Voters’ inconsistent behaviour threatens Lib Dem future

By Chris McCarthy

It has been a bruising seven months in office for the Liberal Democrats. Attacked for joining the Conservatives in a landmark Coalition Government, savaged for endorsing Chancellor Osborne’s austerity Budget, and vilified for supporting proposals to reform higher education funding, the consequences have been severe and the rewards sparse. That is the price of governing retort Lib Dem ministers and the party’s stalwart defenders, the inevitable cost that accompanies a transition from a party of protest to one of responsibility.

But as their support has crumbled below double digits in the polls, some have lamented – others rejoiced – at what they perceive is the terminal decline of the Lib Dems. The opprobrium heaped on the party from its own corner and the hemorrhaging of support from one of their core constituencies – the youth vote – threatens to banish the Lib Dems once again to the periphery of irrelevance.

If the country says ‘No’ to the AV next May that scenario becomes an imminent possibility and we will return to a binary political landscape and the corollary criticism that we lack real choice. The Lib Dems are constantly vexed over whether to leave the Coalition before the odious compromises become intolerable and the party’s reputation unsalvageable. But the electorate too must decide whether they want political reform or status quo, a landscape of political plurality or Punch and Judy.

In a unique political unison facing a severe revenue and finance crisis, the Lib Dems were inevitably going to be confronted with uncomfortable decisions asking them to compromise, modify or abandon their manifesto pledges. Despite desperate suggestions the Lib Dems are a ‘buffer’ to the worst excesses of the Conservatives, the dividing lines have become progressively opaque. Yet the narrative has gravitated towards the smaller coalition partner, entrapping them and exposing every reneged commitment with intense attention.

Binding the Lib Dems to every Government policy by inviting them to sit in each major government department was a shrewd Tory tactic but it’s unlikely those negotiating the Coalition anticipated the extent to which the junior partner would become – and remain – the story. With 306 Conservative MPs sitting in Parliament and 57 Lib Dems, through the prism of the mainstream media you could be mistaken for thinking the numbers met closer in the middle.

Up until recently the barrage of criticism was unpleasant but tolerable for the Lib Dems. Thursday’s vote on reforming higher education funding – and the violent protests in the weeks that preceded it – changed that. Defined as a party of protest in opposition and now forever tainted with the accusation of wantonly breaking core promises, Lib Dem activists, supporters and some MPs are, with louder voices, questioning the party’s role in the Coalition.

Acknowledging the party is currently immensely unpopular, Energy Secretary Chris Huhne insisted this weekend they would emerge stronger for it. Deputy leader Simon Hughes felt it necessary to plead to Lib Dems to ‘stay with us’ and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander, dismissed speculation over a leadership challenge to Nick Clegg. The Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party is hurt, fracturing but not yet fractured, and its supporters grow increasingly uncomfortable with its diluted identity.

For now the discontent will linger as background noise, a drip-drip of disaffection and ‘off the record’ remarks that will prove distracting but not fatal. Should the electorate vote ‘No’ in next May’s referendum on voting reform, however, the sporadic criticisms will become overwhelming, potentially coordinated and possibly crippling. Already asked to abandon a flagship manifesto policy, tasked with publicy endorsing unprecedented spending cuts, a defeat in May may be a compromise too far.

Akin to when Gordon Brown offered to step aside during negotiations to form a coalition with the Lib Dems, recognising his fierce unpopularity was a deal-breaker, we could witness a similar situation where Lib Dem activists, supporters and back-benchers try to divorce the party from the leader. In turn, Clegg will become increasingly wed to his role in the Coalition as his only source of legitimacy, acutely aware of his plummeting popularity [Ladbrokes has slashed the odds of Clegg remaining party leader at the next election]; in effect a leader without a party.

Four years is a long time in politics but the prospects for the Lib Dems at the next election are bleak. Yes, they chose to go into a coalition with the Tories and yes they can technically choose to opt out. In both scenarios they are – and were – presented with a rock and a hard place; propping up a discredited Labour government that had come second was never viable and withdrawing now would invite a barrage of accusations the Lib Dems had put party politics before national interest. The inconsistent behaviour of the electorate has compounded the problem.

By voting not to give any one party a parliamentary majority we invited a coalition government to be formed but expected the Lib Dems to uphold their manifesto commitments as if they had won outright. Confronted with a rise in tuition fees we protested with anarchic passion but lacked the energy when Labour introduced the policy in 1998 and allowed fees to rise to £3,000 in 2004. Balking at the idea of a political party breaking a campaign promise, we failed to uphold the same standards with similar vigour when Labour denied us a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, or when Justice Secretary Ken Clarke dropped an election pledge to jail anyone caught with a knife.

Our indiscriminate, incoherent behaviour threatens more than the credibility of the Met Police and Clegg’s political longevity. By driving the Lib Dems back into obscurity the British political landscape will again be defined by a confrontational dichotomy between Labour and Tory; plurality of choice is reduced, disaffection and apathy will flourish, and single-issue campaigning will swell. If we expect honesty from our politicians we have a responsibility to do better than provide them with an impossibly inhospitable environment in which to perform.

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