What should a Liberal Democrat do when a friend and political colleague becomes a Cabinet minister?

Lib Dems don't do status - we don't use titles, just first names all round. Lib Dems don't do power either; to be precise we are embarrassed by it.

One hundred years of identifying ourselves as radical, anti-establishment, even quasi-anarchist, has meant that being thrust into Coalition Government has created all kinds of conflicts and tensions within the party. I'm not just talking about the sometimes fraught relationship between Conference reps, the Federal Policy Committee, and the parliamentary teams - complicated as that is - no, I'm referring to the internal struggle that all Lib Dems experience (or perhaps should experience) when faced with power.

Of course, the issues have been played out already over the last 30 years or so in town and county halls across the land. As Lib Dems have gained control of Councils we have had to face the challenges of using that power responsibly. It's uncomfortable, for a start. Many of us would prefer being in opposition, where we can tear into the administration without the need to actually put together a coherent policy programme.

But controlling Council groups have gradually learned to distinguish what is feasible from what is merely desirable or crowd-pleasing. They have achieved some real successes which have both improved the lives of residents and made the places where they live more liberal and more democratic.

However, they are not always good at communicating those successes to the population at large, nor even to their own members. Sometimes they are accused of spending far too much time in meetings when they should be knocking on doors and campaigning on the ground - and indeed that may well be true.

But the fact remains that councillors are elected to make life better for their electors, and this can often only be achieved, when in power, through lengthy negotiations in meetings. I think back to some of the campaigns that I was involved in when I was a councillor - for the Hook Centre, pedestrian crossings nearby (about to happen, at last!), a new bus for pupils attending Hinchley Wood, funding for the new Chessington Community College, childrens' centres at Castle Hill and Lovelace schools, the medical centre in Merritt Gardens - all of these were brought to fruition through many hours spent, by me and my colleagues, in committees and meetings with council officers.

And yet some party members might have thought that I had gone over to the dark side, by being drawn into the internal politics of the Guildhall and aligning myself with the establishment. I worked hard to avoid that, to always maintain an edginess, to remind myself that I represented the people to the Council, not the other way round.

Here is the dilemma for Liberal Democrats. We are conscious of the dangers of power, so we tend to talk down those who have it, rather than grasp the opportunities it brings. We do not wish to become part of the establishment, but we find that we have to work with and through large institutions in order to bring about change. We dislike conformity to the extent that it is written into our constitution, yet we have to work within the constraints of formal decision-making processes to achieve anything.

All this is a long preamble to a statement about Edward Davey and his new role. On the one hand I am ridiculously pleased for him. And I know him for a decent, stable person who will not let it go to his head.

On the other hand, can the rest of us understand and cope with proximity to real power?

Comments

What is even more problematic is that the general public show the same confused thinking when analysing the Lib Dems' role in the coalition. The perception is that the party has gone over to the dark side.

Unfortunately, it is a lose-lose argument. If you don't engage constructively (whether at the local government level or the national level) you can be accused of immaturity and putting partisan interests over the public interest. If you do engage, you can be accused of selling out.

It's doublethink, but your opponents only have to make one of those arguments at any one time, so they never get caught out in the contradiction.

I have no doubt that if the Lib Dems had refused to enter coalition with the Tories, Labour would be shouting that it was irresponsible behaviour, that it showed political immaturity, that if you wanted a party that would always side with Labour, you might as well just vote Labour instead, etc. etc.

It's tricky, isn't it. One of the reasons I've struggled with regular blogging is that so many of the people now running the country are people I've known for years, campaigned for and in some cases count as friends.

On balance, though, I'd rather have them there than not ;-)

Surely your role is to keep quiet so that when the tabloids come calling, trying to dig the dirt on Ed, you remain silent. They will come and they will try. He is a target now.

Yes, you are absolutely right - and they have started digging already. Loyalty is a basic principle of any friendship. There's no dirt in this case, but everyone is still entitled to privacy.

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