A year into the Coalition and in the aftermath of some rather poor electoral results for the Liberal Democrats I thought I should write down some thoughts from the perspective of a Liberal Democrat of 20 years.
On May 5th the LibDems lost nearly 700 local councillors from an original population of 1751 and 9 of 19 councils, 12 of 17 seats were lost in the Scottish parliament and there was an emphatic “No to AV” in the referendum. At a personal level, I was involved in the campaign for the Cheshire West and Cheshire council, where ultimately we polled 12% of the votes and got 1.3% of the seats. This is a reduction from 4 seats to 1, although in a reconfigured council.
Why did this happen?
The LibDems were in a relatively good position based on the last occasion these council seats were contested, having steadily picked up seats from Labour through the years of Labour government 1997-2010, in particular from 2001 onwards. Our previous standing reflected a popular vote of around 23%, currently our opinion poll standings are around 15%.
In this sense it should not be seen as “electorate punishing LibDems for coalition” rather “former Labour supporters returning to Labour now it’s out of power”, similarly talk of LibDems being human shields for the Tories is not a particularly useful analysis. Tories and LibDems have different electorates, the Tory electorate is clearly happy with the Coalition, the LibDem electorate less so. Looking at the overall results with the Tories on 38% of the vote, Labour on 37% and LibDems 17%, we’re actually above the top end of our current opinion poll ratings with a share of the vote between our 1997 and 2001 general election result.
Also popular in the news is the idea that Nick Clegg must go as leader of the Liberal Democrats, if you rummage around amongst several hundred rather bruised (ex-)local councillors you are bound to find a few who’ll agree with this but it is idiocy for several reasons:
- Nick Clegg got strong party backing for going into the Coalition from MPs, the federal executive and a special conference. We all stand with Nick, the idea that he has led the party off at the head of an Orange Book clique is a fantasy built by Labour, familiar with this type of internal schism.
- Our drop in the opinion polls was pretty much inevitable as soon as the Coalition agreement was signed, regardless of anything any leader could have done: we dropped 2 points from the 23% showing at the election almost immediately, and then by mid-late summer were down to 18% even before the tuition fees issue had really hit.
- A new leader at this point would continue to take the blame for simply being in coalition and leave us in no better position at the next general election.
The no to AV result was a disappointment, not because of the rejection of AV itself but because it likely rules out electoral reform for years to come. I thought Nick Clegg struck the best note on this, close to the end of the campaign when he said this was just a small change. I found Ed Miliband’s refusal to share a platform with Nick Clegg in support of the Yes campaign deeply unhelpful, listening to him try to justify this having just explained to John Humphries how AV forced politicians to reach out to other parties was entertaining; as was his jaw-dropping hypocrisy in justifying Labour’s failure to implement AV in 13 years of government as being because they’d won a 170 seat majority under first-past-the-post – remember this when he bleats about the “progressive majority”.
I note that over on ConHome the Tories are trying to claim that Labour made them make Nick Clegg the target for the No campaign. This seems to me a rather spineless statement – they funded the No to AV campaign, they could have called the shots. They should realise how massively they have pissed off a large chunk of pro-Coalition LibDems, and that there will be consequences for this. Going forward we should be looking at each item we have on the Coalition Agreement and asking ourselves: can we trust the Tories to support implementation of this? If the answer is “no” then we should be looking to bargain with something in the coalition agreement that they hold dear and not let it pass until our target has been achieved.
Obviously another election brings another crude pass at Liberal Democrat ministers by Ed Miliband, like a creepy uncle at a wedding party. This is entirely for his own supporters and has nothing to do with the Liberal Democrats, as Ed has said before – he seeks our extinction. We should all bear this in mind when he talks about “progressive alliances”.
I don’t see the point in believing that we can now go to the Tories for concessions because we have lost some elections, it seems needy and unnecessary to me. Similarly I don’t see much mileage in fiddling around with the infantile “getting into bed with” and “marriage” metaphors. Vince Cable and Chris Huhne have prototyped the “cooperating but sulkily” look and, to be frank, it is unedifying.
Liberal Democrats have succeeded in getting policy implemented over the past year in Coalition: in getting the income tax threshold raised, in linking pensions to earnings, in providing some protection to the poorest students through the Pupil Premium, in reducing the 28 days detention without charge to 14 days, in reducing dramatically, (if not entirely eliminating) child detention for failed immigration claimants. There is some interesting analysis by the University of Essex on how much of the Liberal Democrat manifesto got into the Coalition agreement. If you want to see a more detailed comparison here is a document on the Guardian Datablog which analyses, in detail the Coalition agreement. Or there is a document produced by the Party here.
Now is a bloody awful time to be in government, there is no money to spend on cherished schemes, rather an absolute need to cut pretty much the largest deficit in the world, left behind by a Labour government desperately trying to spend it’s way to salvation but we’re getting on and doing it. It’s worth remembering that at this point Labour would have been making 7/8ths of the cuts currently being made by the Coalition (under the Darling plan) – difficult to believe given their current statements.
Despite all of this, it is still the best time it has ever been to be a Liberal Democrat since I joined the party in 1991.