Shine A Light

Lib Dem prospects

Will party members bring courage to their simmering resentment and oust Nick Clegg?

Trevor Smith
15 September 2013

Nick Clegg’s announcement that he intends going into the next Election appealing to the voters to opt for Coalition as an enduring feature of UK politics beggars belief. How can the electorate choose this. “Coalition” is not on the ballot paper. Attempting Lords reform and a referendum on AV, neither of which he achieved, seems simple compared with getting the electorate to vote for “Coalition”. Would he explain how he thinks this may be achieved?

Most commentators and activists are examining what the Lib Dems should do between now and the next General Election in 2015.  All acknowledge these are difficult times for the Party.

The optimists point to the success at the Eastleigh by election and suggest that can be replicated in held or winnable seats. They also believe that the Lib Dems will be given credit for supporting a Coalition that pulled the economy round.  These thoughts are proposed by Ming Campbell and David Laws among others.  The pessimists largely rely on the constant pattern of the opinion polls which show the Party recording ratings of 8 per cent and Nick Clegg’s personal ratings as Leader in the abysmal category.  The former base their case on aspiration (wishful thinking?), the latter on the empirical evidence to hand. Both, interestingly, are inclined to bet on another hung Parliament after 2015.

Hung Parliaments are statistically very rare. I recall over a half century or more, Liberals vainly hoping for such results even when we had but a handful of MPs. In any case with fewer Lib Dem MPs, our negotiating position in the formation of a Coalition post-2015 will be much weaker than last time and national resources that could be concentrated at one by election will be much more thinly spread over 50+ target seats. The optimists’ case does not stand up to even a cursory examination; they are whistling in the wind.

Instead of focussing on the run-up to 2015, it is better to start by looking at a worst case scenario post-2015.  On present evidence, that could all too likely be: 17 MPs, 0 MEPs and over a 100 Lib Dem Peers – a rather unfortunate legislative profile for a Party identified as both pro-Europe and constitutional reform!

The more immediate issue is how best to avoid the worst case?  Empty rhetoric in the form of the mantra “Stronger economy, fairer society” has about as much resonance with the electorate as has Miliband’s “One Nation Labour” or Cameron’s “Big Society”. All are bereft of substance.

And opening the Glasgow Conference with utterances about plastic bag charges and cheaper school uniforms, estimable in themselves, are unlikely to stir up mass support.  Last September I criticised Clegg for having no strategic vision and was thus simply “a cork bobbing on the waves”. His position hasn’t changed and Party membership continues to haemorrhage.  Lib Dem councillors, past and present, have expressed their exasperation as has Sarah Teather MP.

The past twelve months have seen a number of resignations by prominent members and that momentum is likely to increase; there is a growing unease among MPs as well as Peers. The Latest Lib Dem Voice poll of party members, published in Independent on Sunday, shows Cable with a top performance score of 77 per cent and six other ministers scoring above 50 per cent, but Danny Alexander on 48 per cent just above Clegg who comes bottom with 47 per cent. That’s revealing, bearing in mind the most disaffected members have already left the Party.

Tim Farron MP, Party President, has already articulated his concern in an interview in the New Statesman, as has my colleague Matthew Oakeshott in The House Magazine. The Clegg coterie of supporters have rounded on Oakeshott as a lone voice but he represents a good deal of simmering resentment among Lib Dems both in Parliament and even more amongst the rank-and-file in the country about the way things have been allowed to drift.

Had Labour found the guts to oust Gordon Brown as Leader before 2010, it might have avoided its worst electoral result in living memory.  Lib Dems should heed that lesson. Will they screw up the courage to challenge Nick Clegg, choose a new Leader in an attempt to avert a disastrous future?

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