After an utterly dire few days, political obituaries for the Liberal Democrats have been plentiful. But the party won’t meekly wither and die.
The Lib Dems have had almost as many false deaths as the cat with nine lives. In 1951, the old Liberal Party received a miserable 2.5 percent of the national vote, winning only six seats. In 1989, a year after the merger between the Liberal and Social Democratic parties, the Lib Dems polled a miserable six percent in the European elections – nine percent below the Green Party. Yet still they wouldn’t go away.
While being in government has created very real problems for the party, those wishing the Lib Dems to disintegrate ignore the realities. In their suspicion of both free markets and the state, the Lib Dems are ideologically distinct from the two main parties. They are also much more pro-European, and greener. Though the ideological confusion that sometimes results from fusing the distinct strands of social and economic liberalism cannot be denied, the point is that Lib Dems do represent something different to the other parties. As such, many of their voters are much less willing to support the ‘big two’ than blithely assumed. The electorate values the different and often genuinely creative ideas they bring to the political discourse.
Whatever the results of the AV referendum, Britons are increasingly sceptical of Labour and the Conservatives: it’s very hard to imagine either polling well over 40 percent in a general election again. The Lib Dems have an arduous job convincing the electorate they have achieved things in coalition and retained a distinctive identity, but, for a party with only 16 percent of the coalition’s seats, they have a remarkably potent case. On taking some of the poorest out of income tax, preventing the marriage tax allowance, climate change, the pupil premium, reforming the House of Lords and even less discussed issues – like prioritising research into dementia and increasing punishments for homophobic bullying in schools – the Lib Dems have met many of their pre-election promises.
A recent study by UCL showed that the Lib Dems are actually having 75 percent of their manifesto implemented by the coalition; the Tories 60 percent. Even accepting that economic arguments are the most important and have essentially been won by the Conservatives, this shows that their impact is very real. Ask the Tory right whether they think the Lib Dems are “locked in the boot”, to use Ed Miliband’s phrase, and Bill Cash and co will say they’re spending rather too much time in the driver’s seat. So the Lib Dems’ challenge is as much in changing the perception of the coalition as the reality. A less publicly harmonious relationship with the Tories will help, while more vocal examples of how the party has made a tangible difference are also needed. For the Lib Dems to survive in a meaningful way, asserting their complete party independence is fundamental. Electoral pacts would thus be disastrous for the party, but these are very unlikely.
The Lib Dems will probably lose support at the next election, as all parties do at times, but, for all the hazards of making long-range forecasts, expect them to retain around 30 seats. Considering all their woes, current levels of support – around 12 percent – are not quite as grim as commonly thought: these were common as recently as 2007. However incongruous the Clegg-mania of a year ago now seems, the Lib Dems aren’t about to become extinct.