Why the Lib Dems do matter
Chelgate Autumn Newsletter 2014
No one can quite agree on where British politics is headed at the next General Election. Some say that the Conservatives are sure to recover a poll lead as election day approaches – Ed Miliband cannot possibly become PM. Others think the Tories have set a course for failure – we should all get used to hearing about ‘Prime Minister Ed Miliband’.
Ever since UKIP picked up scores of councillors and MEPs in May’s election, and came a comfortable second to the Tories in the Newark by-election a few weeks later, the question on everyone’s lips seems to be ‘how many seats will they get in 2015, and how many will they cost the two main parties?’ Some claim that the Euro elections were UKIP’s watershed – others say it was simply their high water mark.
Take a survey of six political punters of all stripes, and you’re likely to come out with a dozen or more opinions as to what 2015 will look like.
One thing everybody can agree on, though, is that the Lib Dems are becoming more and more irrelevant. They have been wiped off the map in places like Brent and Manchester. They only have one lonely MEP. Nationally, their poll numbers are bumping along the bottom – they recently had their worst ever performance in a YouGov survey since that company started polling in 2001.
Everybody knows the Lib Dems do not matter. Why pay attention to a dying party, especially when a new force is on the rise?
Everybody is wrong. The Lib Dems still matter. In some ways, they are actually more important today than they were in 2010, at the peak of Cleggmania.
FACT 1: The Lib Dems are still a big force in local government
They may have taken big losses in every local election since 2010, but the Lib Dems are still a very powerful force in local councils. They are the third-largest party in local government by a very wide margin: with 2,257 councillors, they are fully six times larger than UKIP.
UKIP does not control any significant local authority’s – the Lib Dems have outright control in ten, and lead another six through minority or coalition arrangements.
Whatever the state of the national party, the fact is that the Lib Dems are strong local players. Like all parties, they have strongholds and no-go areas. Where they are strong, however, or hold the balance of power, ignore them at your peril.
FACT 2: The Lib Dems will probably hold the balance of power after the next election
Neither Labour nor the Tories can confidently say that they are going to win a majority in 2015. Labour is burdened with an unpopular leader and untrusted on key policy areas like the economy and immigration. The Tories, meanwhile, are seen as out of touch – even while voters think they have been good on the economy as a whole, they don’t think the Tory government has been good for them personally.
For either party to get a majority in 2015, one of them will have to buck strong historical patterns. The smart money is on a hung parliament.
Fearing economic and political instability, Labour and the Tories both fear going it alone in a minority government. Even if grimmest predictions about their performance come true in 2015, and they end up with fewer than half the seats they hold now, the Lib Dems will still be the third-largest party in Parliament by a comfortable margin. No party will be able to lead a governable coalition without the Lib Dems.
Parties are already laying the groundwork for this. Early in the life of the Coalition, Labour’s leadership was vocally opposed to teaming up with the Lib Dems – and particularly with Nick Clegg. But in the past year, it has rowed back on this. Meanwhile, Cameron and the Tory top brass won’t rule out another coalition.
Despite the naysayers, the Lib Dems have clearly made a mark on this Government in a variety of ways – mainly by stopping the Tories from getting what they wanted. Burned by accusations that they haven’t had much of an impact this time round, the Lib Dems will want to show even more spine if coalition negotiations happen in 2015. In 2010, the Lib Dems were desperate to get into government. They worried that turning down a coalition would wreck the fragile economic recovery and destroy their credibility as a potential party of government.
Now, they have nothing to fear. The Lib Dems will hardly face any backlash if they refuse to enter another coalition, especially with the Tories. In 2015, each of the two main parties will not just need to convince the Lib Dems to go into a coalition with them instead of the other – they will need to convince the Lib Dems to come back into government, full stop.
This gives them greater bargaining power than they had after the 2010 election, when a Tory-Lib Dem pact was almost inevitable. Understanding where the third party stands is – in a way – more important now than it was even in 2010.
FACT 3: Even outside government, the Lib Dems will be a strong force in Parliament
But let’s say the Lib Dems really do crash and burn, and either of the two main parties secure a majority. Then they’ll really be irrelevant, right?
Of course, there is the risk that the Lib Dems may sink into the doldrums for a time after 2015. They will certainly lose many of their MPs, and they will be very unpopular with the public. Their media profile will probably shrink, and they will be decapitated for a time, at least until they pick a new leader.
But the Lib Dems are far more resilient than people think. Many Lib Dem veterans scoff at the idea that their terrible poll ratings mean they’re soon to be snuffed out. They’ve seen far worse. In the late ‘80s, they say, their polls were so bad that they were listed as an asterisk – ‘not statistically significant’. They came back from that and got into government. Given time, why shouldn’t they be able to recover to a respectable level?
Most importantly, freed from the chains of collective responsibility, the Lib Dems will be able to speak out in whichever way they see fit.
If the Lib Dems return to opposition benches in 2015, they are very likely to revert to their old ways: a thorn in the side of government, with no aspirations to power and nothing to lose. This is the way they operated for nearly a quarter century from 1987, when their previous big bid at government failed.
Most importantly, freed from the chains of collective responsibility, the Lib Dems will be able to speak out in whichever way they see fit. In the past, they have been able to torpedo legislation, secure amendments, hold testy debates and generally make life quite uncomfortable for the government of the day.
Clegg’s party has never been flush with cash, but they have been truly skint for the past four years. When they entered coalition in 2010, they lost millions of pounds worth of government-allocated ‘Short money’ that is earmarked for opposition parties. Without it, the Lib Dems were in the financial doldrums. Out of government, they will receive a big injection of much-needed cash, which they can use to fund the backroom staff that make it possible to be a serious force in parliament.
And when they do get their mojo back, the Lib Dems will be a force to be reckoned with.
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