Friday, April 23, 2010

Tory smear campaign - might they live to regret it?

The Conservative strategy, in public at least, of insisting that only a strong government with a clear majority can solve our nation's problems is not unexpected. After all, any political party would prefer a free hand rather than having to compromise. However, in the event that the British people don't give them it, is there a Plan B?

The key elements in forming any coalition are; sufficient agreement on policy, trust in your partner and, if possible, a set of personal relationships that are modestly cordial. Ask any council group that has been part of a ruling coalition, and they'll tell you that, once the trust has gone in particular, a coalition is doomed.

So, the news that Team Cameron is actively attempting to co-ordinate a campaign to smear both Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats looks like an attempt either to force the latter into the arms of the Labour Party, allowing them to claim that only they can rid the country of Gordon Brown, or a very inept attempt to intimidate us into joining them to make the pain go away.

This seems to me to be a dreadful misinterpretation of the reality. Conservatives do seem to assume that, in the event of a hung Parliament, Liberal Democrats would prefer a deal with Labour. I find myself wondering whether the visceral hatred of us as espoused by the more right-wing zealots of the Tory blogosphere, has blinded them to the fact that, in a number of places, we are in coalition with them.

My experience is perhaps a useful illustration. When I returned to active politics after a lengthy period on the sidelines, I became Chair of my Local Party in Dulwich & West Norwood, a constituency that straddles the London Boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark. In Lambeth, we were in formal coalition with the Conservatives, working to retrieve the appalling financial mess that years of Labour incompetence had created. In Southwark, we had a confidence and supply agreement with the Conservatives, allowing a minority Liberal Democrat administration to significantly reduce Council Tax in real terms whilst protecting key services. Both arrangements worked well, and we were able to find large areas of agreement.

In 2006, we were unable to resist a Labour onslaught in Lambeth, but in Southwark, the change in the balance of the parties meant that we had to form a formal coalition with the Conservatives. As a Local Party Chair, my opinion was sought, and I voted for a coalition because it was a far better option than allowing Labour to undo the good work that had been done.

In 2007, I moved to Brent, where we are, you guessed it, in coalition with the Conservatives. Again, from all reports it works pretty well. There, years of wild swings between the hard left and fairly unpleasant right had created a desire for something more consensual, and bringing together 27 Liberal Democrats with 15 Conservatives worked.

It is clear that, under Nick Clegg's leadership, we won't be intimidated, so in the extremely unlikely event that Conservative Central Office think that a smear campaign will help them in any coalition discussions that might follow, it represents an epic fail. But by demonstrating that they can't be trusted, they may be making a formal coalition extremely difficult.

The Tory-supporting press aren't helping either, with their accusations of 'Nazi slurs' and personal abuse. If there were to be talks after an inconclusive election, presumably they would support any move to remove Labour from government. How would they reconcile their call for a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition with their evident contempt for a man who would hold a central role in any such arrangement?

I'm still firmly behind the policy of campaigning for as many Liberal Democrat MPs as possible, and then seeing what happens in the event that no party has a clear mandate. Perhaps, in the back of their minds, the Conservatives, and their media friends, need to bear that in mind.

1 comment:

Shilpa Abrol said...

After all this, could it not be a plan? Pass the Liberal Democrats off as irresponsible for not falling into line, ie forming a formal coalition.

Not having a formal coalition works well for them too, no pesky yellows at the table.