2015 is here at last. For British politicos this is the endgame – the year of the General Election and the verdict on the politicking of the current parliament, elected in 2010. That election remains very open, but for the Liberal Democrats it is fair to say that things have gone disastrously off script.
The party languishes at 5-10% in the polls, compared to the over 20% it achieved in 2010. This has shown no sign of improving as the election approaches, and there have been plenty of real life elections to show that such dismal ratings are not just inaccurate polling.
This follows the party’s entry into coalition government in 2010, a ground-breaking event both for the party and for British politics. This government has been pretty successful all told. It inherited an utterly unsustainable government deficit that demanded cuts to both public services and benefits – “austerity”. It struck a fairly prudent course between extreme austerity, and using the relative ease of government borrowing to postpone the pain. For all the political sound and fury over the sense or otherwise of such austerity, there has been little difference between the main political parties on its scale.
There have been failures. Benefits had to be cut, but many of the reforms to the benefits system were misconceived. The centrepiece reform of Universal Credit might be a nice idea in theory, but its dependence on unobtainable real-time data make its demise only a matter of time. Many attempts to sub-contract government services to the private sector have proved misconceived too. Reforms to the NHS were well-intentioned but it would surely have been more sensible to build on the previous government’s reforms incrementally. Reforms to immigration were popular but unhelpful to the nation’s economic and social health.
But there have been many sensible reforms along the way. A lot of bureaucratic over-engineering from the last government was dismantled. The management of schools is more sharply focused, with a welcome emphasis on the progress of pupils from more challenging backgrounds – and a search for performance measures that can be gamed less easily. Reforms to university finance have improved accountability and spread the financial burden more fairly. The burden of taxation has been shifted to a more progressive and redistributive pattern, not least with a spectacular crackdown on tax avoidance by the very rich. This has helped stem a rise in inequality – though I don’t think the statistics are conclusive as to whether inequality has actually been held in check. overall.
Many (or even most) of these sensible reforms have Liberal Democrat fingerprints on them. The party has proved good at the exigencies of being a governing party – including the discipline of its parliamentarians. A lot of small scale policies have been implemented that Lib Dems have spent years campaigning for (like being able to declare pubs as community assets). Previously characterised as being chaotic lightweights, Liberal Democrats have proved to be up to the job.
There have been major disappointments for Lib Dems in the area of political reform. A referendum on changing the voting system to the Alternative Vote just gave an opportunity for the rest of the political establishment to gang up on the party. Plans for an elected second chamber collapsed in the face of hostility and indifference from Conservative and Labour politicians. Ironically these disappointments may help the party’s fortunes. With the current state of public opinion AV might well have helped the Conservatives and Labour more than the Lib Dems, allowing them to scoop up Ukip and Green votes. And the strong presence of Lib Dems in the House of Lords immeasurably adds to the party’s heft in any negotiations in a hung parliament – something the SNP, for example, cannot offer. In the PR elections the party wanted for the Lords (or rather, its replacement), it would almost certainly have been nearly wiped out, and surely behind Ukip, the SNP and perhaps even the Greens.
But Lib Dems had expected better rewards from the electorate. It is commonplace for governing parties to lose popularity in the middle of a parliament, but then they are meant to recover. The Liberal Democrats hoped to present themselves to the electorate as a credible coalition party, firmly rooted in the political centre – having put to rest any doubts that it was incapable of achieving practical political power. Even as Labour and the Conservatives seem to be vacating the political centre, few centrist voters see the Lib Dems as a respectable alternative.
What went wrong? The first problem is that the party has disappointed many of its supporters. In 2010 (and earlier General Elections, come to that), the party set itself up as standing for a new brand of politics – and a break from the lies and cynicism of the other parties. But what the public saw was just another established party wheeler-dealing like the rest of them, and enjoying the prestige of ministerial office. Reforms to university finance may have been an elegant compromise in practice, but it involved reneging on a very categorical election pledge.
A further problem is that many of the party’s supporters were Labour defectors, who saw teaming up with the Conservatives as betrayal. The impact of austerity and reforms to the benefits system and the NHS hardly reassured these voters. That the party was in practice no worse than Labour wasn’t really the point; they hoped for better. The Tory brand remains as toxic as ever.
But all is not lost. The party has upped its game in the seats it holds, and constituency polls show that its candidates there are much more popular locally than the party itself. And their opponents are distracted by the need to keep Ukip, the SNP and the Greens at bay. The public may yet give the party more credit, especially if it gets its messaging right. The liberal centre is not close-fought territory – it is notable that activists have never found the alternative parties less appealing than now.
But a job needs to be done to define better what the party stands for, and communicate this to the public. The party is confident of its core liberal values, but these are not producing sharp, distinctive policies for the more practical issues that bother voters – the economy and the NHS in particular. That’s a shame because some interesting thinking has come up through the party’s policy making machinery – but these ideas need to be turned into something much sharper. This week has not been particularly encouraging. The party has joined in the excessively negative slagging off of other parties – as have all the other parties, mainstream and fringe. Wouldn’t it be better to set out a stall of distinctive policies, on the economy, taxation, the environment and public service – and damn the other parties with faint praise? The public get that small parties can make a difference in coalition – but they need a better idea of what that difference might be in the case of the Lib Dems.
The party has to go through the final act of its years in coalition, and endure the outcome. After that though, the party needs a period of deep reflection, whether or not it re-enters government. But the country does need a liberal party, and there are no others challenging for that space.