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.

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  • Our red lines: we oppose

    Any continuation of drastic and harmful cuts meant to cut the deficit, including cuts to local authorities’ budgets which have already been cut disproportionately

    Any weakening of measures to combat climate change;

    Any steps which would make leaving the EU more likely;

    Any raising of VAT;

    Any further measures to force the privatisation of public services, including the NHS.
  • Supporting a government does not necessarily mean entering a coalition or engaging to support everything they propose. If our broad support was needed for someone else to form a government, we would still have room for negotiation.

    I do agree strongly with Gordon Lishman that there is a real danger of us appearing to be hungry to hang on to office at all costs – and that’s an issue for the election campaign as well as what happens after.
  • I do not see this as an issue of the red lines upon which Lib Dems would or would not enter coalition. Frankly there are no circumstances in which entering a coalition would be good for this party. Entering another coalition with the Tories has a high risk of destroying the party, and a coalition with Labour though slightly lower risk would almost certainly further erode the party’s popular support over the course of a Parliament. A return in 2020 to a Liberal rump of 12-20 MPs is not just bad for the party but bad for the country and in the long term returns us to the very 2 party duopoly which we have campaigned to overcome. If somebody’s offering immediate PR in Westminster elections, I could be persuaded to change my mind! But think Hell will freeze over first.
    We need to take time out to rebuild popular support outside our strongholds then GAIN seats.
  • I don’t think even with “various boils lanced” we’ll get people to forget some of our failing quickly, but the recovery must start as soon as the election is over. I agree with David about the likely result except that I fear a better Tory result than the polls now show. If Tories plus us would again make a majority but Labour could govern with a degree of support from the SNP and us, we should not posture that we have a duty to support the Tories to stop the government being held to ransom by the SNP. We could still vote down any unreasonable SNP demands damaging the rest of the U.K. and since we campaigned successfully to preserve the union, Scottish SNP voters and MPs have as much right to a say in the policies of the UK government as anyone. In fact showing they can have real influence would be a strong argument against separation.

    As for red lines, I agree about STV in local elections. A red line for me would be to block any weakening of climate change reduction measures. Another would be to block further reductions in benefits (not necessarily in expenditure on benefits, as that might be achieved by efficiency savings). A third would be that in the next parliament, local government funding will no longer be reduced faster than central government expenditure.
  • Well said, David. Particularly the last paragraph. Perhaps any coalition agreement should have a preamble of principle which would serve as a test for any future policy options – it was something I fought for on the Equalities Act to act as a test for the application of the principles. (as I recall, the idea came from a colleague, Andy Harrop, who now runs the Fabian Society).
    I agree with John that a minority government is a likely option and probably the best for the time being. I would prefer to be seen coming in to rescue a government in the interests of the country and to save it from SNP/UKIP blackmail rather than continuing to look too hungry for office. That will mean making sure between now and the end of any negotiations that it is an option firmly in the minds of our negotiators and their consultees.
    I agree strongly with David about welfare. Given the views expressed by Rachel Reeves, I am convinced that her control of the DWP would be a dangerous option – perhaps a job for Steve Webb if it comes to it. With Labour, we would also need to be clear about Trident and civil liberty.
    With the Tories, the biggest danger is the EU referendum argument. I guess they would be unlikely to get it through without our support which is a strong case (along with their cuts policy) for leaving these things to a vote of Parliament.
  • I think something positive the Lib Dems could be associated with is cleaning up public life. That means electing the Lords, public financing of electoral politics, lobbying reform and sorting out expenses once and for all. The rhetoric of an outsider force even when within government is useful politically too.
  • I have been rather sorry that we have not been clearer to the electorate about our red lines. Whilst it may be unwise to reveal our hand completely before going into negotiations, nevertheless the voters are making their minds up on the basis of those policies that we will not budge on, and we need to tell them what they are.

    For me, the priority is to ensure that any decisions on the economy should be subjected to an impact assessment, and that we will not agree to any proposals that would make life more difficult for the poor, the disabled and the vulnerable.
  • David, I agree that both of the two larger parties would try the option of a minority government first but it could well come unstuck within months, which is why having a publicly declared position covering many of the suggestions you include in your article would be a constructive way forward for the party. I foresee a minority government slithering towards a stalemate in which nothing gets through the Commons making a more formal agreement with a smaller party strategically necessary. If we have done our homework and put together a set of proposals which the general public find reasonable, then we could be seen as the saviours of democratic government, rather than power-hungry traitors to our cause, as last time.

    Much needs to be made by our party leaders that a Government formed from around 35% of the votes cast (irrespective of the number of MPs) simply cannot claim a mandate to govern. Even if that means they achieve a wafer-thin majority that would not be a fair result given the numbers who will be voting for us, the nationalist parties , the Greens and UKIP. The SLF news to be in a position to force the tactics for a declared negotiating position at the Bournemouth conference. That is one I will not be missing…
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    Supporting the next government - Red Lines for Social Liberals