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?