Liberal Crossroads


Written by Jared Lynn
29 Monday 29th November 2010
The Liberal Democrats are at a crossroads. After years in the wilderness the party finally has power, but with popularity waning and questions looming over trust, where do the Liberal Democrats go from here?
Love him or hate him, Nick Clegg made the Liberal Democrats relevant again. The party toiled under Sir Menzies Campbell – a capable politician – but one who struggled to connect with voters in a modern politics embellished by image and style. Ironically it was Campbell who laid the groundwork for the fresh and youthful presentation by the Lib Dems in 2010, promoting several young politicians to the frontbench, including a certain Nick Clegg.
It was Clegg’s performances in the live TV debates and ‘that’ promise to students which helped establish the party’s popularity with younger voters. Clegg seemed a step-away from his deeply political rivals, expressing an apolitical ease which ultimately led to criticism over his knowledge and ability for the top jobs. But then who really predicted he would become Deputy PM?
While election results were not as strong as predicted, Clegg’s negotiations with the Conservatives brought the party into power. Questions now loom over the validity of Clegg’s pre-election promises and his much criticised relationship with David Cameron and the Tory’s – his popularity is fading and there are rumblings of a split within the party – so what awaits the post-Clegg and post-coalition Liberal Democrats?
The future looks bleak. The latest Guardian/ICM opinion poll shows that the Lib Dems have fallen two points to 14% – their lowest rating since October 2007. More worrying is the news that just 47% of Lib Dem voters in the general election plan to keep faith in the party, with the false student fees promise meaning that the 18-24 age range now provides the least amount of support when compared to other age groups.
The pact with the Conservatives will also be difficult to shrug off. The more ardent Lib Dem supporters may keep their allegiances with the party, but the statistics suggest that swing voters will struggle to keep their trust in the Lib Dems. The thirst for power could be the downfall of the Lib Dems, and it could take years, even decades to recover.
A key focus of the Coalition Government for many Lib Dems was the referendum on a change from the first-past-the-post voting system to the Alternative Vote. Support for the change has fallen dramatically since the Coalition agreement was first struck in May, with a YouGov poll showing a five point lead for the Yes vote has now dropped 10 points behind the No vote. It seems unlikely that the Lib Dems will gain anything significant from their time in government except experience. The pre-Coalition warnings that David Cameron was simply using the Lib Dems to gain a route into power look to be coming to fruition.
Life after Clegg paints a bleaker future for the party. Both Labour and the Conservatives have a host of young politicians ready to lead their respective parties into the next generation. Politicians like Chuka Umanna (Labour) and Rory Stewart (Conservatives) seem primed for leadership whereas the Lib Dems lack leadership talent; cases could be made for Sarah Teather, Julia Goldsworthy, Jo Swinson and several others: but no-one stands out. It is a party which lacks direction in a time when strong leaders, with image, presentation skills and clear policies are hard to come by.
The strength of the next leader and the future of the party will also be marred by worries over trust. Much like Labour struggled during the 1970s and 1980s, the Lib Dems could be fighting the same battle for credibility until the 2020s. The importance of the Lib Dems as the third party in British politics should not be understated. Their presence provokes debate, discussion and ultimately a stronger government with a greater choice in a limited democratic system. The Lib Dems must recover from Clegg and broken promises, but we could be waiting decades until they are ready to govern again. The party must re-connect with voters by offering policies which they can deliver, perhaps signalling a move away from strong Liberal policies and a step towards the middle-ground which was so well-trodden by New Labour and Cameron’s Conservatives. Both parties moved their policies into the centre ground as they sought to re-connect and re-invent, the Lib Dems would be wise to follow the tried and tested formula.

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