It's time for Liberal Democrats to admit that Nick Clegg's leadership was a failure

Liberal Democrat supporters must face up to the disastrous consequences of Clegg's decisions throughout his tenure.

Callum Gurr
16 September 2016
Nick Clegg and David Cameron at the first press conference of their coalition government

Nick Clegg and David Cameron at the first press conference of the coalition. Photo: Christopher Furlong / PA Wire/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Another week and another change in the political turf that can only harm the prospects of the Liberal Democrats and liberalism in the United Kingdom. The constituency boundary changes, proposed this week by the Boundaries Commission, promise to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600. This move serves as a stark reminder of the reality for the Liberal Democrats that real political power, which we enjoyed just over a year ago, is no more than a hollow fantasy nowadays. The proposed changes put the Liberal Democrats as the only viable alternative to the Tories in many constituencies, and yet Green and Labour voters won’t even consider voting for us. The reason for this is simple: the coalition.

Entering into the first coalition since the second world war represented, in the eyes of many voters, a betrayal of our principles that they still retain fresh in their memories. The coalition oversaw the bedroom tax, massive cuts to our public services in the name of bringing down the deficit, a failed attempt at introducing voting reform and the infamous hike in tuition fees. Of course concessions were made; such as the pupil premium, the Green Investment Bank, and putting over 2 million people into apprenticeships since 2010. But this is not enough. In the eyes of many voters we are now just as bad as the Tories, and are hence tainted with the same taboo that prevents people from supporting us - even if we are the only party capable of beating the Conservatives some areas.

This taboo nature of the party means that when the country most needs a strong liberal voice we are unable to be heard. As both the Conservatives and Labour dance on the cliff of leaving the EU and single market, the unequivocally pro-European party’s plan on Europe is not heard. As the Human Rights Act is nearing being abolished, Britain’s longest champion for human rights is not heard, and as the Labour party lurches off to the unelectable hard left, our liberal alternative government cannot be heard.

I recall Clegg stated that we took the ‘short-term’ electoral hit of coalition for the long-term stability of this country, but I ask, is the country stable just a year later? As the renegotiation of our entire trading relationship with the world looms over the next two years, I would say not. As we face the very real prospect of Scotland leaving the Union and a one-party Tory state in England and Wales taking hold, I would say not.

But it is okay, many of Clegg’s most zealous supporters assure me, because we achieved so much in coalition that it was all worth it, that I’d daresay we’d do it all over again. Achieved so much? Like say the 5p plastic bag charge, which the Tories now receive the praise for? Or maybe the pupil premium; or tax credits, again that the Tories take the credit for? Perhaps you’re talking about the Green Investment Bank, the new apprentice schemes we created or the equality of mental healthcare in law, how are they all going nowadays?  Let’s not even get started on reforming the voting system.

It’s time to face the facts here: the Tories now are either dismantling, or taking the credit for, much of what we achieved in coalition. We have no reasonable prospect of getting back into government to achieve more things or even just retain the gains we previously achieved, because Clegg’s leadership has tarnished our brand beyond repair in the short term. 

In all honesty, for at least two decades we are a spent force in parliamentary terms, retaining our 8 seats would be some feat for our party in 2020, let alone gaining anymore seats. Yet I believe hope does exist for the party's political project, whether through an electoral alliance or unifying centrist party. If we're to realise such hopes, we must be pragmatic and open to ideas in getting liberals into parliament. Without some kind of co-operation with liberals from all parties and none, Liberalism faces an existential threat in the United Kingdom, and Nick Clegg must take his fair share of the blame.

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