Tuesday, 10 August 2010

What will become of the Lib Dems?

Pity the poor Lib Dems. In office, but not in power, they have traded their souls for ministerial baubles. Unable to shape government policy, they provide the human shield for the harshness of Cameron's and Osborne's measures, whose image they soften by their reassuring presence but whose substance they cannot disguise. As a result, they have lost their raison d'etre and, with it, increasing numbers of their supporters.

At any rate, that's fast becoming the received wisdom. A poll in today's Independent tells the usual story of steady decline, with the party down to 16%, their lowest share since before the election campaign. The Conservatives, meanwhile, are holding firm on 39% - up since the election, and enough (possibly) to have given them an absolute majority. Labour, though, are treading water on 33%. Other recent polls have told a slightly different story - one putting Labour on 38% with the Lib Dems down to 12. Precise details, however, probably matter less at this stage than perception, and the narrative is now clear - grassroots activists, we are told, are deserting in droves. Some are heading for for Labour, which is fast reasserting its self-defined role as the natural home of anyone "on the centre-left", a category to which many Lib Dems tell themselves they belong. There is talk of splits, of that faction of the party that finds government so congenial eventually being absorbed by the Conservatives, as the National Liberals once were.

Certainly the alacrity with which Lib Dem ministers have embraced Conservative cost-cutting has surprised many. They can't have been listening too closely to Vince Cable's utterances before the election. The Indie records the despair of people like former MP Sandra Gidley, who thinks that "it's difficult to see where the Liberal Democrats have had an influence" on what looks to many people like a Conservative government. Yet Lib Dem fingerprints are all over the government's policies, and not always in a good way: from the future blackouts adumbrated by Chris Huhne's deep green energy policy, through the surprising return of the graduate tax (a truly terrible idea) to, of course, the coming referendum on electoral reform. Other Lib Dem policies (or at any rate themes) on things such as localism, civil liberties and transparent government were adopted/stolen by the Tories long before the election.

The most interesting finding is that 73% of those questioned in the Independent poll had little or no idea what the Lib Dems stood for. This, though, was an increase of just 8% - in other words, before the Coalition was formed a two-thirds of voters had no idea what they stood for. Presumably, the increase is made up largely of those who thought they knew what the Lib Dems stood for - and have been proved wrong. Put like that, it sounds bad, but not standing for anything in particular has long been the Lib Dems' biggest draw. Of course, they do stand for things - proportional representation, mostly, and the EU - but few of their voters (as opposed to their members) supported them on this basis. Their unique selling point has long been that they were the alternative party, the anti-politics party, the home of the protest vote. Much of their appeal was calibrated on the basis that they would never get into power, but wouldn't it be nice if they did.

Being in government necessarily poses problems to such a party. Partly, they have to do things that any government would have to do, but are unpopular - like, in this case, spending cuts. They are no longer the party to vote for if you don't like the government but don't like "the other lot" much better, either. They can no longer pretend to the public that they are not as other politicians. At long last, they are an honest party. They have to be seen to stand for things. Thus we have a paradox. A party that, by necessity, now has to do something ought to present a public image more concrete than when it could avoid being pinned down. Yet, judging by this poll, it has even less public definition than before.

Perhaps that's why it still has so much support. For, in truth, that figure of 16% in the latest poll isn't particularly bad. It's close to the long-term average for the party. LD support tends to peak during election campaigns when they become the natural choice of the undecided voter. It's only during election campaigns, after all, that the full awfulness of party politics in this country becomes apparent to those who are not generally interested in politics.

Those who think, like many Lib Dems, that future elections (without, or even with, AV) represent mortal peril for the party realise the importance of its negative anti-politics appeal. It has become a commonplace to predict near annihilation for Nick Clegg's MPs (and perhaps for Clegg himself, since he failed to secure a loan to Sheffield Forgemasters in his own constituency). People who like the government will vote Conservative, the theory goes, while those who disapprove of the government will vote Labour. Quite possibly. It will certainly be difficult for them to repeat their usual vote-catching trick. But subsisting on the fringes of national politics, retaining a core of support and a cadre of MPs at the price of never actually sitting in government, does not represent a noble attachment to principle. Rather, it is the ultimate form of political cynicism. Even if the Lib Dems are destroyed at the next election, they will have done more in government than they did in the eighty preceding years in opposition. And near-calamity will present its own opportunities. It won't be long before they start looking like the anti-politics party once again.