Four years is an extremely long time in politics. Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, wiped the floor with then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative leader David Cameron at the first debate before the 2010 general election. A few polls in the following weeks showed the Lib Dems leading the two big parties overall, and they did claim a very creditable 23% of the total vote at the polls in May.
The trouble for Clegg & co. was that their 23% only produced 57 seats — five fewer than they had won in 2005. First-past-the-post was their biggest enemy, far more significant than either of the other parties.
Their other, much-commented-upon problem, was one of credibility. The last Liberal participants in a peacetime government ministry were members of Lloyd George’s coalition government from 1918-1922. The Liberal Democrats, as they now are, couldn’t really be considered a party of government.
But that is what they have become in the last four years. And at what cost. At the European elections, they claimed 6.61% of the total vote, falling behind the Greens and becoming just the fifth largest party by vote share. The multi-member proportional system did them no favors either, as they ended up with a single MEP, which was fewer than the Greens or the Scottish Nationalists.
The English local election results were better – 13% of the overall vote – but a similar performance next year could be catastrophic. Polls commissioned by the (now former) Liberal Democrat peer Lord Oakeshott indicate that Clegg, Business Secretary Vince Cable, and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander could all lose their seats at the next election in May 2015 (there is some dispute about the accuracy of the polls, but there will certainly be a swing against the Liberals no matter what happens in the next year). These were three very safe Lib Dem seats in 2010, and a swing big enough to knock out even one of the three could leave them with a rump of fewer than 30 MPs at the next Parliament.
Why have the last four years in government been so damaging to the Liberals? I would argue that Clegg entirely misplayed his hand and misjudged the political landscape in 2010, binding himself and his party into a near-fatal embrace with the Conservatives. Perhaps the desire for power and hubris played a role, but I think it is much more likely that Clegg and Cable thought they were taking the best option for their political futures.
There were three benefits that the Lib Dems would have expected to gain from joining the Cameron ministry: 1)Credibility as a government party; 2)The Alternative Vote referendum; 3)Avoiding being the scapegoat for a chaotic minority government.
On the first point, in the medium term they have been significantly harmed rather than helped by being in government. It may have been pleasant to drive around in ministerial cars, but the Liberals pushed through only a few of their manifesto pledges and the broader party (their council seats, MEPS, and expected 2015 vote share) have taken huge hits because the parliamentary party joined with the Tories. The core Lib Dem support may straddle the left-liberal divide, but probably 60-70% of their 2010 vote share came from leftists and those frustrated with politics as usual. Joining with this Tory government was, for that group, a betrayal of their campaign pledges, and it’s unlikely many of those people will return. Social Democrats will vote Green or return to Labour, while those dissatisfied with politics will slide into apathy or shift to the newest protest party, UKIP.
As I’ve mentioned in an earlier dispatch, the AV referendum could have transformed the status of the Liberal Democrats. It didn’t, of course, because it failed (the only areas that voted in favor were Oxford, Cambridge, and central London – the classic “metropolitan elites”). While there weren’t any public polls on AV available during the coalition negotiations, it would have been a serious mistake for Clegg to expect a the kind of cataclysmic referendum result he would have needed to make the coalition worthwhile. Broadly speaking, populism wins in referenda, and AV is not a populist policy. It is less intuitive than FPTP and can easily (and wrongly) be misconstrued as unfair. Any more radical options, such as the Single Transferable Vote or pure Proportional Representation, were absolutely impossible – the Tories never would have accepted a referendum on either.
On the third point, avoiding blame for the turbulence of a minority government, I suspect that this would have been a less damaging price than the one they have had to pay for being in government. While we will only know for sure if gaining the credentials for being in government with the Tories will pay off in the next 10-15 years (they won’t – voters don’t like politicians who make policies that the voters dislike, but more on this another time), it is clear that the medium-term costs have been significant. Clegg did not campaign as a center-right leader, but he joined with the Tories anyway, alienating many people who swung to the Liberals in 2010.
Of course, there would have been costs to avoiding coalition. There were three possibilities: form a government with Labour (unlikely, impossible with Brown staying as Prime Minister, but probably less damaging in the medium term if Labour changed leader); leave a Tory minority government (I would regard this as their best option, it would have been a tricky governing situation for Cameron but the Liberals wouldn’t have been seen as sell-outs); leave a Tory minority to call another general election that summer (possibly damaging from a vote share perspective, but unlikely to cost many seats in a second 2010 election or in 2015).
In short, Clegg took the worst option in 2010. It looked like a brave option, but this view takes the wrong perspective on what voters want. Yes, voters want politicians to get things done, to pass legislation, to solve problems. But they don’t want politicians for whom they voted to go back on their promises or principles! Inaction is better than the perception of betrayal. (This is not a reassuring view for people who want government to function, but it tends to be true.)
What’s next for the Liberals? They could be in government again this time next year. Nick Clegg will probably not be their leader for long after the 2015 election, making a LibLab coalition a reasonable possibility – if Labour can overcome Ed Miliband being Ed Miliband to be the largest party.
Still, it should feel like the last few years have been a missed opportunity for the Liberals. For a few weeks in spring 2010, Nick Clegg was a rockstar, a fresh new face on the scene with straight talk and better ideas. Now he is reviled as a representative of duplicitous politicians, and his party is back to late 1990s levels of support. They can recover, but it will take time. The Liberals have lost the mainstream protest vote and the disenchanted social democrats. To rebuild, they will need to rid themselves of Clegg and show themselves as something other than a prop for one of the major parties.