Nick Clegg has a lot of reasons to be worried. Last week, the Tuesday before the local and European elections, he received a frosty welcome here in Oxford, with protests outside two events he attended, and uncomfortable questions on tuition fees being asked inside. This, however, might have been the high point of his week compared to what happened next. The Lib Dems suffered catastrophic losses in both local and European elections. Pushed into fifth place behind the Green party and UKIP, the Lib Dems teetered along on under 7% of the vote share in the European elections. The Lib Dems now only have one MEP compared to UKIP’s 23 and the Green Party’s 3. The Lib Dems also lost over 250 councillors in the local elections, and lost control of a quarter of the councils they previously held. A recent YouGov poll shows that only 9% of those asked intend to vote Liberal Democrat at the next general election; a stark contrast to the 23% of all votes they received in 2010.
Clegg suffered personally too, with Parliamentary candidates and party supporters. “Progress will be best achieved under a new leader” says an open letter now signed by 600 people. Lord Oakeshott, a Lib Dem peer, also resigned from the party recently, saying it was headed for disaster. Clegg is currently on a -56% approval rating, lower even than Miliband, on -32%, and recent calculations suggest that he may be on track to lose his own seat, Sheffield Hallam, in the Commons at the general election next year. It might be fair to say that things couldn’t get much worse for Clegg and the Lib Dems right now.
However, despite calls for Nick’s resignation, and despite the headlines screaming “wipeout” and “fight for survival”, the Lib Dems need to keep calm and carry on. The Lib Dems are an important part of today’s politics. With the Conservative party moving ever more rightwards to counter the threat from UKIP and please the Eurosceptics, the country needs a party to occupy the middle ground. With Labour floundering, the country needs a party that appeals to ordinary people. With UKIP on the rise here, and other far right parties gaining support abroad (think the National Front in France, and the Danish People’s Party in Denmark), the country needs a party to stand up for Europe as Nick Clegg did in the TV debates in April. The Liberal Democrats still stand for fairness and equality, and they are the one main party openly espousing and campaigning on the benefits of EU membership; the Conservatives are yet to make up their mind about what the majority of their members actually think, and Ed Miliband is still working out how to tie his shoe laces.
Furthermore, the Liberal Democrats are important to the current coalition government. Sure, maybe don’t mention tuition fees, but the Lib Dems in government have fought to raise the minimum tax threshold and introduce the triple lock on pensions. They play a huge role moderating the occasional extremities of the Conservatives, who are being pulled further to the right in attempts to outmanoeuvre UKIP and stop haemorrhaging votes.
Overthrowing Clegg would certainly be a bad idea now anyway. With the countdown to the next election now in months rather than years, any leadership election could only end badly. Some seem to think that Deputy Leader of the Lib Dems Vince Cable could easily slip into the role, based on his tenure as acting party leader after Menzies Campbell’s resignation. The setup of the party does require the Deputy leader to take over until a new leadership election, however running into an election on a new leader, not elected by his party, may not play well with voters, or other Lib Dems. Furthermore, airing the party’s dirty laundry and infighting over the leadership would be catastrophic immediately before what will be a crucial general election for the Lib Dems.
Moreover, everyone needs to remember that election results aren’t always what they seem. The turnout for the elections was around 35% last week, and the low turnout almost certainly skewed the results in favour of UKIP to give them a majority in the EU elections that they won’t be able to repeat next year. The total government disapproval rating is on 55%; governments always perform badly in local elections, and the Conservatives have almost certainly only maintained any semblance of competency in the polls because of fear and mistrust of Labour.
So maybe, on closer inspection, things aren’t as bad as they seem. Clegg always knew that the Lib Dems would have a hard time in government, and things may never have seemed worse for the Lib Dems. However, they need to remember how far they have come; in 2009, the Lib Dems had never featured in a peacetime government, and it seemed likely that the two party dominance would remain. A regicide could throw the Lib Dems back into obscurity at the next election.
Here, there are no easy options for the Liberal Democrats, but Clegg emphasised this week how he thought it would be wrong for them to walk away. I never thought I’d say it, but for once, I agree with Nick.
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