Life as a member of a smal party is not always very fun. This is particularly true when you are a member of the smaller party in a coalition government and taking all the hits. Not that the Conservative or Labour ranks want to offer much sympathy. Lib Dems feel it is all very unjust that they get hammered in the election while the Conservatives get away scot-free. This month’s issue has as a mini-theme, ‘Life as a Liberal Democrat’. While Iain Dale speaks to peer and life-long Lib Dem Chris Rennard on p44 about how the party gets back on its feet, I spent time with Lynne Featherstone, the equalities minister, to discover what life is like as a ‘footsoldier’ in government on p48. Away from the glamour of the cabinet table, I discover how it feels to be outnumbered by Conservative colleagues, lacking in advisers and dealing with the insecurity of being ‘Babes in the Wood’ in government for the first time. There is a wider context. Ministers I’ve spoken to talk of a successful relationship below cabinet level. Conservatives and Lib Dem colleagues within departments often get on very well. “We don’t sit there thinking about our party divides in meetings,” one said. “It’s not something that comes into my head at all when they’re expressing opinions or laying out a position.” Some of the government’s personality differences are out in the open and we shall see how the Lib Dem muscle-flexing works around the cabinet table. But at ministerial level there seems to be less antagonism. The divide to watch then is between the Lib Dems in government and the party outside. The rank-and-file, traditionally mocked and patronised, is more resilient than commonly assumed. But Lib Dem supporters are disappearing. One poll states that over a quarter of Lib Dem voters would vote for Labour if there was a general election tomorrow. Lynne Featherstone believes that local strength can be rebuilt. But in the corridors of government departments and in Parliament, Lib Dems are still learning how to maximise their power, let alone working out how to rescue their polling position.
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On the Cover Lynne Featherstone photographed exclusively for Total Politics by Dean Belcher on 6 May 2011 in Hornsey, London.
4 | June 2011 | Total Politics