We'll see this coalition through and still win seats
By Nick Harvey Liberal Democrat MP for North Devon, dismisses claims that his party’s days are numbered.
Liberal Democrat MP for North Devon, dismisses claims that his party's days are numbered
The outcome of the Eastleigh by-election should have shown commentators and political opponents alike that the Liberal Democrats are not going to roll over and cave in. Rumours of our political death have been greatly exaggerated; dances on our graves premature.
At the last election we polled almost 24% of the national vote and secured 57 seats. But in 1997 we secured only 16% of the vote yet still won 46 seats. Though I accept that we are likely to get a smaller share of the national vote in 2015 than we did in 2010, it simply does not follow that we will lose seats correspondingly.
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Eastleigh showed that where we have a good record of delivering for local people, we are resilient enough to hold seats. And there is no reason why we cannot repeat that in our other strongholds up and down the country. If some of our popular vote does peel off it will probably go – for the main part – to Labour. But most of this vote will be in seats where we are neither the incumbents nor strong challengers; essentially in the Tory-Labour marginals.
So the brighter Tories are waking up to the reality that any shift in the popular vote from the Lib Dems towards Labour will in fact do the Tories more harm than it will do the Lib Dems, and there might be some sense in behaving in a more collegial way towards us. The more stupid ones, by contrast, persist in seeing us as the problem rather than – for now – their salvation.
We have not lost our identity in the coalition. Labour hacks will of course try to portray us as crypto-Tories, but no sensible person really believes that. People can see that our priorities and those of our Tory colleagues are different – nowhere more so than on welfare and taxation.
But the coalition was established on the key foundation of trying to tackle the enormous deficit we inherited from Labour – bigger as a proportion of national income than those in Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece or Spain. This has involved having to introduce some perfectly ghastly measures, none more painful than the student fees issue.
But for all the hyperbole about the savagery of cuts, at the end of the entire austerity era the size of "the State" will only be back to where it was ten years ago, when Tony Blair was proclaiming an economic miracle and a permanent end to "boom and bust". Nor will deficit reduction have gone any further than Labour promised at the last election – without the faintest idea how it was going to achieve it or what pain would be entailed.
There are two years left of this Parliament. The coalition was a five-year deal. We have made our bed and we will lie in it. We will see the commitment through to the end. Talk of disengagement strategies – stomping out of the coalition six months from the end on some artificial pretext or other – is childish absurdity. The public is not going to press the reset button and forget the previous four years.
We will stand or fall on what we have been able to achieve. We will point to our great success in delivering our centrepiece policy from 2010 of raising the tax threshold to £10,000 and taking millions of low earners out of income tax. We will point to record raises in pensions. We will point to Pupil Premium school funding for children from disadvantaged backgrounds (imperfect though it is). We will point to the renaissance of the Post Office network and many other specifically Lib Dem achievements.
And we will invite people to imagine what life would have been like without us there as a civilising influence. David Cameron's Daily Mail headline: "We would have ruled as real Tories, if it weren't for the Lib Dems," will appear on our leaflets up and down the land.
In the meantime there is important work to be done: protecting the most vulnerable from the pain of austerity, securing fairer funding for rural areas, continuing progress towards a low-carbon economy, pushing investment in housing and infrastructure.
But we will emerge the other side, bloodied perhaps but unbowed, a permanent part of the British political landscape. Whether as an antidote to Labour's economic incompetence, or to the Tories' social unfairness, the Lib Dems will remain the grit in the oyster – and a force for good through-out the land.