The Lib Dems are by now used to terrible headlines and sneering unpopularity. It was the price of joining a government with the Conservatives – a party that many of their grassroots still hate – and for making “necessary” swingeing cuts to welfare and other government spending.
Cross-national research has shown that coalitions are damaging for the popularity of smaller parties, as it is the larger member that generally absorbs the credit for good decisions, but shifts the blame for unpopular ones onto their weaker partner. The Lib Dems should have known this before entering coalition, but appear to have calculated that not joining would have given the impression of a lack of seriousness. Indeed, they expected to be rewarded for acting in the “national interest”.
It may come as a shock then to find out that, according to one recent opinion poll, the Lib Dems’s popularity has now fallen lower than UKIP. The result may well be an outlier, but even so, it implies that the two parties have similar levels of support. Remember, UKIP is a party that has never won a single seat. Unless the Lib Dems can rally and rebuild a support base, they may face their worst fears at the next election.
But that’s the snag: how do the Lib Dems rally? For how can they distinguish themselves from their more established and ruthless coalition partners? The Tories may have had a bad month, but at least they have a core voting bloc that they can rely on. This cannot be said about Britain’s third party that has ideological faultlines running through it, with the grassroot social democrats and leadership liberals pulling in different directions. The compromise of coalition was supposed to be favourable (and fairer) voting reform. But the Tories crushed that possibility.
The Lib Dems now need to work out a strategy through which they can distinguish themselves within the coalition, but not too much to break it apart. A premature election could leave them dangerously exposed. Rather, they will need to bide their time, and hope that by the probable election in 2015, they will be seen as a responsible party, distinct from the Tories and offering a liberal agenda. To this end, Nick Clegg may have recently suffered a minor setback with the announcement that his director of strategy, Richard Reeves, is to quit and migrate to the US. Mr Reeves is the former director of the progressive think-tank, Demos, and author of an excellent biography on the liberal firebrand John Stuart Mill. He is someone whose ideas Mr Clegg might find indispensible for carving out a distinctive identity.
Nevertheless, there is still hope. Mr Clegg and Ed Davey, the Energy Secretary, have co-authored an article in the Guardian today, which advocates green growth, and argues that this is in Britain’s economic self-interest. This follows a speech he gave last week on the same topic, which jarred with the official Treasury line that suggests a dichotomy between environmentalism and economic efficiency. The stance also contrasts with recent Conservative hostility towards green policies.
By 2015, the Lib Dems will need to have a manifesto that neither mirrors the Conservative one, nor flatly contradicts it. If it opted for the former, the party would have nothing to distinguish itself. But if it offered the latter, then voters could plausibly be asking what exactly the Lib Dems have been doing over the past five years, if they vehemently disagree with every policy they have been complicit in pushing through.
The best bet would be to not even mention the other parties. Ambiguity may be a tricky line to navigate, especially as these five years won’t be forgotten quickly, but criticism of the Tories would backlash as badly as praise. Paddy Ashdown’s mistake in 1992 was to openly suggest that he would not be prepared to bring his Lib Dem party into coalition with John Major’s Conservatives. The result was that voters who weren’t sure about the two, but knew they didn’t want ‘old’ Labour, voted for Mr Major for fear of a Lib-Lab coalition. Such a tactical mistake must not be repeated.
To present a clear and separate identity, the Lib Dems will need to start speaking up more on liberal issues, advocating policies that further social mobility, equal opportunity and sustainable development, rather than simply worshipping economic jargon like ‘fiscal discipline’. For in the end, there is more to ‘the national interest’ than the short-term ‘fixing’ of the state’s finances.