On Wednesday it was reported that the Lib Dems are discussing a offering a lowering of tuition fees in their manifesto for 2015.
Now I don’t think much of the Lib Dems senior Comms and Strategy team. But even I don’t think they’ll allow themselves to enter their next election – and subject their 57 by election strategy – to that level of sustained ridicule. Like the Terminator, it absolutely WILL NOT STOP until they are politically dead (my guess is an approximate halving of their MPs to around 25). The Lib Dem air war is going to be hard enough. Their leader and Parliamentary party are a punchline, they broke promises and continue to behave in an incredibly excluding and superior manner to a large proportion of their former electorate. They are behaving not as a party, but as a faction. It is only the fact that – cult like – the members don’t protest as they are spooned the Kool Aid of electoral cyanide that stops them looking like Labour in the 80s. In this case- quite the opposite from those ghastly days – it might have been disunity that could have saved them.
So why aren’t more Lib Dems challenging the strategy and positioning of their leaders? My sense is that the reasons are two fold. Firstly, some – but not all – of the left Lib Dems have melted away. Leaving those still fighting that fight even further marginalised by the Orange Book leadership.
But more is the fact that Lib Dem members still cling precariously to their misguided belief in their Party’s “internal democracy”. In a polite but no-holds-barred exchange with my good friend and co-host of House of CommentsPodcast Mark Thompson We discussed the relative merits of our Parties internal policy making processes. The exchange took place before the Lib Dems Spring Conference and the fallout of the failure of their Party to follow the lead delegates gave then over the disastrous NHS Bill. You may notice that in that exchange I predict that Lords reform would fail. The current issue their leadership is in the process of ignoring members on is Secret Courts – my cynicism about their processes being robust enough to survive either government or coalition was clearly very well founded.
Yet they still cling to this notion and image of themselves like faithful believers. Which is why tuition fees are back in the headlines. The members wear their size and relative strength in government like a comfort blanket. “Of course we can’t have everything” they say, “we only have 57 MPs in the Government”. That won’t be true of the next manifesto. That can be – must be – 100% Lib Dem. No Big Bad Tories to hide behind here. What’s in or out is wholly up to the membership and the leadership.
So if the membership opt to support a promise – any promise – on Tuition Fees, Clegg will have to decide. Does it go in the manifesto – making them a laughing stock – or not – marking the final disappointment for those Member who still believe they have an internal democracy?
How many more disgruntled activists can Clegg afford to lose? How much does he want to avoid being an electoral punchline? Ground war or air war? Either way, one will be dented. The choice, when it comes, will be fascinating to watch.