My ConHome column: At least five spectres haunt the Lib Dems

by Stephen Tall on December 5, 2014

con home cartoonHere’s my latest The Other Side column for ConservativeHome, published here yesterday. My thanks as ever to the site’s editors, Paul Goodman and Mark Wallace, for giving a Lib Dem space to provoke – constructively, I hope.

A spectre haunts the Lib Dems. Actually, scratch that. At least five spectres haunt the Lib Dems.

All parties have their existential fears. Conservatives fear Ukip’s splitting of the right-wing vote means John Major’s 1992 victory will remain the last election they won with an absolute majority. Labour fears the traditional working-class voting bloc on which it’s built its post-war election victories is now too fragmented to win. Both parties have their own reasons to fear falling short: the Tories have not enjoyed the current Coalition much, while Callaghan’s minority Labour government struggled daily to maintain any semblance of control.

But back to my own party; after all, we have enough of our own worries without having to think through others’, too. Here’s my top five fears, my queasy quintet, of what does (or should) keep Lib Dems awake at night…

1) A May massacre?

In 2010, the Lib Dems gained a million votes and lost five seats. How much more of a hit will we take this time round, when our vote-share also plunges? Plenty predict a wipeout, pointing to ElectoralCalculus’s forecast that, based on current polls, the Lib Dems will be left with just 19 MPs. Well, anything’s possible. But before punting your savings on that outcome, it’s worth remembering that in the last parliament ElectoralCalculus hit the headlines for forecasting the Lib Dems would end up with zero seats in 2010. Wiser heads recognise the Lib Dems are insulated from the worst effects of a uniform national swing against the party by the local popularity of their MPs – Lord Ashcroft’s latest polling of 13 key Lib Dem battlegrounds showed the party on course to retain 10 of them (and not far behind in a further two). But let’s not kid ourselves. If the party’s national poll rating doesn’t improve in the next 154 days, 7th May is going to be a grim night for the party, with a big chunk of two decades’ hard-won gains rubbed out.

2) Are we becoming irrelevant?

At the last election, the Lib Dems were either the winners or the runners-up in almost 300 constituencies – that’s half the country where the voters had a realistic chance of electing a Lib Dem MP. But this time? If our number of first or second places gets into three figures I’ll be amazed; that’s vast swathes of the country where the Lib Dem vote has vanished. Many centre-left voters have deserted us for Labour or the Greens. Our protest voters have deserted us for Ukip, or simply melted away. Our councillors have been scythed, year after year, to a level last seen in 1983 (and at least then the party was on its way up). To be taken seriously in politics, you need to pose a threat to someone. Nick Clegg’s attempt to take the fight to Ukip at the European election, by throwing down the gauntlet to Nigel Farage, was an attempt to muscle the Lib Dems back into that territory. It failed and the Lib Dems risk seeming like passengers on a travellator stuck in reverse.

3) Have the Lib Dems done enough in government?

Oh, we have lists of achievements. There isn’t a senior Lib Dem alive who’s won’t rehearse, when challenged “But what have you done?”, the line that the our top 2010 priorities – tax-cuts for low-earners, the Pupil Premium, the Green Investment Bank – have been delivered. Or who won’t point to other achievements, like infant free school meals, or same-sex marriage, or more apprenticeships. Or who won’t highlight Conservative policies, such as hire-and-fire at will or the snoopers’ charter, which the Lib Dems have vetoed. Etc, etc, etc. It’s a creditable litany, especially given my party is out-numbered five-to-one by our Coalition partners in parliament. And yet, and yet… There is a nagging worry inside many Lib Dems that our party’s successes are things which the Conservatives have no trouble with, but the Conservatives’ successes (too-tight austerity, benefits crackdowns, Andrew Lansley’s health reforms) are things we should have had no truck with.

4) Have we lost the opportunity to show that Coalition government works?

Lib Dem Plan A was simple. Wait for a hung parliament; negotiate electoral reform; secure Coalition government for the long-term. It’s not the first Plan A to have come unstuck when tested. First, the AV referendum was lost; though as PoliticalBetting’s Mike Smithson pointed out last week, that, ironically, is probably going to hurt the Conservatives more than the Lib Dems next May. But something else was lost, too: the chance for the Lib Dems to make the case for coalition government itself. The Lib Dems veered from the Rose Garden love-in to hard-core differentiation within a year, a shift which left voters confused about what we stood for and suspicious that we mostly wanted the trappings of power. We have largely failed to demonstrate that Coalition is a grown-up and pragmatic way of doing business which leads to better, not worse, government. In 2010, a poll by ComRes found 46 per cent of voters wanted a hung parliament. Yet by 2013, the same pollster reported that 67 per cent wanted one party to win outright at the next general election rather than there being a Coalition. True, part of this is simply voters protesting the status quo (whatever that status quo happens to be at the time), but we haven’t exactly helped.

5) Can the Lib Dems unite and recover?

The outward unity of the Lib Dems in government has startled some commentators. Not a single MP has defected. The attempted putsch against Nick Clegg last May quickly fizzled out. The party, having dipped its hand in the blood when the Coalition Agreement was signed, has decided to stick by its word and its leader to the bitter end. But if May 2015’s results aren’t pretty, there will be a backlash. Clegg will go, most likely replaced by the liberal-left Tim Farron (the sole Lib Dem elected as part of the my party’s ill-fated decapitation strategy against prominent Conservatives in 2005). Like every other party, the Lib Dems are a big tent. Just as the Conservatives encompass both Ken Clarke and Dan Hannan, so do the Lib Dems range from Simon Hughes to Jeremy Browne. The tent’s held up more or less intact so far. But, paradoxically, the tensions may prove greater now the party is smaller, especially for those bruised by defeat. The reality is that there is no easy bounce-back recovery for the Lib Dems. It’s going to be a long, hard slog. And that’s the best case scenario.

Still, to quote one old school liberal: we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Gulp.