7 May 2012

Lib Dems face existential crisis

Two years ago Nick Clegg was boasting the Lib Dems were the new one nation party – able to take the fight to the Tories in their southern heartlands – while simultaneously being a force in Labour bastions in the north of England and Scotland and Wales.  In fact just 370 or so days ago a large number of the largest provincial cities up and down the UK had Lib Dem administrations.

Last year’s rout put Labour back in charge and they have consolidated their position with an equally massive swing last Thursday.  Despite Lib Dem ministers protestations, things haven’t got better for the party and the electorate is no more willing to listen to the party this year than it was in 2011.  The only thing that changed between this year and last was the Tories got it in the neck too.

To illustrate just how complete the collapse of the Lib Dems urban base has been the following makes salutory reading:

                                              1 May 2011         3 May 2012                        

Newcastle                              42                           26                          
Manchester                            33                           9                             
Liverpool                                33                           10                          
Birmingham                            31                           15                          
Leeds                                     21                           10                          
Sheffield                                 42                           23                          
Cardiff                                    34                           15                          
Hull                                        33                           17                          
Edinburgh                               17                           3                             
Total                                      284                         128                        

The pain is not finished yet – in 2014 the final cycle of seats are up in those cities that elect by thirds and the party will be further hollowed out – with just a handful of councillors left  in places controlled by the party until May 2011.  If nothing changes then a generation of hard political graft will have been wiped out in just 36 months.

This matters not because fewer councillors means less fundraising and a reduced campaigning capacity – these are important – but because if the party’s only strength is in 50 odd seats which have a Lib Dem MP then it cannot reasonably make a claim to be a national party, enunciating liberal values for urban and rural areas alike.  It will find itself on the UK stage where the Scottish Tories are today – a small fringe party of a few atypical rural areas.

It is clear that unless things change dramatically then the party will continue to heamorrage councillors, activists and will to win.  The calls for Clegg’s head have already started albeit in the hapless form of Lembit Opik

Clegg however is not the problem – he is the symptom.  The problem is that the Lib Dems have built up their reputation over the years as outsiders, fighting an essentially insurgent campaign against big politics and traditional vested interests.  In government they have governed as just another establishment party.  Watching the series of Lib Dem ministers tour the TV studios as Thursday turned into Friday, parroting some drivel about ‘learning the lessons’, ‘usual for government to lose mid terms’ and ‘working harder to explain’ one could be forgiven thinking the same civil servants were regurgitating lines first written for John Major and reused for Gordon Brown.  It was typical of the way the party in government has handled almost every issue – selling the government’s view to the people, rather than the people’s view to the government.

What the party needs to do now is to identify one or two big, liberal and popular issues and start to do what it did in opposition – campaign.  For example the party collected tens of thousands of signatures on petitions demanding ‘to axe the tax’ – the hated and regressive Council Tax.  This is a campaign that should be rediscovered – with ministers using their influence to demand action and the party reconnecting with voters who signed the petition.  I’m not really bothered what policy solutions are proposed – land tax is probably the most sensible alternative – but a campaign that highlights the tax’s unfairness,  demands its replacement with something better and challenges the Tory part of the coalition to do something about it, is the sort of thing people expect Lib Dems to do. 

Such a campaign also has the bonus of moving the party towards an exit strategy for the coalition.  The only way to leave the coalition is over a major policy issue – and abolishing the Council Tax is exactly the sort of issue that fits the bill. 

What is clear is that doing nothing puts the very existence of the party at risk.  The question is: do the leadership (and particularly those advising it) understand the extent of the threat and do they have the political experience and nous to do anything about it?


  1. Replies
    1. Good post. In answer to your question at the end I would say (i) no - they don't appear to understand the threat from inside their Westminster bubble and (ii) no - it seems unlikely they experience or nous, unless they import some of older and wiser advisors who helped build the party since the 1980s. Leaving it to some eager 20 somethings isn't going to do the trick.

  2. Good points, Dan.

    I would say, Nick Clegg and those advising him are part of the problem in that they don't get it. Clegg's plan is to keep our head down and get on with it whilst the party crumbles around us rather than doing something to stop it. Doing something which will get the media saying "Masterful Clegg" or at least something positive about himself.
    He and his advisers are saying there are some sections that hate us so we won't bother trying to understand them or even try to speak to them, understand their problems and deal with it.

    Oh and Alex Marsh, its not the problem of the 20-somethings because they are 20-somethings after all this 20something does understand the problem.

  3. My view is that we need to identify with proven victims of bureaucracy, ill treatment and persecution in this country and abroad such as asylum seekers, people affected by smuggling and other atrocities and consistently stand up for them.