JUST when you think it can’t get any worse for the Liberal Democrats, it does. A derisory vote in the Euro elections, followed by a rather half-hearted and completely botched coup attempt, has left Nick Clegg likely to remain leader but with a fair number of publicly-declared recalcitrants within his diminishing ranks.
The party hierarchy has rallied behind the beleaguered deputy Prime Minister and are repeating the mantra that Liberal Democrat loyalists should “hold their nerve”. But this doesn’t amount to an electoral strategy of any real credibility. The junior coalition partners are suffering not from the mere fact that they are in government, but because they failed to carve out a distinctive liberal identity within it.
They can, of course, point to a range of areas where they have blocked the Conservatives from getting their own way, but how inspiring a rallying cry is that? They can also highlight their ability to enact their own party’s policies for the first time in nearly a century. But many of these are overblown – raising the income tax threshold may well have been dreamt up first by the Lib Dems, but it hardly counts as scoring a major concession from the Conservatives. It’s a policy which the vast majority of Tories are instinctively comfortable with and supportive of.
In two major areas, where the Lib Dems differ strongly from their coalition partners, the consequence of being in government has been to see Britain move further away from their key objectives. After the disaster of the AV referendum, electoral reform is now probably off the agenda for a generation. Clegg’s efforts to rally people to his pro-EU banner backfired spectacularly, helping to propel Ukip to the top of the national poll and leading to a near wipeout of Lib Dem MEPs.
The left of the party blame the so-called Orange Bookers for the parlous state the Lib Dems find themselves in. But this is misguided. Had the party actually embraced liberalism across the board – enthusiastically arguing for less of a role for the state, supporting individual lifestyle freedoms rather than embracing nannying and tighter regulations in substantial areas of our lives – it might have been able to present itself as a distinctive, radical, classical liberal option to the public.
But as it is at the moment, many voters will ask themselves what the Lib Dems are really for. There may be some people who quite like the coalition but consider the Tories to be mean-spirited and reactionary – but not very many, and certainly not enough to win large numbers of Parliamentary seats.
If Clegg and the Liberal Democrats didn’t exist, how many voters would feel a need to create them? A record of being rather more competent in government than many people expected and working through vast amounts of local constituency casework in key target seats doesn’t amount to a coherent, let alone inspiring, liberal vision.
Clegg still has a year until the election. Perhaps he can yet pull together a compelling liberal narrative. Perhaps he can put together a manifesto based around real tax cuts for most workers and less state intrusion in our lives. But that would require him to do rather more in the way of policy development than simply encouraging his activists to “keep the faith”, as Lib Dem polling numbers scrape along at rock bottom.
Mark Littlewood is director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs, and a former Liberal Democrat head of media.