by Stephen Tall on November 23, 2014
‘Tis the season to be jolly, even for Lib Dems. Bah, humbug. A year ago, I made a prediction: ‘I don’t expect to see much, if any, uplift in the Lib Dems’ flat-lining 10% polling yet.’ If only… How I now yearn for the times when the party’s support was stubbornly stuck in double-figures. Instead our ratings have dwindled to about eight per cent, barely ahead of the Greens, and only narrowly edging out the surging SNP in one national poll.
Yet 2014 started with good cheer. The party was braced for the European elections — even in the past when we were popular we’ve always struggled to sell our pro-EU message to a sceptical electorate — but united behind a positive message: ‘In Europe, in work’. It was a tight, focused pitch designed to enthuse not only our core vote, but also to attract moderate Conservatives turned off by their party’s destructive Europhobia as well as fair-minded Labour voters who acknowledge the Lib Dems’ civilising role within the Coalition. In many ways, it was intended as a dry run for the campaign the party hopes to run next May.
Nick Clegg upped the ante by publicly challenging Nigel Farage to a live televised debate on Europe. Party activists began organising ‘Nick v Nigel’ events, hoping for a repeat of the triumph of 2010 when Clegg grabbed the election by the scruff of the neck and gave the two major parties the fright of their lives.
And then it all went wrong. The Ukip leader’s populist anti-immigration appeal to voters to stick it to Westminster and join his “people’s army” resonated. A beaten Clegg was left looking tired, defensive, and — worst of all — irrelevant. The Lib Dem campaign never recovered. We lost 11 of our 12 MEPs (and retained that single one by a wafer-thin margin) and took yet another pounding in that same day’s local elections, losing a further 310 councillors. For a couple of days it looked like Clegg would, if he didn’t fall on his sword, be pushed onto it.
Yet he survived. And he survived again even when, at last month’s Rochester and Strood by-election, the Lib Dems lost their eleventh deposit of the parliament, polling less than one per cent, a record low. If Clegg were a Premiership manager, the Chairman’s axe would have been swung by now. But the party has stuck by him. Why? There are, I think, three main reasons.
First, most Lib Dems recognise that it is the party’s decision — freely and democratically entered into — to form a coalition with the Conservatives which is primarily responsible for our dire position in the polls. Sure, there have been needless mistakes along the way (tuition fees, bedroom tax); but what party of government doesn’t mess up? The reality is that the Lib Dem vote in 2010 was flattered by tactical voters and protest voters: we have since lost half the former and all of the latter. No point trying to pin the blame solely on Clegg for that.
Secondly, there is no-one ‘oven ready’ successor. In 2003, when the Tories finally tuned out of Iain Duncan Smith’s increasingly desperate attempts to turn up the volume, Michael Howard was pumped and primed. By contrast, Vince Cable, who, if he’d wielded the sword might now be wearing the crown, seemed detachedly ambivalent about doing so. And Tim Farron, who clearly does harbour ambitions, has no wish to lead the party this side of the coming election. Besides, neither the unclubbable Cable nor the activists’ darling Farron would (unlike Howard) have been elected unopposed; they each have put too many of their colleagues’ noses out of joint. Clegg has in part, therefore, remained in post faute de mieux. But that’s not the whole story: the Lib Dem leader’s impressive achievement in keeping his MPs on-side — not one defection, or even a hint of one — has been insufficiently recognised.
Thirdly, the Lib Dems are cussedly determined to, once again, prove the doom-mongers wrong. Prior to every election in my living memory, commentators have prophesied our demise; but we’re still here. Of course this time it will be different: we’ll have to defend our record in government. One thing will be the same, though: Lib Dem resilience will depend not on our share of the national vote, but on our ability to win as many of our 75 target seats as possible. Our hopes aren’t pinned on a repeat of ‘Cleggmania’, but on voters continuing to back their local Lib Dem MP, and a change in leader at this stage is unlikely to make any difference to their prospects.
So Clegg is safe, at least until May. Beyond that, well, that’s in the hands of the electorate and the lap of the gods. If the Lib Dems do confound the polls and the pundits and retain a sizeable number of MPs — and if there is a second hung parliament — he may once again be king-maker. How’s that for tidings of comfort and joy?