Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Liberal Democrats are risking major losses in the next general election

. . . in defending policies such as cuts in benefits on the scale proposed. The details are here. An excerpt:

"[. . .] Mr Clegg is expected to face a rough ride over the planned cuts at his party conference which gets underway in Liverpool at the weekend, with some backbenchers claiming he has broken his promise to ensure they are "fair".

Lib Dem MP Bob Russell last week forced Mr Osborne to face a Commons grilling after the chancellor revealed his plans for extra cuts, on top of the £11bn already announced in June's emergency budget, in a BBC interview. [. . .]"

The problem for Nick Clegg is as follows. He made a gamble on the future of his political party, the Liberal Democrats (or "Lib Dems"). The Lib Dems have not held power before and it has been several decades since a Liberal was in Government. The great benefit of joining the Tories in Government would be that the Lib Dems would no longer be the party of the protest vote against the status quo, but a viable party ready to take power and a genuine alternative to Labour and the Tories.

This decision also came with a heavy cost. Many of those who vote Lib Dems have a particular dislike of the Tories. Indeed, it was said on the campaign trail that a vote for the Lib Dems was a vote to keep the Tories out of power. And then the Lib Dems agreed to put the Tories in power.

The cost of coalition politics for the Lib Dems is squaring their highly contrary policy positions with the Tory-led Government. It has not helped that Nick Clegg seems to have made a poor Deputy Prime Minister thus far. This has been because of gaffes, such as standing at the despatch box and declaring the Iraq War illegal, only to later claim that -- despite speaking on behalf of the Prime Minister and the Government -- it was simply a "personal" view. Furthermore, as Deputy Prime Minister, he finds himself in the position of promoting Government policies his party had contested bitterly in the previous general election.

Clegg would have been better off as head of a Government department, rather than Deputy Prime Minister. This would have permitted him room for critical distance where necessary in order to avoid alienating the Lib Dem base.

Alienating the Lib Dem party faithful appears to be the only game in town. Recent polls have shown a shocking number of voters who supported the Liberal Democrats now regretting their decision in favour of other parties, and the Labour Party in particular (see here). My suspicion is that this will get worse before it gets better.

Clegg gambled on the future of his party. While there may be more cards left to play, it may take a miracle for him to play a full house. The problem with gambling is that you could lose and get it wrong. I suspect that this great opportunity for the Liberal Democrats to win wider support and viability has begun to implode.

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