This has been a bad week to be a Liberal Democrat by any standards. Big losses in the local elections were accompanied by rumours of internal strife for Nick Clegg. Worst of all was defeat in the AV referendum, which has effectively closed the door for at least this Parliament on the electoral reform debate.
So what now? The Coalition will almost certainly last the full five years, but the Liberal Democrats have to find a way to change the strategy. Nick Clegg’s speech today – to mark the anniversary of the Coalition – was clear. The Liberal Democrats must be ‘a louder voice in Government’. Any Lib Dem supporter would agree with this, but what exactly will this louder voice be saying?
Since Friday, the language has been about a more transactional relationship, more business-like, with Conservative colleagues. Nick Clegg has also said that they must be ‘more assertive’ about policy differences. But the manifestation of that cannot just be more talk about ‘keeping the Tories in check’, and posthumously hitting out against NHS Reforms he originally supported. This risks adding weight to the unfair perception that Nick Clegg is disingenuous and opportunistic, and alienates the 36% of the electorate that actually wanted a Conservative Government.
The second strand of the strategy is to get better at ‘blowing our own trumpet’ about Lib Dem policies being implemented. The BBC estimated that 75% of the Lib Dem manifesto is being implemented compared to 60% of the Tory manifesto. This is an achievement given the relative size of the Parliamentary Parties. And there is much to trumpet – the pupil premium, increases in the personal tax free allowance, a Green Investment Bank, and state pension rises to name just a few.
The fundamental problem, aside from the fact that nobody knows these are Lib Dem policies, is that not that many people really care. In the April IPSOS Mori poll of the most pressing issues facing the country, education placed 8th (just 2% said this was the most important issue) tax was 11th, pensions 12th and the environment down in 17th. This means the Lib Dems start with an uphill struggle.
There is hope though. The local election results were at least not any worse than expected, and the Party still polled at 15%. The louder voice might just work if it speaks of positive, proactive messages about what the Lib Dems are doing and stand for. Nick Clegg says that he is not interested in so-called ‘progressive realignments’ with either the left or right. This will doubtless disappoint many people in the Party who feel more at home on the left and that the Lib Dems in the Coalition have been too close to the Tories, but this speech is clearly about appealing to a broad base. The Coalition will definitely be less cosy going forward – that should be a given – but the Lib Dems need to find a distinctive voice of their own.
Clegg has put his money on selling the Party as combining strength on the economy with delivering a fair society. Time will tell if this really is distinctive enough. Like it or not though, leaving the Coalition is not a viable option for either Party at the moment. Nick Clegg was dealt a near impossible hand a year ago, and a new strategy is the only option he has right now. For the time being least, it looks as though the Party are giving him the benefit of the doubt to give it a go.