The Liberal Democrats – unpopular but not incompetent

By Tom Dymond-Andrews

In case you’d forgotten, the Liberal Democrats are still in Westminster. Nick Clegg is still the Deputy Prime Minister and Britain still has a Coalition government.

With all eyes on Europe, and attention soon to be turning across the pond, even in government it can be easy to overlook Britain’s third party. In terms of how the public view them, this has undeniably been a torrid 18 months. As a party they have a mere 15% rating in opinion polls compared to the Tory 37%, and Clegg has a net score of -19% whilst his counterpart David Cameron boasts an impressive 48% approval rating.

But has their time in office really been so poorly spent?

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Clegg’s U-turn on tuition fees was akin to the England rugby World Cup regime – it was dishonest, it threw the little people to the dust and ultimately the team wearing blue came out on top of them. Cameron cannot have believed his luck to emerge virtually unscathed, and in all likelihood Clegg is the one who will pay again when Britain next goes to the polls.

The resounding ‘No’ vote in the Alternative Vote referendum was a disaster for the Lib Dems on a whole other level. They can say what they want about Cameron’s questionable involvement, they can even put the defeat down to the public punishing them for their role in the tuition fees, but the damage has been done and the significance of such a loss cannot be overstated.

The continuation of the outdated, unrepresentative and unfair first-past-the-post system will continue to repress a party that, since their dreadful start, have been a force for good in this government.

And this is why.

Firstly, they are staying true to their manifesto pledge to increase the income tax threshold to £10,000 by the 2015 General Election and this is well on the way to success, with the Autumn Statement confirming it will rise to £8105 by this April. Secondly, forcing Andrew Lansley to make concessions over his radical NHS reforms is a paradigmatic example of how they have been a moderating force and it shows a strength that the Opposition seem to be lacking. Thirdly, whilst the Conservatives were sounding off about their Free Schools – just about the only Big Society achievement it seems – the Lib Dems secured an extra £7 billion to help the poorest pupils.

These are just a few examples of the positive, yet largely unnoticed, work that the party have to offer. And there is more to come as they lead the way with several other important bits of legislation. Vince Cable, for example, accompanies George Osborne at the forefront of the shake-up of the banking sector, which will fully implement the Vickers Report by ‘ringfencing’ the banks’ retail and investment branches. It is fitting that Cable be leading this reform, given he was one of the few, and one of the earliest, to warn of the impending financial crisis.

Further, one of Clegg’s main missions for 2012 is the creation of an elected House of Lords and it is critical he triumphs. If the Liberal Democrats fail there is little hope of democratic sentiments surrounding reform to the upper chamber ever bearing fruit. (It may also present him with an opportunity to revive the debate over how we elect our government.)

The televised debates before the 2010 General Election saw Clegg successfully portray himself as a man of integrity, heading a party of integrity. It was an invaluable trait amid a time of the MPs expenses scandal, an unapologetically greedy banking sector, and the eruption of Wikileaks. It was also a trait that was smashed and burnt when he betrayed the scores of young people who voted for him. Trust in the public sphere, politics and otherwise, is nonexistent but the New Year might provide a chance for somebody to again step into the void.

It cannot be Clegg yet – the scenes of student rioting are still clear in people’s minds – but with new scandals inevitably on the horizon, such is the modern world, the party should be looking to restore the faith. As ever, this is easier said than done, but here is where to start: first and foremost, they must start rebuilding bridges to young people with an apology – something Clegg has refused to do; secondly, they need to find where they stand on Europe and stick to it – it will not do to see Clegg popping up here and there to criticise but offer nothing himself (we have thousands sitting in pubs across the country adept for this); and thirdly they must beat the Conservatives in the inter-Coalition race to hijack Ed Miliband’s ‘responsible capitalism’ – an idea that can hit home with the people, but one that requires further decoration.

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