameron gets annoyed about it, point out he promised not to make any top-down reorganisations of the NHS. Too late now.
Part of this can be achieved via point 1. We want openness and fairness. We should blame the Tories for what the Tories do, because the Lib Dems probably have much less power than it appears. (Part of the reason lots of cabinet ministers are a "success" rather than a success - it doesn't actually affect the Lib Dems' real influence, just their apparent influence, and makes us expect more of than they can deliver with the seats they have. This is not their fault, but a clever move by Cameron, who holds the power.) We also want the Lib Dems to stand up for what we elected them for. Much of the blame comes from this sense of betrayal.
3. Drop Nick Clegg before the next election
This is probably the most cynical point on here. It's unfair to him. He went into a coalition as the clearly weaker party, and really has no proper response to Cameron's (obvious) rhetoric about being equals. To agree would be a lie, and to disagree would show too much weakness.
The answer is that the party needs a scapegoat for everything they "let" the Tories get away with. (Yes, they could block things, but in real terms they're in no position to force the Tories' hand.) Let the focus of this failing go to their most public person, and then drop him as someone who failed the party, because in all honestly, he probably has. His tacit support for Cameron has made the Lib Dems look weak, his inability to publicly stand up to Cameron has cost the party badly. The way he went about, talking about "difficult decisions" when he was the only Lib Dem in a University constituency not to oppose raising the cap on fees - he signed a sheet of paper promising not to vote in favour of such a bill under any circumstances while campaigning at The University of Sheffield - has destroyed may faith in his ability to do what he says he will do, to be open and honest with us about why he's done what he's done.
Drop him, and find someone with genuine charisma, someone who keeps their word and promise, and someone who is a good negotiator to lead the party into the next election, rather than another person who learnt charm from Tony Blair.
* They didn't really. A coalition with Labour was never on - it needed too much support from minor parties, and there were grave political differences.
** They wanted proportional representation. The AV vote, either way, was been a reason to further delay the move to PR. Either the system has recently been changed, or the public recently voted not to change.