So, dear Blog reader, I thought perhaps here we should talk about what the LibDems should do…
The big money in commentary these days lies in being counter-intuitive. Find some way of arguing that black is white, sexism is acceptable, America is Satan, Ed Miliband should love LibDems, Samantha Brick is a living idol or torturing cats is fun and (so long as you avoid the “oooh, too far” line) a profitable career in late night TV reviewing, newspaper blogging, and radio appearance fees can be yours.
Obviously, I want a bit of that sweet £85 appearance fee pie. But internal political wranglings do not readily present themselves for such zesty interpretations. But here goes anyway.
While Nick Clegg is personally unpopular, and should probably be replaced, the Lib Dems risk an even worse political outcome if their next leader abandons the basic strategy Clegg is operating under.
I make this argument from three foundations. First, the LibDems are mistaken if they think that the electoral coalition that got them to the mid-twenties under Kennedy and Clegg is ever going to come back for the next election. That coalition included HE students, large numbers of white collar public sector workers, and a substantial number of people who defined themselves as being to the left of the Labour party. For good or ill, Government has shattered that alliance, and no-one, not Humpty Dumpty Clegg, nor egg-bonce Vince Cable can put it back together again. To try is folly.
As Peter Kellner has argued:
“In 2010, the Lib Dems secured the votes of 1.6 million Labour identifiers and 1.8 million people with no party ID. The Labour-ID group was more left-wing than Labour voters generally. They comprised a mixture of people who were disillusioned with Labour over such matters as Iraq and student fees, and tactical voters – passionate anti-Tories who feared that Labour couldn’t win locally. The vast majority of these voters have now returned to Labour. Today, just 200,000 Labour identifiers would vote Lib Dem.
As for the 1.8 million people with no party ID who voted Lib Dem last time, the Lib Dems have lost more than 1.5m. They have splintered all over the place: around 600,000 to Labour, 200,000 each to the Greens and Tories, and smaller numbers to UKIP and the Welsh and Scottish nationalists. Around 400,000 don’t know how they would vote.
Some no-party-ID voters are passionate about politics, usually issue- rather than party-related; but most are less interested in politics than average. Their support for the Lib Dems was always easy-come-easy-go. It was the most obvious way to protest against the two main parties.”
Those Labour supporters who voted for a “progressive majority” in 2010 were given a horrible shock when they woke up with a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. They will require far more than just a resumption of equidistance in late 2014 to convince them that it will be safe to vote Lib Dem again.
As for the “non-identifiers” I don’t see how the Lib Dems can be the way to protest against the two main parties at the next election, both because the next election will be a constant refrain of “which side are you on?” and they will have had a history of taking a side.
You don’t get to be a protest vote in such circumstances. That means the 2010 Lib Dem coalition is gone and is not coming back.
Surely though, replacing Nick Clegg with Vince Cable, or another Lib Dem with more obvious left of centre radicalism could reverse these trends a little bit, thus saving many Lib Dem skins?
That’s only half right. Nick Clegg is politically tainted is a way few politicians ever achieve. He is, not to put too fine a point on it, electoral poison. Pretty much every poll confirms that. Actually, you don’t even need to read a poll, With Nick Clegg, just random conversations in the street will guide you right.
That said, given the decisions the Lib Dems have made, the broad strategy Clegg is following is probably the right one.
Given that any future Lib Dem leader will have to defend the decisions they took in Government, simply because if they repudiate the Coalition and all their works, then they will be repudiating their own last four years, it’ll be hard to pull off a full reverse ferret. Imagine the Shiny new Lib Dem leader explaining why the decision to join with the Conservatives, approve the cuts, cut the deficit was absolutely right and necessary, but at the same time, needs to be repudiated so that the Lib Dems can form an alliance with a party that opposed these absolutely right decisions every step of the way.
What’s more, come 2014, there will likely still be three or four years of significant fiscal restraint to come, so the next LibDem leader makes won’t be able to argue that “We did the hard work, now it’s done, let us hold hands and lie in the Sun for a while.” In other words, If the next Lib Dem leader in any way supported the programme of Coalition, at the next election they will be forced to argue that they were right to do so, and that a sustained period of deficit reduction should continue. In essence, they will have to broadly argue for continuity. It will be hard for sell a message of “Change: for more of the same” to those who were disgusted with the idea of entering Coalition in the first place. How would this attract the disgruntled Labour sympathiser to lend their votes to the Lib Dems once more?
But let us assume that a palpably left of centre Lib Dem leader would be able to attract a million or so Labour and unidentified voters back to the Lib Dem fold. Would they really be able to do so cost free?
After all, in seat after seat in the South of England, the main threat to the Lib Dems is not Labour, but the Conservatives. The LibDems have succeeded in this pretty unpromising territory by doing two things – convincing Labour voters that it’s OK to transfer their votes to the LibDems, and persuading Conservatives that they represent a safe vote for local representation, community values and a variation on traditional moderate one nationism. The danger for the Lib Dems now is that they risk their remaining Lib Dem and Tory identifiers loyalty in a wild goose chase after Labour sympathisers who are likely to remain unconvinced.
I suspect if the Coalition collapsed in acrimony, a “Vote Yellow, get Red” campaign would be effective in helping the blues win a swathe of seats from the Lib Dems. If a fifth of hitherto tactical voters return to Labour in seats across the South, the LibDems lose many seats At the moment, what holds that at bay is a sense among a proportion of Conservative identifying voters that the LibDems are, if not Tories, they come in the evening, at any rate. The Lib Dems potential audience is now restricted to people who are pretty comfortable with being”Earnest”.
Now, none of this is to argue that Nick Clegg should be retained. I think for any Lib Dem strategy to work, he has to go.
However, I’d be very wary of throwing his basic strategy out with it. Instead, the Lib Dems should recognise that the broad swathe of Labour votes are not going to return, and that to maximise their potential vote they need to differentiate themselves from the Conservatives, but not so much that they risk a reaction from the right that overwhelms them.
In other words, the Lib dems should stop dreaming of a return to their salad days, but to see that their potential support is much narrower than it was, and made up of a much more political centrist and conservative pool of voters. They need to not be the Conservatives, but they must not fall into the trap of trying to out radicalise Labour in compensation for past sins in order to reach lost voters. Instead, hard headedness, a certain economic dryness, all set in a moderate and centrist one nation framework, might maximise their appeal among those who are still willing to consider voting LibDem in 2015.
If he chose to Vince Cable could embody this, but ironically, he’d need to emphasise the pre-2010 fiscal realist who envisioned years of restraint to come, not the Oakeshottian Osborne rejectionist he’s currently associated with.
Of course, once the election was out of the way, and he’d done well enough to deny either party a majority, then he could learn Clegg’s other lesson. Once you’ve got the seats, you can go where you really want.