Lib Dems: The in-betweeners

Written by Stephen Tall on 14 January 2014 in Opinion
It seems the Lib Dems are condemned to be the party of the middle – but the middle could yet be the best place to be

Here’s an easy question to start the new year: what are the Liberal Democrats currently averaging in the opinion polls? That’s easy – the answer’s 10%. The reason it’s easy is because it’s exactly the same as the party was polling in January 2011, January 2012 and January 2013. Welcome to Lib Dem Groundhog Day. Here’s a harder question: what can it do in 2014 to halt this time loop?

Searching for bullish optimism, I called Tim Farron, the party president known for his good-humoured frankness. How did he rate Lib Dem chances in 2014’s European and local elections, the last polls before the general election? He was realistic, which is a polite way of saying we can expect another bum year.

The local elections will be fought in the tough terrain of metropolitan councils, where the Lib Dems have suffered serious collateral damage from the coalition. The party hopes its results have bottomed out, but it could find itself ousted from areas such as Manchester in spite of formidable community campaigning by Withington MP John Leech.

And the picture isn’t much prettier when we look at the Euro elections. As Farron pointed out to me, the party has never done well when the British people get to vote on Europe: “Even in 2009,” (when the party was twice as popular as it is today) “we only won in four of out of the 63 seats we then held at Westminster in the Euros.”

That MEPs are elected by proportional representation should offer some protection to the 12-strong Lib Dem group. The party’s keen, rightly, to highlight that its fortunes are faring better in our target seats than in the country as a whole, as the successful defence in the Eastleigh by-election demonstrated. However, given the size of the UK’s European constituencies – southeast England stretches from Dover to Oxford, taking in nine counties – the party desperately needs to get out its vote where it has MPs to make up for the collapse of support elsewhere.

The doomsday scenario is this: local elections are dire, while Lib Dem MEPs are wiped clean off the map, with the party trailing in fifth place behind the Greens. It’s not impossible, and neither is the fact that such an atrocious result might force Nick Clegg to quit, though Lib Dems I’ve spoken to rate this as the less likely of the two outcomes.

There’s an upside, one that Farron was keen to stress. In 2014’s Euro elections the issue of Europe will dominate in a way it hasn’t done before. UKIP will toot its populist anti-EU, anti-immigration tune while the Tories and Labour do their utmost to stop their voters dancing to it. This gives Lib Dems the chance to occupy a distinctive niche in British politics as ‘The Party of In’.

The party’s internal polling shows this pro-European message plays well to the 15% of voters who don’t currently support it, but would consider doing so.

If the party can woo even half this group of ‘Lib Dem considerers’ – Clegg’s strategy guru Ryan Coetzee terms them “our market” – between now and May 2015, its ratings would climb to 17%-18%. That would be good enough to save some 40 to 45 Lib Dem seats and give the party leverage in the event of a second hung parliament.

This is the logic driving Clegg’s declared intent to stand “smack bang in the liberal centre”. It’s more responsible than Labour, more caring than the Tories, but split-the-difference positioning is unloved by activists, who label it defensive and unambitious. Yet it’s the only realistic option available to the Lib Dems, although it isn’t really an option – it was thrust on us by the voters when they popped the ‘Cleggmania’ balloon in May 2010, and torpedoed electoral reform by rejecting AV a year later.

The party has to confront the truth that its only route into government for the forseeable future is in coalition with either of the two main parties. That means compromise, pegging the Lib Dems as the party of moderate, fair-minded pragmatism. Clegg’s embrace of the ‘liberal centre’ is a case of making a virtue from necessity.

And he will use every opportunity possible in 2014 to hammer this home. Want a government that will tackle the deficit, but not take an axe to public services? You need the Lib Dems to de-toxify the Tories. Want a government that will stick up for the underdog, but not bankrupt the economy? You need the Lib Dems to leaven Labour.

Will it be enough to save not only Clegg’s skin but the skins of the three dozen Lib Dem MPs at risk if the party stays stuck at 10%? In Groundhog Day, Phil Connors (Bill Murray) re-lives the same day repeatedly, and by learning from his mistakes and his experiences he becomes a better person. Eventually (*spoiler alert*) he gets his girl. Lib Dems will hope to wake up in 2015 to a similarly happy ending.

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