My Total Politics column: How can the Lib Dems halt their polling Groundhog Day?

by Stephen Tall on December 9, 2013

Here’s an easy question to start the new year – what are the Lib Dems currently averaging in the opinion polls? The answer’s 10 per cent, but the reason it’s easy is because it’s exactly the same as the party was polling in January 2011, January 2012 and January 2013. Welcome to Lib Dem Groundhog Day. Here’s a harder question – what can the party do in 2014 that will halt this time-loop?

Searching for some bullish optimism I called Tim Farron, the party president known for his good-humoured frankness. How did he rate Lib Dem chances in 2014’s European and local elections, the last polls before next year’s general election? He was realistic – which is a polite way of saying we can expect another bum year.

The local elections will be fought in the tough terrain of metropolitan councils, where the Lib Dems have suffered serious collateral damage from the Coalition. The party hopes its results have bottomed out, but could find itself ousted from areas such as Manchester in spite of formidable community campaigning by Withington MP John Leech.

And the picture isn’t a lot prettier when we look at the Euro elections. As Farron pointed out to me, the party has never done well when the British people get to vote on Europe: “Even in 2009,” (when the party was twice as popular as it is today) “we only won in four of out of the 63 seats we then held at Westminster in the Euros.”

That MEPs are elected by proportional representation should offer some protection to the 12-strong Lib Dem group. The party is keen, rightly, to highlight that its fortunes are faring much better in our target seats than in the country as a whole – as the successful defence in the Eastleigh by-election demonstrated. However, given the enormous size of the UK’s European constituencies – South East England, for instance, stretches from Dover to Oxford taking in nine counties – the party desperately needs to get out its vote where it has MPs to make up for the collapse of support elsewhere.

The doomsday scenario is this: the local elections are dire, while Lib Dem MEPs are wiped clean off the map with the party trailing in fifth place behind the Greens. It’s not impossible. Nor is it impossible that such an atrocious result would force Nick Clegg to quit – though Lib Dems I’ve spoken to rate this prospect as the less likely of those two outcomes.

In any case, there is an upside, one that Farron was keen to stress. In 2014’s Euro elections the issue of Europe will dominate in a way it hasn’t done before. Ukip will toot its populist anti-EU, anti-immigration tune while Tories in the south and Labour in the north do their utmost to stop their voters dancing to it. This offers the Lib Dems the chance to occupy a distinctive niche in British politics as ‘The Party of In’.

The party’s internal polling shows this pro-European message plays well to the 15 per cent of voters who don’t currently support the Lib Dems but would consider doing so. (They also like Nick Clegg, by the way.) If the party can woo even half this group of ‘Lib Dem considerers’ – what Clegg’s strategy guru Ryan Coetzee terms “our market” – between now and May 2015, its ratings would climb to 17-18%. That would be good enough to save some 40 to 45 Lib Dem seats and give the party real leverage in the event of a second hung parliament.

This is the logic driving Nick Clegg’s declared intent to stand “smack bang in the liberal centre” – more responsible than Labour, more caring than the Tories. This kind of split-the-difference positioning is unloved by activists – who label it defensive and unambitious – yet it’s the only realistic option available to the Lib Dems. I call it an option, but it isn’t, not really. It was thrust on us by the voters when they popped the ‘Cleggmania’ balloon in May 2010 and then torpedoed electoral reform by rejecting AV a year later.

The party now has to confront the truth that its only route into government for the forseeable future is in coalition with either of the two main parties. That inevitably means compromise, pegging the Lib Dems as the party of moderate, fair-minded pragmatism. Clegg’s embrace of the ‘liberal centre’ is a case of making a virtue from necessity.

And he will use every opportunity possible in 2014 to hammer this home. You want a government that will tackle the deficit but not take an axe to public services? Then you need the Lib Dems to de-toxify the Tories. You want a government that will stick up for the underdog but not bankrupt the economy? Then you need the Lib Dems to leaven Labour.

Will it be enough to save not only Nick Clegg’s skin but the skins of the three dozen Lib Dem MPs at risk if the party stays stuck at 10 per cent? In Groundhog Day, Phil Connors (Bill Murray) re-lives the same day again and again, and by learning from his mistakes and his experiences he becomes a better person. Eventually (*spoiler alert*) he gets his girl. Lib Dems will hope to wake up in 2015 to a similarly happy ending.