How short our memories are for some things, and how long for others! The Liberal Democrats have been utterly vilified and pilloried for their U-turn on tuition fees, which they made under the pressure of being part of a Coalition, where their partners viewed the matter quite differently – and they have acknowledged their mistake. But on many many things, as has emerged in this election campaign, they vetoed policies that would have been socially damaging. They also carried the day on raising the income tax threshold to £10,000 (you may remember that this was a 2010 election pledge and predated the Coalition itself. Indeed, they won the argument on this so effectively that the Conservatives have made high income tax thresholds one of their keynote policies, thus neatly pulling the carpet from under their erstwhile Coalition partners. In fact, one would have thought their contribution to a successful first Coalition government under our new Five Year Parliament rules would have been met with approbation and rising polls. Instead, most unfairly, it seems that they are being blamed for failures and mistakes made by the Coalition, without any credit being given to them for its successes, many of which were in fact Liberal Democrat policies in the first place, taken on board by David Cameron as part of the deal back in 2010. How can this have happened? Unfortunately no one (not even my good self!) seems to know.
But one thing it does indicate is how desperately soundbite/kneejerk/unthinking our democracy has become. We cannot be certain (though perhaps we never could) that people will make up their minds on the basis of an calm and careful analysis of what the Coalition has done and what the separate parties might do if elected. The campaign has shown us that. Only the Greens have suggested we ‘vote with your heart’. The rest have appealed to self-interest and demonised their opponents, as they so often do. Campaigns are designed to hit the electors where it will really stir them, viscerally, into changing their minds. And what have we had? Persistent fearmongering about the possible part the SNP might play in a Coalition, and appeals to the basest of national self-interests in UKIP’s demands for a walk-out from the European Union and the main parties’ promises to put curbs on immigration, even though we all know (and party leaders have stated it) that this country’s prosperity over the centuries has been based on the work, loyalty and commitment of immigrants. (The rules as they stand make no sense anyway – a young friend of ours, who has been working in the US, and is married to an American wife, has to earn above a certain threshold before she will be allowed to join him here, now that he has taken a job in Britain. There has been no question of their applying for state support – and she is well qualified and can work for her own living, but her income is not taken into account.) On this only the Liberal Democrats have sounded a note of sanity – let them come, but let them earn the right to benefits, which should not be immediate or automatic. That seems fair – we cannot as a country support everyone from other parts of Europe or the world financially. But we can offer a haven for asylum-seekers (it is a scandal that they are locked up like criminals), and we can allow people to come and work here if they have a job and income lined up and are proposing to contribute to our economy via taxes and National Insurance payments.
Nick Clegg has made the excellent point that the Liberal Democrats do not expect to win outright (there was a time, in 2010, when for a brief moment we actually wondered whether they might be able to, at the height of Cleggmania), but that they are the best option to keep a minority Conservative or Labour government from flying Rightwards or Leftwards. For this alone they would be worth voting for where they have a realistic chance of winning.
We have an excellent local MP here, a sitting Lib Dem candidate who deserves everyone’s vote for the hard work he has put in over the last ten years. I shall certainly be voting for him, and hoping that the old British idea of fair play will come back into its own. If anyone has deserved some plaudits and a second go at Coalition, it’s the Liberal Democrats.