My Total Politics column: A spectre is haunting the Lib Dems — the spectre of wipeout

by Stephen Tall on January 17, 2014

A spectre is haunting the Lib Dems — the spectre of wipeout. No, I’m not talking about the 2015 general election (though I’ll come to that), I’m talking about this year’s two sets of elections, both set for 22 May, the locals and the Euros. Do you hear that sound? No, me either: it’s the sound of silence, of Lib Dem spinners not talking up the party’s expectations. Here’s why. Both are likely to be bad for the party.

The last time these local council seats in England’s towns and cities were contested was on 6th May, 2010: ie, back when we were popular. In fact, the results that day were pretty disappointing – we made a net loss of 132 councillors and lost control of four councils – though they were overshadowed by the more crushing national disappointment of Cleggmania’s failed allure and the nervous excitement of entering the first peacetime coalition government.

The party scored 26% in that election. Since then, the Lib Dems have polled 15% (2011), 16% (2012) and 14% (2013) when the public chooses who runs their town halls. A repeat of that pattern this year will result in the all-too-familiar defeat of hundreds of Lib Dem councillors. Our total number of councillors – the foot-soldiers essential in building our support for the party’s MPs – could dip below 2,000 for the first time since 1982. Ouch.

That might sound bad for the Lib Dems – but that’s only because I haven’t yet told you the prognosis for the party in the European elections. Last time, in 2009, the party won 14%, enough to get a decent 11 out of 72 MEPs elected. It’s not impossible – if, say, the party’s vote is squeezed down to 6% – that this time the Lib Dems could finish with not a single MEP: none, zero, zilch. Ouch again.

Such a result would be especially painful for Nick Clegg. He is a European to his fingertips: a polyglot, married to a Spaniard, born to a Dutch mother. He was inspired to enter politics (by Paddy Ashdown) when working for the European Commission in Strasbourg. His first election victory was as a Lib Dem MEP in 1999. “The Liberal Democrats seemed so outward looking and forward looking, compared to the tired, old, introverted politics of Labour and the Conservatives. For me, that was it. That’s how I found our party,” he explained in his most recent conference speech.

A devout internationalist, Clegg is unabashedly branding the Lib Dems as ‘The Party of In’. But the principle is laced with calculation, too. It offers the Lib Dems a distinctive niche, with both Conservatives and (to a lesser extent) Labour making Eurosceptic noises to fend off the challenge from Ukip, ‘The Party of Out’. Internal party polling indicates it finds favour with the Lib Dem ‘market’ of target voters, the 25% of the public which would currently consider voting Lib Dem. And it certainly plays well with the instinctively pro-European Lib Dem activists, whom Clegg desperately needs to enthuse to get out and sell the party message on the doorstep, no matter what their concerns with the compromises of Coalition.

But how will those same activists react to this possible ‘double whammy’ of bad election results? Will they write them off as the price to be paid for being in government; or might they turn their fire on the party leader in the hope of avoiding a similar meltdown in 2015? If you don’t want to know the result, look away now… Clegg will stay as Lib Dem leader. That’s not to say there aren’t some Lib Dems who’d love to see him stand down in favour of Vince Cable, seen as the acceptable Lib Dem face of coalition because he’s never looked for a moment like he actually enjoys working with the Tories. But they’re not in the majority (and, crucially, they know they’re not).

Clegg’s future has been safe since the Lib Dems held on at the Eastleigh by-election – it showed MPs and members that “where we work, we win” (a favourite slogan of Stakhanovite activists). Since then, the party has got its head down, buckling down where we have MPs and in our top targets – what party president Tim Farron has billed the ’75-seat by-election strategy’. As a result, the collapse in Lib Dem membership – down by one-third since 2010 – seems now to have bottomed out; indeed numbers grew slightly in 2013. Nick Clegg has also sharpened his attacks on the Conservatives, accusing them of being locked in a “deathly embrace” with Ukip, and criticising their “remorseless” assault on welfare payments to the most vulnerable.

Expect more of both throughout 2014: relentless campaigning in the seats we need to win, and strident differentiation from the Conservatives to woo back progressive voters. It might well be enough to save the party’s skin in 2015, and perhaps even secure the Lib Dems another five years in government.

But such a strategy has dangers, too. First, that the Lib Dems end up pushed back into defending 50 heartland seats with few prospects for growth. And secondly, that constant bickering with the Conservatives annoys the voters so much that the very idea of another coalition becomes toxic. Now that really would be a meltdown.