David Cameron claimed this week claimed that 2015 was a choice between “me in Downing Street or Ed Miliband in Downing Street”. Next week will give Nick Clegg his chance to argue for a different scenario. However as well as the public, he needs to make his members listen.
This Parliament has seen the Lib Dems undertake a well-documented slide to fourth place in the polls. Come spring 2015, the party will rely more than ever on its famously effective grassroots campaigners if it wants to maintain a serious Parliamentary presence. However, there are signs that all may not be well at the local level – and conference is Clegg’s final chance to inspire and motivate his troops before 2015 campaigning begins.
Electoral Calculus predicts the party will lose a devastating 39 seats in May, while others are more optimistic and believe the party will hold or even win a few. One of the many complicating factors is that while the Lib Dems poll poorly at a national level, they have a campaign force which is the envy of their peers in its organisation, diligence and commitment to the cause.
Worryingly for Mr Clegg, though, there are signs that the party base is unhappy. This isn’t an entirely new development. This Parliament has been bruising for Lib Dems and the relationship between leadership and membership has inevitably suffered under the realities of government. These issues aside, the last few months have seen a distinct worsening, following the party’s collapse in the European and local elections.
The leadership has recognised the importance of the situation and in May Clegg and his team commissioned a ‘full and frank’ internal review of the election campaign, to understand what went wrong and what could be learned. The analysis revealed three reasons behind members’ low morale: coalition with the Tories; the tuition fees u-turn; and Mr Clegg’s television debates with Nigel Farage over Europe.
In addition, the Lord Rennard scandal has been costly. Susan Gasczak, an activist who resigned her membership in July warned that women would leave the party “in their droves” as a result of the party’s failure to expel the peer. For a party that has worked so hard to promote equality between the sexes, being accused by the Daily Mail of “losing their moral compass” must sting.
Mr Clegg’s task has been made harder by going third this year. David Cameron’s promised increase in the personal allowance and Labour’s mansion tax are both appropriated Lib Dem policies.
The challenge facing the party leadership at conference is clear. Their top priority must be to confront dwindling morale and rally members for another big push in May 2015. If Clegg really wants to convince the general public to vote for the party at the election, he will first need to convince the activists that the party is worth fighting for.
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