Our starters for 2010 – how did we do? (Part I)

by Stephen Tall on December 31, 2010

A year ago, Lib Dem Voice posed 10 questions, the answers to which we believed might shape the Lib Dem year – time to revisit them, wethinks.

1. In the 2010 general election, how many Lib Dem MPs will be elected? Will we increase our number from the current total of 63; or will we fall back? Will we increase our vote percentage compared with 2005, when we polled 22% of the popular vote? Or could we do, as we did in 1997, see our popular vote drop, but our Parliamentary strength grow?

My prediction at the start of 2010 was that the Lib Dems would probably drop slightly in the popular vote but gain additional MPs through smarter targeting. In fact the reverse was the case: the party attracted an extra million votes but made a net loss of five MPs compared with 2005, with many Labour MPs in the most marginal seats succeeding in digging in.

2. How will Nick Clegg perform in his first ever general election campaign as leader: will it make or break him? And how will he fare in the first ever televised leaders’ debates in the run-up to the general election? Will his mere presence at the top table boost the party’s fortunes; will it make no difference; or might a gaffe hurt the Lib Dems’ chances?

Few would contest that Nick Clegg enjoyed a remarkably successful campaign — no other British politician, let alone a Lib Dem, has been compared to both Barack Obama and Winston Churchill as a result of out-debating his Tory and Labour opponents. His personal popularity soared, making him the target for a desperate right-wing press worried there was a genuine chance the Lib Dems could leap in one bound into government. Though Twitter erupted in ironic sympathy (thanks to #nickcleggsfault), the dead tree press had the last laugh.

And since then, it’s been a bit of a downhill slalom for the Lib Dem leader, who ends the year the least popular of the party leaders with a net approval rating of -12% (38% rate him as doing a good job, 50% a bad job). Nick will be hoping that this marks his nadir — that the U-turn over tuition fees will be his worst moment, and from here on he can recover. Of course that depends rather a lot on results next May, both the English local and Scottish and Welsh elections, as well as the all-important AV referendum.

3. In 2010?s local elections in England – scheduled for 6 May – will the Lib Dems build on our 2006 performance (the last time the seats were contested), when we scored 25% of the vote to Labour’s 26%, and elected 909 councillors?

Party hopes that ‘Cleggmania’ would see an uplift in the Lib Dem local election performance proved to be elusive — in net terms, we lost control of four councils, and 141 councillors were defeated. Losses included Richmond upon Thames, Liverpool, Rochdale and Sheffield, while gains included Portsmouth, Cheltenham and Winchester, with Dorothy Thornhill retaining her position as directly-elected mayor of Watford. The disappointment in many areas was all the more acute for the high hopes of mid-April. You can see the full results breakdown at the ALDC website here.


4. How will Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems respond in the event of a ‘hung Parliament’? Will we let the Tories (if they are the largest single party) form a minority administration but steer clear of a coalition; or will we attempt to enter into negotiations? Will any Lib Dem policies be implemented in 2010 as a result?

‘Nuff said already on this one. Though it’s worth noting my final plaintive question as to whether “any” Lib Dem policies might be implemented in 2010 — as the Voice noted this week, the party can point to 67 manifesto commitments which have been implemented within the first six months sharing power in the Coalition government.

5. How will we respond to the new post-general election politics, with a likely Tory administration under Prime Minister David Cameron, and a new Labour leader replacing Gordon Brown? And how will the party step up our attempts to replace Labour by building the party’s capacity in areas where our potential outstrips our resources?

Again, the emergence of the Coalition has up-ended my pre-2010 imaginings of a Tory government with a small-but-workable majority, in which Labour and the Lib Dems would continue to battle it out as the non-Tory alternative. The party now finds itself in a confusing place which we’ve yet fully to work through — how do we show ourselves to be simultaneously a serious party of government and a radical force for liberal reform?

Labour, unexpectedly finding itself with the luxury of being the sole opposition, has patched over (for now) its ideological faultlines, revelling in the freedom to oppose while having no serious alternative proposals to put forward. For the moment at least the media is indulgent, happier to pick away at the differences within and between the Coalition parties than to examine the Opposition’s policies.

Labour’s resources advantage over the Lib Dems was certainly a factor in the general election, with Unite (among other unions) using its financial muscle to donate directly to Labour as well as to campaign on Labour’s behalf. Indeed it’s arguable the unions now pose at least as large a threat to the Lib Dems as Lord Ashcroft’s largesse on the Tories’ behalf did in the last Parliament.

Combine this with the additional ‘Short Money’ Labour gained last May — and the £1.75m annual hit the Lib Dems took by moving from opposition to government — and the gulf between the two parties has greatly widened. Even were the Lib Dems to be in an easier political situation than we are currently, it’s hard to imagine the party having anything like the capacity to mount a serious electoral challenge to Labour in 2015. Though we can match Labour leaflet-for-leaflet in individual contests such as by-elections, we simply cannot afford to mount the scale of campaign needed to deliver nation-wide results that will see the party able to take a real leap forward.

You can read ‘Our starters for 2010 – how did we do? (Part II)’ here.