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From The Socialist newspaper, 9 June 2010

Will the Lib Dems survive coalition?

THE LIB Dem decision to enter into the government coalition alongside the Tories casts questions about the future for that party and its support base. Thousands of Lib Dem voters see the decision as a betrayal and are vowing never to vote Lib Dem again.

Jim Thomson

While a Lib/Con coalition was a surprise to many, there are contextual and historical reasons why David Cameron and Nick Clegg found it so easy to unite. The Lib Dems are a divided party, not just left/right but their basis of support is unevenly spread across the country, with their strongest area being in the south west.

The party has gone through a similar, but not as extreme, process as that experienced in the Labour Party when lefts saw themselves witch-hunted while Blairism and New Labour took hold.

The Lib Dem left, who had considerable influence in the party in the early and mid 2000s, have been based around Charles Kennedy and Simon Hughes. This faction, mostly based in the Beveridge Group, have shown their 'leftist' credentials over issues like Trident, tuition fees, privatisation of services and progressive taxation.

Crunch time

However, 2007, the year Clegg was elected leader, was crunch time for the party and saw the beginning of a purge of the left by those based around the capitalist polemic The Orange Book - Reclaiming Liberalism, notably Vince Cable, David Laws and Nick Clegg.

While the lefts in the Lib Dems do not pose an alternative to capitalism, in some areas, especially where the Labour Party has a weak base of support, they carry some weight among a layer of workers, community activists and youth, with many holding illusions in their policies.

The right however, are an out and out pro-capitalist faction, dedicated to the ideas of the market over the public sector. These characters are now hand in hand with the Tory axe-wielders. In a document called Setting Business Free the right stated that the party policy should always "start with a bias in favour of market solutions".

Furthermore, the Orange Book, produced in 2004 and featuring contributions by leading Lib Dems Clegg, Laws, Cable and Hulne, put forward vicious neoliberal policies of privatisation, cuts and PFI. In a sense, the sovereign debt crisis was a perfect excuse for these cronies of capitalism to bring in their savage anti-worker and anti-equality ideas.

Despite the right leaders' triumph over the left, a significant section of the population still saw the Lib Dems as a radical alternative to the two main parties.

Many workers saw them as a 'nicer' capitalist party; while understanding that they were very similar to the Tories and New Labour, they did however have some policies which were seen as desirable reforms. In a pre-election poll, people in a ratio of 4:1 said they believed the Lib Dems to be left of Labour. In an area like the south west, this figure is bound to be larger.

In a survey commissioned in Somerset which questioned why people voted Lib Dem in May 2010, their policies against tuition fees, Trident, on the war in Afghanistan and on more progressive taxation, came high. However, the reason that came top, was to keep the Tories out.

The anger that now exists within these two layers - those who agreed with the more progressive policies and those who fear and hate the Tories - is massive. To these people, many of whom will be trade unionists, youth and community campaigners, they have been betrayed. There will be a surge of hatred against the Lib Dems, which will only intensify as the coalition carries out savage cuts.

Initial opposition to the coalition from Charles Kennedy and some other Lib Dem MPs has died down and so far Clegg has fudged support for it inside his party through a process of patronage and quashing debate. However a future party split is possible.

It would be short-sighted to under-estimate the anger that exists in the rank and file, who are generally more left than the leadership. But without a figurehead, a Kennedy or Ashdown character, it looks unlikely in the short term that the activist layer could leave and set up a new formation.

However the Lib Dems are likely to haemorrhage members over the next period. Where will the ex-members orientate to? A sizeable number could, like many others, develop illusions in New Labour leaders who will sound more progressive while in parliamentary opposition, but who in reality mark no major change in programme from that of Blair or Brown.

However, there will also be members who consider themselves as left wing or even socialist and who will be unwilling to enter New Labour, a party responsible for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, privatisation of services, ID cards and Trident.

Also, where will ex-Lib Dem voters now look? Potentially there is a chance to get some of them involved in anti-cuts community campaigns and Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. Socialists within these campaigns need to patiently point out that all three main parties, whichever is in power and whatever their rhetoric, represent big business and capitalism.

Only socialist election candidates such as those who stood within TUSC, and the future candidates of a new mass workers' party, can truly stand for a fundamental break with the consensus of cuts, redundancies, privatisation and unemployment.

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