In the most uncertain election for decades, only two things can be predicted with much confidence: Barring a major slip-up (or breakthrough) during the campaign by Ed Miliband, there will be no overall majority; and Liberal Democrat representation in the House of Commons will be significantly reduced. However, it is also likely that the party will do better than the public expects, for three reasons. First, public expectation is ill-informed. Plenty of intelligent people think a Lib Dem meltdown would leave them with only a handful of MPs. Similarly, talk of a UKIP (or Green) surge has led people to believe they’ll have 20-30 seats in the next parliament. In reality, the reverse is more likely. Second, low expectations for the Lib Dems have been accentuated by the media’s limited comprehension of polling data – and particularly of the long-standing lack of correlation between uniform swings and Liberal Democrat seat losses (or gains).
In addition, even the most precise, seat-specific polls may be skewed. In the past (especially in the 90s and 00s), it was so common for Tory voters not to want to admit their persuasion in public, that pollsters adjusted their figures to allow for it. At the very least, it could be assumed that a high proportion of “Don’t knows” were closet conservatives. What no-one can tell is how many probable Lib Dem voters are too embarrassed to say so this time. It is just possible that current polling underestimates the Lib Dem vote as much as it has always done before election campaigns start. Whereas in the past, that was because the party benefited from more coverage during the campaign, in 2015 it may ironically be because less attention is paid to the party in general – and in particular to mistakes made in the first years of coalition government.
While it would be clutching at the saddest of straws to expect the tainting of the Lib Dem brand to help retain large numbers of seats, it is not entirely wishful thinking to suggest that public disillusion with the party is wide but shallow. In the event of hung parliament negotiations, in which the Lib Dem position is perceived to be less bad than it might have been – and in which other smaller parties’ success is seen, in various ways, as a threat, it is possible that the Lib Dems will have a brief opportunity backed by a modicum of goodwill – or at least by an ironic kind of positive momentum. With various boils lanced, the toxins may run away quickly. Even as surviving MPs lick their wounds, there will be a chance to rebuild the image of the party as both responsible and progressive.
That opportunity will come during coalition negotiations. Of course it is possible that Liberal Democrats will not be invited in – either because another combination of parties is sufficient and seen as desirable, or because Labour or the Conservatives choose to try and form a minority government. But, even in those circumstances – and certainly if they do enter talks – Lib Dems need to be clear about what they will and will not accept. Negotiations have to be private to a large extent, but the public will not tolerate any party seeming to be driving backroom deals in their own self-interest. For the Liberal Democrats, there will be a specific need to demonstrate that they are not willing to sacrifice everything just to get back into power, having been accused, fairly or otherwise, of doing so in 2010. Joining a government that is not progressive, moderate or responsible will harm the party irreparably. Refusing to participate in one that is also runs the risk of making Liberal Democrats irrelevant.
So what should Lib Dems insist on, in order to ensure that the next government, the economy and society are indeed both fairer and stronger than the current one? Which elements of the – still-unpublished – manifesto must Liberal Democrats insist on in a new coalition agreement? And which of these are so critical that even confidence and supply would not be considered if the majority party do not accept them? Social liberals – both within and beyond the party – need to see a clear set of double red lines.
The right balance needs to be struck between long-standing liberal goals and realpolitik. Some element of electoral reform will be essential. It would be fantastic if negotiations threw up the opportunity to change the methods of selection for members of the Houses of Lords and/or Commons, but STV for local elections, combined with real bottom-up opportunities for devolution (including significantly increased local, regional and national tax-raising powers) would be a strong result.
Conversely, there are some excellent, liberal components of the current campaign – for example on proper investment in mental health, on shared parental leave and on developing the green economy – that other parties would find it hard to argue against in the context of negotiations. All of these ought to be delivered by the Lib Dem negotiating team before the serious business starts.
Individual freedom must be seen to be front and centre of what Liberal Democrats stand for. Any increase in surveillance must remain a red line, along with undue restrictions on movement. Lib Dems cannot be seen to stomach restrictions on people’s liberty without due process – or to connive in attacks on people’s right to be heard. More positively, further steps to reduce stigma, discrimination and under-representation for all minorities need to be set out clearly as a liberal thread in the next government in which Lib Dems participate.
That leaves the biggest issue of all: Economic policy. Social Liberals would like to see an end to the misleading narrative of crisis that prioritises deficit-reduction over productive investment. Continued investment in small, green, regional businesses is essential (it is after all the main reason why economic figures are now improving). But the key red lines will concern the Liberal Democrat approach to cuts to services and welfare. Most members of the Social Liberal Forum do not accept that all cuts of the last five years have been necessary – and still less wise. We cannot reasonably expect current cabinet ministers to renounce them now , but they can – and must –draw a line. It is perfectly consistent to say that Liberal Democrats accepted the need for some cuts but that now is the time to rebalance.
Liberalism is a philosophy that believes in treating everyone fairly, with respect and enabling (actively, not just by preventing the state from nannying them) people to get on in life. No Liberal Democrat government can be seen to be supporting unfair, hostile measures that hamper people’s abilities to achieve their own goals. If Liberal Democrat negotiators let the public know that they will only participate in, or support, a government that stands up for people, it will be the beginning of the long road to the recovery of the party’s fortunes.