Policy, relationships, practicalities, even thinking about a little bit of governance and leadership – these will all undoubtedly all pre-occupying the minds of many senior LibDems (and no doubt Conservatives). But right from day one of this coalition, the LibDems, probably more than any other party, will need to keep two things clear in their consciousness – those of identify and narrative – in order to survive the next few years.
The LibDems for generations have enjoyed an easy identity – the third party, centre-left, progressive even maverick – even though it didn’t feature strongly on the radar of the general public. Well it does now – with many who may have only had a vague, hazy idea of the party struggling to understand it. Yet in coalition it has already lost some of those identifying features – its connection with the left appears diluted, its radical outspoken tone muted and its position as the ‘progressive’ party will quickly be filled by Labour.
Regardless of how this identity has been shaken by recent events, the party will in five years time, possibly earlier, go back to the polls. At that time, the public will either know who the party is and its story or that public will be unsure of the party’s narrative and identity, both having been obscured by coalition dynamics. It is in the gift of the LibDems themselves to choose which outcome will prevail. This eventuality will also apply to the Conservatives, but their legacy of mainstream government or opposition has enabled a deeper impression in the public psyche – unless Team Cameron are transformed within a heady atmosphere of new concensus politics, and seen to be transformed, they will still be seen as the Tories – love’em or hate’em – at the next election. And Labour, with a rich and vibrant seam of history, unshackled from the constraints of power, can regroup and develop a powerful image within the vacated progressive left political sphere. But the LibDems, if they fail to maintain and enhance their sense of who they are as an individual party, may enjoy a brief moment of government only to be returned to the political hinterland.
As they say, a reputation takes years to develop but can be shattered in minutes. For the LibDems this hasn’t happened yet (although it has been shaken). In the medium term, actions and consequences – sheer bloody politics –of the Coalition will of course take their toll on the reputations of those involved. But if active measures – the determined maintenance of party culture, vision, ritual, ideals – are not taken quickly, to capitalize on the fact that the public are watching them, LibDem reputation – the very identity and narrative of the party, diluted and fragmented – could easily melt away anyway. Reputation management is an awful buzzword from the PR industry but, if anything, the LibDems will have to quickly start practicing serious identity management, in order to come out the other end of this Coalition intact.