Choosing office over power has destroyed the Lib Dems

by Kevin Meagher

If a general election were called right now, just one in ten voters
would plump for the Liberal Democrats, according to the latest brace of
opinion polls.

That’s not strictly true, though. YouGov’s tracker poll actually has them on eight percent. It is ComRes that has them scaling the dizzying double-digit heights of 10%.

Either way, this state of affairs represents a not insignificant problem
for our deputy prime minister; the first mate on the deck of our ship of state. Unfortunately for him, however, the party he leads is holed below the waterline and is still taking in the wet stuff.

Of course, polls yoyo up and down. But these dreadful numbers are merely a
symptom of the Lib Dems’ essential malady: they simply have no clear purpose any more.

Like their Edwardian counterparts who went the way of the dodo in the early
1900s, they now cease to have what marketing gurus call a USP – Unique Selling Point.

By joining with the Conservatives, they have trashed their brand as Westminster’s good guys. It is an irrecoverable loss. Their identity and independence is shattered. The price of joining with the “nasty” Tories is losing the “nice” party label. There is no splitting the difference on that point.

Nice people do not vote for the evisceration of the NHS, VAT rises and trebling tuition fees. It is now risible for them to ever be thought of again as “more left wing than Labour”. And as a party of government, they can no longer credibly position themselves as a receptacle for protest votes. The Lib Dems’ problems, therefore, are not cyclical; they are terminal.

Even their reputation as the party of harmless, well-meaning, eccentrics who added to the gaity of nations is gone. The party of Clement Freud, Cyril Smith and Lembit Opik has been replaced in the public’s consciousness by a bunch of stern neo-liberals wedded to Thatcherite economics.

The Lib Dem leadership’s spectacular act of political self-immolation also risks exposing the real tensions and confusion that lies at the very heart of their party. They are, after all, a coalition themselves.

Old-fashioned contrarian liberals, social democrat nomads from Labour, a
Celtic fringe and pro-European Tories like Clegg all sit uneasily together.
There is no clear narrative, intellectual heritage or innate sense of tribe that binds them all together.

So now that the going has got tough, the Lib Dems have got going. Many of
Labour’s 40,000 new members report themselves as former Lib Dem supporters.

And it will not stop there. Warren Bradley, erstwhile leader of their once-
flagship local authority, Liverpool, told them that back in the summer.
Bradley said he felt “physically sick” at the cuts to the building schools
for the future programme.

Meanwhile, the electoral grim reaper is sharpening his scythe. Bradley
predicts that the Lib Dems “will be wiped out by Labour in the North and the
Tories in the South”. Similar routs are predicted in May’s elections to the
Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.

There is little they can do. They are strapped into David Cameron’s recidivist project and dare not unbuckle themselves prematurely for fear of utter annihilation. So they reason that a slow lingering death with next to no chance of reprieve is still preferable to a quick and certain one at the hands of an electorate they have betrayed more avowedly than any governing party in modern British history.

But it did not have to be like this. Rewind to last April. Nick Clegg’s triumph in the televised leaders’ debates briefly threatened to break British politics’ duopoly, as he responded most ably to the national mood of loathing for our political class.

Clegg is now despised by so many voters precisely because he fleetingly
promised something better. His emergence as just another political chancer intent on scuttling up the greasy poll will live long in the electorate’s

The Lib Dems’ big strategic howler was never asking themselves how they would wield the balance of power in the event of a hung Parliament.

Perhaps the boldest move Clegg could have made was to make it clear that
the Lib Dems are not in fact a party of government at all – and did not seek to be – but rather a party of influence; scrutineers and shapers of government decisions, rather than executors of them.

He should have played the long game, backing a minority Tory administration
on a “confidence and supply” basis and wringing concessions that way. If they
had eschewed the short-term lure of office in return for progress on their
policy goals, the Lib Dems would now have a powerful narrative about why
voting for them actually matters.

What an antidote to the parlous state of British politics it would have been for a political leader to have passed up the offer of high office in favour of progressing his ideals.

Instead, eight months in, Nick Clegg resembles a luckless gambler, hoping that events will take a turn in his favour. However, by betting everything on the easy short-term option he has forfeited a potentially greater prize.

As he pores over these latest polls, our deputy prime minister, so sure he was doing the right thing back in May, must now ask himself if he is really an influence from the inside, or whether he would have been better off as a chaste outsider.

That sound in his head is not his sub-conscious replaying the arguments about why he was right to embrace the coalition with the Tories. It is the high-pitched continuous beep of his party’s electoral life-support machine telling him that it’s all over.

Kevin Meagher is a campaign consultant and former ministerial adviser.

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8 Responses to “Choosing office over power has destroyed the Lib Dems”

  1. Robert says:

    Then again the choice of a Tory Government or newer labour, I think the Liberals will hit the 17% mark, after all whats the use of voting in a Labour party which is basically so close to the Tories we hardly notice the change in government.

  2. william says:

    This is an utterly flawed analysis.The 2011 election saw Labour lose 91 seats and engage in a pretense discussion with the Libdems. Clegg realised that a ‘confidence and supply’ support for a minority Tory government would not wash with the markets:there is a structural deficit.By forming a coalition, he has been able to have , for instance, his policies on tax for the lower paid implemented.Come the next election,the Libdems will no longer be seen as a talking shop party, but a party prepared to take unpopular decisions.By continuing to deny the structural deficit,Labour has ensured that the 2015 election will result in either an absolute Tory majority,or another coalition government,with Labour consigned to perpetual opposition.Look at the electoral map of the UK.Why on earth should the electorate fall in love in 2015 with messrs.Miliband and Balls, whom they rejected in 2011?If its all over for anybody,coalition politics is the end of Labour as a governing party,NOT Mr. Clegg.

  3. Kevin Meagher says:

    William – I know if must be hard for Cleggistas to reconcile that the hole your party is in is due to little more than a mad rush of personal ambition from your leadership, but there it is.

    You’re right about one thing: come the next election the Lib Dems will not be seen as “a talking shop party” as you put it. They will be seen as the useful idiots of the retro-Thatcherites.

    And we will nail you to the floor for it.


  4. AnneJGP says:

    Kevin, I’m not sure William is right about the 2015 GE. We have, collectively, got out of the habit of living within our means. It seems to me that many voters will still be yearning for the good-old-days of plenty supplied by New Labour. Why not, since Labour is still assuring us there’s no need for these ideological cuts?

    It seems to me much more likely that 2015 will see Labour returned to government. At that time, fresh from their very recent experience of the harsh realities of government, the LibDems will have the opportunity to develop a credible alternative to the Conservatives. For the electorate, harsh reality is likely to kick in part-way through your term of office.

    In the 2020 GE, I’m sorry to say, it could easily be the Labour party that is holed below the water-line.

  5. william says:

    Kevin,Labour’s task in 2015 will be to win over 2011 tory voters, as the Lib dems are unlikely to ,at the worst,go down to 30 seats.Perpetual opposition beckons unless Labour reconverts to a business friendly, pro England party of aspiration.The electoral maths after boundary reform etc. are crystal clear.

  6. Kevin Meagher says:

    Remind me again who’s at 8 per cent in the polls?

  7. james says:

    William – What kind of business? Which England? What aspirations?

  8. Iain says:

    Still at least Clegg et al will have fixed the problem with FPTP with more than two parties!
    Seriously the only chance the Lib-Dems have of retaining any self-respect and electoral relevance is for the Party activists to stand up and reject these Neo-Liberalism ( Facism-Lite) supporters. They may need consider expelling them.

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