The LibDem annual conference has ended without the lynching of Nick Clegg. This is seen as a sort of success. In fact, what it highlights is the gulf that exists between party members (or more precisely those activists bothered enough to attend) and the wider electorate, as it is the latter that will do the deed in 2015. The lack of fireworks can be interpreted as evidence that the LibDems are so taken with appearing responsible in government that debate has been shelved for the duration, but I think what has actually happened is that the coalition has revealed the truth of the LibDem's core policies, or perhaps it would be better to say it has revealed the policies of the core of the party.
Their acceptance of the Tory claim that the financial crisis was all Labour's fault, and their consequent commitment to austerity and bank bailouts, should be evidence enough of their essential neoliberalism, not to mention their opportunism. What government has also shown is the superficiality of their localism and commitment to civil liberties, as they have happily participated in further centralisation. Anti-state rhetoric from the party of Asquith and Lloyd George was only ever the mewling of the disempowered. Don't expect David Laws to undermine Michael Gove's policy of having Whitehall directly manage schools, or Danny Alexander to advocate cuts in VAT instead of cuts in benefits.
The relationship of party activists to the leadership is always coloured by an underlying suspicion. For Labour, the rank and file traditionally fear betrayal by a leadership seduced or gulled by The Establishment. Blair's triangulation trick was to convince enough of the party that he was the one doing the seducing, and the City and others played along with this. His fall from grace over Iraq owed much to the realisation that he was a willing stooge in a scam. He was The Establishment, as his post-PM career has shown only too clearly. For the Tories, the fear is that they will be let down by spineless aristos, wets who will appease the "enemy" within and without (Brussels, benefit claimants, gays etc). Cameron's strengths with the electorate (pragmatism, clubbability, metropolitan sophistication) are weaknesses in the eyes of the party. The popularity of Boris Johnson is purely the result of his Churchill tribute act, which deliberately plays upon this fear of appeasement.
The Liberal rank and file have tended to be more socially and politically varied that the two main parties, which is inevitable when you are a home for protest votes and have never been forced to crystallise policy through office. From Orange Book neoliberals to Northern municipalists, from West Country organic farmers to London human rights lawyers, the Liberal party is more fox than hedgehog, something they are proud off as pluralists. But the consequence is that these natural dissenters and independents have less stickability as regards party membership. Their suspicion is that the core of the party remains a socially-exclusive, upper middle class set, ever ready to shut the door on the fringe. Too proud to make a fuss about rejection, they tend to drift off when they feel out of sympathy with the leadership, more in sorrow than in anger, rarely banging the door as they go.
The paradoxical result of the LibDem's stint in office has been the narrowing of the party to the true believers, rather than its reaching out to attract more supporters. What Nick Clegg promised them this week was more Nick Clegg, and what he implied for their election manifesto was a clear shift to the centre-right. As more and more social liberals drift away, the party will be reduced to a fervent neoliberal cadre. Ironically, many will find this liberating, allowing them to finally come out as pure liberals: pro-business, anti-state, europhile and libertarian. More like the FDP in Germany. They think they will pick up disaffected Blairites and pro-EU Tories, but this will be a trickle compared to the desertion of their centre-left base. The lack of dissent at their annual conference was a sign of weakness and impending irrelevance, not a sign of a "grown up" party taking "hard decisions".
This has prompted some Tories to advocate that their party pitches for LibDem votes, presumably on the grounds that this will secure marginal seats while losing equivalent votes on the right to UKIP will make little difference in safe seats. Meanwhile, social democrats like Polly Toynbee are talking up the merits of a Lib-Lab coalition. This is misguided if the LibDems are moving centre-right, but it fails on its own terms as well: "how much better would the last Labour era have been in coalition with the Lib Dems? No Iraq, no civil liberties abuses, less defence spending, no soaring jail numbers, stronger climate change action, and bolder Europeanism". The idea that Blair would have been constrained over Iraq by Nick Clegg as deputy PM is risible, but leaving counter-factuals aside, there is little evidence that the LibDems have mitigated the Tories' austerity, dismantling of the NHS, tax cuts for rich or anything else of substance.
The reality is that coalitions can only work where there is a congruence of interests. This means an electoral landscape of many parties with overlapping policies, which in turn means a PR system. In the UK system, coalitions usually damage at least one of the parties because they either find insufficient room for compromise or the leadership's willingness to adjust policy loses rank and file support. The judgement of history on Clegg will be that he blew the LibDem's best chance of securing electoral reform, being bought off by the baubles of office. Marching the party to the centre-right, from where he hears the "sound of the guns", will result in electoral annihilation. This will probably produce a split, with much of the Orange Book rump folding into the Tories and helping to counter the Euro-sceptic right (clearly in the best interests of hegemonic neoliberalism), while social liberals drift back to Labour in the hope that Milliband turns out to be less of a duplicitous control-freak than Blair.