Why the Lib Dems aren’t scared of this election (and why they should be)

Their message sounds good. But will anyone hear it?

21 February 2015

9:00 AM

21 February 2015

9:00 AM

One of the most remarkable features of this parliament has been the sangfroid of the Liberal Democrats. Nothing seems to shake them. The mood of the two main parties is often dictated by the latest opinion polls, but the Liberal Democrats simply laugh off each record low. They weren’t even rattled by the British Election Study, which claimed that on its current performance the party will only win one seat.

What explains this calmness under fire? First, the Lib Dems are determined not to give the media the pleasure of seeing them squeal. Secondly, they know that national polls miss important parts of the story. The Liberal Democrats have collapsed where they don’t have an MP — in the Rochester by-election, they received less than 1 per cent of the vote. But where they do have seats, they are still fighting hard. Moreover, they have confidence in their strategy. They believe that when voters expect a hung parliament, worry about Labour’s capacity to run the country and distrust the Tories’ motives, the Lib Dems will prove attractive.

But the strategy has hit a major snag: they are being written out of the election script. The SNP has taken the role that the Lib Dems were expecting to play. When the two Eds, Miliband and Balls, and other members of the shadow cabinet appear on television, they are grilled not on their terms for a deal with the Lib Dems but on whether they could make common cause with the SNP. Nicola Sturgeon’s speech in London last week, reiterating the nationalists’ demands in the event of a hung parliament, eclipsed Nick Clegg’s attempt to set out his priorities.

What makes the problem worse is that the Labour-Tory battle in Westminster is becoming increasingly ferocious. The Liberal Democrats have failed to make themselves heard in the row over tax avoidance, despite having pushed consistently to tighten the lax rules that Labour left behind. As one influential Lib Dem laments, ‘The media loves a fight, and they love a Labour-Tory fight.’ Inside Clegg’s office they are pinning their hopes on the fact that the broadcasters will be obliged by regulations to put them on air during the election campaign.

Few things sum up the Liberal Democrats’ problems better than the proposed TV debates. In 2010, these gave the party the biggest polling boost in its history. This time the Lib Dems are shut out of the main debate. Instead, they have been confined to the two proposed seven-way debates, at which Clegg risks being the whipping boy. The other leaders will relish saying, ‘I disagree with Nick.’

Senior Lib Dems fear that lack of coverage could do them serious damage. In private, Liberal Democrat ministers admit that the party is unlikely to hold more than a handful of the seats where Labour came second to it in 2010. And only a few seats in Scotland are safe from the SNP surge. So the key to the Lib Dems’ electoral performance will be how they do against the Tories. If they are going to keep more than half their seats — the minimum acceptable return — they will have to beat back their coalition partners.

The plan for doing this, once again, looks fine at first glance. The Lib Dems will emphasise that they will make the Tories cut the deficit in a ‘fairer’ way and force them to protect spending on education. At the same time, they’ll say that they’ll make Labour fiscally responsible, ensuring that the books are balanced. But their worry is that the more they are squeezed out of the news, the harder it will be for them to get this message across. It will become far simpler for the Tories to persuade voters in these seats that you have to vote for them because Miliband is too much of a risk with the economy.

The party is in some ways its own worst enemy. You don’t have to go far to find a Liberal Democrat with a gripe about the Deputy Prime Minister’s office. One complains that it contains ‘too many chefs, not enough cooks’. The more substantial criticism is that the Lib Dems have wound the government down too early. The coalition is still in office, but it is now simply biding time until the election campaign proper gets under way. The Liberal Democrats are insisting that the 18 March budget should be a limited affair. They don’t want to be seen doing too much business with the Tories so close to polling day.

Yet a proper budget would turn attention to the Liberal Democrats and the influence they have wielded in government, where they have punched above their weight. It would prove the point often made by Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, that the Liberal Democrats are the only party offering to continue the economic policies that the coalition has pursued in this parliament.

The Liberal Democrat consensus, though, is that they don’t do well out of budgets. One coalition veteran complains, ‘The only budget we got good coverage for is the one that was leaked. It is Osborne’s day.’ There is no getting round the fact that it is the Chancellor who stands at the dispatch box to deliver the statement. But the Lib Dems would benefit from stressing what they, in coalition, have done for the economy. It would remind voters of their relevance.

There is, however, little sign of sympathy for the Liberal Democrats from their coalition partners. When I’ve discussed with several people in No. 10 the possibility that Nick Clegg might lose his Sheffield Hallam seat to Labour unless he can squeeze the Tory vote there, they’ve just chuckled. Yet no matter how amusing the Tories find the plight of their coalition partners, they’d be well advised to remember that every seat the Liberal Democrats lose to Labour makes it more likely that Ed Miliband will be Prime Minister.

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  • AuldCurmudgeonNotTheGuardian

    There are no Lib Dems anymore; the Dems have exited back to their SDP roots by supporting, overwhelmingly, Labour. The Liberals, who remain, have their obstinate refusal to ever vote anything but Liberal, however futile the prospect, written through them like a stick of Brighton rock. It’s the very futility of it all that makes them so obstinate: the valhalla of electoral obscurity beckons like an old pair jeans, the Liberal comfort zone.

    They are caught between a rock and a hard place. On one side the sheer delusional self-belief of their leader that he will somehow, come election day, pull something out of his sleeve more meaningful than a bunch of flowers, and the certainty of his erstwhile followers that none of them wants him gone before then by being personally liable for the inescapable failure.

    The weaker their position becomes, the nastier they will be, to parties on their right. Beware of the dog.

    • rtj1211

      The right wrote the book on political nastiness so they should expect to receive what they dish out in spades……..

    • Dominic Stockford

      Many of their MP’s will also shuffle off the the left after the drubbing in May.

      I know of one local LimpDem councillor here who had his exit strategy all set up for his London Assembly place, should he have lost his council seat in May. Off to Labour he’d have gone. But he clung on by his fingernails. But that is where most of them came from anyway.

  • Edward Rubanis

    As an Old Liberal I still remember Joe Grimond’s belief that it was better to promote success than to subsidise failure. In those days Liberals were radical, seeking a realignment of the Left. Instead we got Blair. At least in Charles Kennedy ( who I confess to a sneaking admiration of ) we got opposition to blindly following the US line in foreign policy. However, I have been unimpressed by the LibDem leadership in this so called Coalition (really a Tory led Right-wing affair) BUT and this is a big but, I remain unashamedly Liberal, a wearer of suits not old pairs of jeans, uninterested by the idea of ” a valhalla of electoral obscurity” and more interested in continuing the old liberal traditions of fighting injustice, prejudices and attacks on our personal freedom (from which ever source) than voting for some Party which promises heaven and delivers purgatory. I shall hold my nose and vote LibDem !

    • Pootles

      Nicely put. And at least they’ve got one vote.

      • Adi

        So very nicely put. Make that two.

    • wildejamey

      Those “old Liberal traditions” must be very, very old – certainly before anyone under 30 was even born.

    • David Whitehouse

      The problem for you is, you intend to vote for a party which did indeed promise coalition heaven; and which has instead delivered something worse than personal-freedom-protecting purgatory. Your vote has given all of us that which you profess to disdain.

  • WFB56

    Is everyone in this weeks edition “off their game”? The usually insightful Mr. Forsyth has been reduced to rationalising why the much deserved drubbing of the Lib-Dems might be bad for the Tories and good for Labour. What about whether it is good for the country or not?

  • PaBroon

    If not the Tories it will be Labour. The liberals will sign up with anyone that keeps them in power.

  • victor67

    The Lib Dems duped many people in the 2010 campaign by positioning themselves left of New Labour (Not Terribly Difficult)
    By jumping into bed with the devil they will surely and deserve to pay a heavy price for facilitating the vicious and ideological attacks on the poor, sick, mentally ill and disabled.

    • Arash Babaee

      I guess you mean attack on lazy, cheaters and those who enjoy living off the others hard work and tax? Tories are evil in the sense that they still keep many of unnecessary thefts (read Benefits). Wake up communists, this big welfare state is digging its own grave.

  • Right-Minded

    I simply cannot believe they are as high as 7% in some polls, who in their right minds would vote for this party that stands for absolutely nothing. Their main policy at the last election was the abolition of tuition fees, they think they can simply excuse this outrageous lie as ‘a compromise of power’.

    This is the most blatant lie in modern politics, it is irrelevant whether the policy is the right one, politicians cannot be allowed to get away with lying to get votes. I will look forward to this election and will take great pleasure in the party’s electoral obliteration.

    Perhaps they will then understand the meaning of principle, conviction and honesty – alien concepts to the current opportunistic liars!

    • Enders_Shadow

      As the resident of a Lib-lab marginal, I will vote lib dem rather than Labour any day. Not my first choice – but my best choice!

      • Right-Minded

        There are no circumstances which would make it justifiable for me to vote for that party. But good for you if you can reconcile it.

    • Sidereal

      Tuition fees was not the Lib Dems’ main policy – it wasn’t even on the front cover of the manifesto (I think it was on page 39). Main policies were raising tax threshold, money for schools, green bank etc – all of which have been achieved.

      • Right-Minded

        Apologies, from my circumstances at the time (being 18, wide-eyed and ignorant to the reality of politics) it was one of the most important issues to me; and the Lib Dems campaigned relentlessly on the policy on campuses across the country.

        You are no doubt right it wasn’t their main policy as there are more important things, which you mentioned. But for you to suggest it wasn’t an important campaign topic is sly and devious, what more would we expect from a Lib Dem supporter.

        We’ll see who’s right when the results come in for the university seats… I can’t wait.

        • LarsVonBeer

          Calm down. All Sidereal stated was that tuition fees weren’t a main policy (a fact you acknowledge). Hardly sly and devious. In fact, if anything is sly and devious, it’s beginning a post with an apology and ending with a gratuitous insult.

        • Alec

          We’ll see who’s right when the results come in for the university seats… I can’t wait.

          What happens when those expecting the moon-on-a-stick don’t get it?

          You might be able to see this when you reach 25.


          • Right-Minded

            I expect you thought that response was witty and insightful. It wasn’t. Where exactly am I asking for handouts or ‘the moon-on-a-stick’, I didn’t even specify whether I agreed with the policy. The issue at hand is the outrageous LIE, said for no other reason than to cheat and betray their voters.

            In future Alec, please read comments carefully so as to avoid confusion.

          • Alec

            You were the one who brought-up your age apropos of nothing. There are people your age then – and younger than you are now – assuming battlefield commands in the British Army.

            You’re not too old for someone to put your over their knee and give you a smack.


      • Fraser Bailey

        Exactly. By any standards the Lib Dems have achieved a large number of their policy objectives, and their other objectives of subservience to the EU and mass immigration have been achieved for them by others. On which basis you could plausibly describe them as the most successful political party of our times.

        • Sidereal

          On the basis of your reply I could plausibly describe you as a buffoon of the first order.

    • Lina R

      Their main policies at the last election were raising the tax threshold and the pupil premium – both of which they’ve delivered. All parties break manifesto pledges once in government – though admittedly the tuition fees one was an egregious example of this and the polls have punished them considerably for it.

  • whitehorsehill

    They are in denial and they are about to enter obscurity
    Clegg’s lies will not be forgotten for a generation, perhaps even two

    • wildejamey

      yep, a bit like Lloyd George’s – without the charisma

  • John Croston

    How anyone can consider voting Lib-Dem after Clegg’s deliberate deceit after Lee Rigby was murdered is beyond me. Let’s get this straight – the man took a verse from the Koran that actually justifies the murder (5:32) and altered it – by leaving out a vital part – to make it appear to do the very opposite. He also failed to mention the very next verse (5:33) which not only justifies the murder, but also the crucifixion or mutilation of people like Lee Rigby. This attempted ( and largely successful) deception on behalf of a violent supremacist ideology, in my opinion, amounts to treason. And he appears to have got clean away with it. I hope Farage nails him with it during the TV debates.

  • wildejamey

    But the vast majority of disillusioned (= betrayed) LibDem voters don’t want the policies of this parliament continued, Danny Alexander. It was utterly predictable from day 1 that any credit for economic recovery would be snatched by the Tories and their media brigade while any blame would be diverted to the LibDems. They had a clear message about the Tories’ skullduggery over the AV and Lords reform debacle. Yet they seem to have taken enormous pride in the purely mechanical act of staying the 5 years in power when their influence on the coalition in practical terms is obliterated in the public mind by their constant rolling over to extremist Tory policies. They are done for – and deservedly so.

  • dean axford

    why not just avoid all of them and vote Green?

    • Sidereal

      Because the greens have a nasty authoritarian streak and not much economic nous.

      • Lina R

        The Greens would bankrupt the country.

  • Edward Rubanis

    I am curious. As A liberal I believe totally in liberal values – such as removing the democratic deficit created by the iniquitous first past the post voting system, restoring Beveridge’s ideal in health and social welfare, seeking open government and the rule not just of law but of justice; defending the weak, the vulnerable and minorities, working to restore a sense of doing what is right not doing what is politic. I am NOT interested in the cult of personalities or voting for yet another bunch of political promises that end up compromised. It appears most Britons are. The Age of Enlightenment is ending with a return to tribalism.

  • Galen Milne

    The LibDems led by Nick Clegg have provided the cement in government that has ensured our citizens have survived the world impacts of a global recession that has decimated other developed nations. So let the Torags or LayBore form a coalition with UKIP or the SNP and I will be first in the queue to tell all you anti-LibDem voters “you can reap what you sow “!

  • FrankS2

    An election postcard from the LibDem hopeful in my Tory town quotes bookies’ odds as a good reason to vote for him. The bookies have him at 5-1, with Labour at a mere 25-1. Funnily enough, he doesn’t quote the odds on the Tories holding the seat.

  • Terry Field

    Liberalism no longer lives in Britain.
    Think of Gladstone.
    Then think of Clegg, and that little chap who fiddled his speeding thingie.

  • Bob Hutton

    The national polls are bad for the Libs but, in the seats they hold and the seats they are challenging for, they have a strong team of canvasssers. It is highly likely they will target their resources into these seats and do a lot better than many people expect.

  • Sidereal