The Lib Dems in government part 4 – What happens next?

The final installment of this series – for now at least. I look to the future for the Liberal Democrats, and it looks very, very bleak…

In May, I voted in a General Election for the first time (annoyingly, I was 17 years 9 months old in May 2005). I voted for a Liberal Democrat: Elwyn Watkins in Oldham East and Saddleworth. I had also done some leafletting and door-knocking for him during the campaign; again, this was the first time I had done anything like this for a Parliamentary Candidate. Partly this was because I felt Phil Woolas was an egregious Minister for Immigration. However, it was also because I wanted a left-wing alternative to Labour. The Lib Dems had talked the talk. They had been talking about green issues for longer than “Labservatives” (probably the last time that word will ever appear in print), they opposed the Iraq war, top-up fees, and had campaigned for civil liberties long before Michael Howard told the House of Commons that the Tories would support Labour’s ID Card scheme. I’m guessing many reading this feel the same way. After all, the Lib Dem vote actually slightly increased in this year’s election, to nearly seven million people.

A lot of these voters are now disillusioned, and some are very angry. Many may well never vote Lib Dem again, if this eye-watering survey is anything to go by. Indeed, half of their support has now disappeared, if the polling data can be believed. It’s true that the Lib Dems tend to poll better at election time than in other periods, but this analysis by Michael Thrasher suggests the low poll figures are not just a repeat of current trends.

The graph below shows support for the Lib Dems immediately before and after the last three general elections. The mid point on the graph is when the actual election took place:

As you can see, in the months leading up to the election (or in the case of 2001, in the month leading up to it) Lib Dem support increased. This then usually falls after the election before stabilising at roughly the same level of support that existed at election time.

But this hasn’t happened this year. Lib Dem support has fallen for three successive months, which is a unique occurrence. In my view, I think that this trend could continue. For instance, the comments to my last post on the Lib Dems talked of “betrayal”, whilst a PPC at the last election said he was “dismayed”. Some members of Liberal Youth I speak to – even committee members of university groups – aren’t sure if they want to stay in the party.

I’m not sure Clegg will do (or can do) a great deal to try and arrest the decline, for reasons I’ve outlined in the previous posts of this series.

John Rentoul has this cautionary tale from Australia:

Not long ago, in a country far, far away, there was a party called the Liberal Democrats. They were a party of the centre, concerned about social justice and with the best green credentials of any in parliament. They did quite well in a general election, although they came third behind the two big parties. During the campaign they opposed the Tory policy on tax, but after the election they voted to support it. They never recovered. Eleven years later, they were down to 1 per cent of the vote and lost all their seats.  

Welcome to Australia, where I have changed only one detail in this fairytale horror story of Nick Clegg’s future…

The rest of the article is worth reading.

Interestingly, the only thing that keeps the Australian Democrats alive as a party is that Australia’s upper house is elected by proportional representation. This highlights just how important it is for the Lib Dems not only to win the referendum on AV next year, but also to enact House of Lords reform as well.

Nick Clegg has said that the coalition would not disintegrate if an AV referendum is lost next year. But it could well be curtains for the Liberal Democrats. I don’t regret voting Lib Dem, and I don’t regret campaigning for them. They were the best option available at the time. The Guardian was right: this year the Liberal moment did come, but because of our wonderful electoral system, the increase in votes didn’t translate into an increase in seats. Now, they seem to have frozen like rabbits in the headlights in government. The next election could spell oblivion for the Liberal Democrats.

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