I can’t quite remember who it was that said “all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing”, and I’m sure it was about something weightier than post-electoral horse-trading, but the quote popped into my mind this morning as I contemplated the possibility of the Lib Dems allowing the Tories to pass legislation by agreeing to abstain on it.
Perhaps the most important Lib Dem political tactic in recent times – one they have turned into an art form in the last decade – is that of preserving deniability. Among other things, it stops candidates being accountable for unpopular actions. We’ve seen it in many forms over the years – a steadfast refusal of Lib Dem HQ to call out local candidates running against the party line, for example. It has even led to the Libs turning down perfectly viable opportunities to enter possible coalitions in Scotland and Wales. Whilst the commentating classes think the Lib Dems a driven by the possibility of commanding power, in practice they may often prefer to stay at some distance from power in order to avoid being pinned down.
Now we hear being discussed a version of this tactic writ large. It is that the Lib Dems would cooperate with the Conservatives in the implementation of their policies, but would do so through tactical abstentions. This would simultaneously allow them to extract concessions from the Conservatives, while denying responsibility for any unpopular outcomes.
I’ve got to be honest, this doesn’t sound like the new politics. It sounds very much like the old politics, but just a bit less honest.
Let’s put aside for the moment that, for many progressive voters who voted Lib Dem on the grounds that they believed them to be a progressive party, a Lib-Tory coalition would be an outrage. (It certainly makes a mockery of the rather sanctimonious commentaries we have had in the liberal broadsheets, casting the Lib Dems as somehow more progressive than the Labour Party.) For many voters who believed Nick Clegg when he toured the country claiming to be the party of fairness, falling in with the Tories would be a betrayal.
The real point to make in advance of any coalition talks is this: the Lib Dems should not entertain the idea that they can be part of a de facto coalition-by-abstention with the Conservatives whilst avoiding political fallout from the resulting Conservative actions. If they are tempted down this route, I suspect the Labour Party, together with many progressives up and down the country, would work very hard to ensure the Lib Dems paid a heavy political price for such behaviour amongst voters on the centre-left.