Nick Clegg has suffered a major blow as he prepares to put his leadership on the line today, with a poll revealing the deep unease about the direction of the Liberal Democrats among current and former supporters. More current Liberal Democrat supporters – those who would still vote for the party now – believe the party has changed for the worse since the 2010 election (36 per cent) than think it has got better (20 per cent), according to a YouGov survey.
The survey found that 59 per cent of all those who voted Liberal Democrat at the last election believe the party has got worse in the three years since, with only 9 per cent saying it has got better. The results show Mr Clegg has a mountain to climb as he tries to woo back former supporters who have deserted the party since it joined the Coalition.
In a crunch debate at his party’s conference in Glasgow today, Mr Clegg will make a personal appeal to delegates to stick with the Coalition’s economic strategy and reject calls to depart from the Government’s austerity plans. The left-of-centre Social Liberal Forum (SLF) wants the Coalition to adopt a new “fiscal mandate” and to order the Bank of England to do more to boost growth and jobs. Mr Clegg’s allies claim this amounts to a call for higher public spending.
But his internal critics have accused him of “picking a fight with his own party”, when a compromise on economic policy could have been reached. They claim that Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, who has close links with the SLF, wanted such a deal. Last night Mr Cable was under pressure to back Mr Clegg rather than his natural allies in the increasingly fractious debate. His aides said he supported Mr Clegg’s economic statement but that he believed it could be improved.
Insiders said the crucial vote that follows the debate could be close, but predicted that Mr Clegg would win over wavering delegates by turning it into a “loyalty test”.
Prateek Buch, the SLF’s director, said: “The motion has to go further than current Coalition policy as [we] approach the next election, to demonstrate we are an independent party.”
Mr Clegg on Sunday sought to reassure his critics by promising to set out his “red lines” for possible coalition talks should the 2015 election result in another hung parliament. He suggested that cuts in taxes for the low-paid and higher taxes for the rich would be key Liberal Democrat demands in any potential agreement.
The Deputy Prime Minister said it was too early to spell out the party’s “die in a trench” issues, but they are likely to include a commitment to lifting the personal tax allowance to £12,500, taking all workers on the minimum wage out of income tax. This would build on the party’s flagship promise at the last election to raise the threshold to £10,000, which many Liberal Democrats regard as their proudest achievement in government.
A new tax on the wealthiest people – probably through a “mansion tax” on the owners of £2m-plus properties – will be another central Liberal Democrat commitment. The party is also examining the idea of a tax on the value of land on which houses are built.
Mr Clegg told BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show: “I strongly suspect, given that we have put so much effort and indeed so much money into making the tax system fairer, tax fairness will of course be one of the signature tunes for the Liberal Democrats.”
He added: “In my view it is going to be more likely than not that in the future you’re going to get more coalitions. It is less likely that you’re going to get these slam-dunk results when one or the other of the two major parties always gets a majority.”
The YouGov poll, commissioned by the Labour Uncut blog, shows that a majority (53 per cent) of current Tory supporters believe their party has got better since the last election, with only 11 per cent saying it has got worse. Among Labour supporters, the figures are 46 per cent and 14 per cent respectively.
There is some good news in the survey for Mr Clegg. It found that Labour supporters are much more open to a Lib-Lab coalition that includes Mr Clegg than Ed Miliband appears to be. The Labour leader has said it would be difficult to reach a deal with the Liberal Democrats unless they change their leader.
Some 21 per cent of Labour supporters say the party should form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats even if Mr Clegg remains at the helm, while 33 per cent would back a deal only if he is replaced and 36 per cent want no deal with the Liberal Democrats no matter who leads the party. Eight-seven per cent of Labour supporters who want Mr Clegg replaced would allow him to stay on to form a government with Labour if the alternative was another Lib-Con coalition, while just 4 per cent of those people would rather see a repeat of the current Government than do any deal with Mr Clegg. This means that overall, 50 per cent of Labour supporters would back a Miliband-Clegg partnership to prevent another Con-Lib coalition, while 40 per cent would not.
YouGov interviewed a nationally representative sample of 1,593 adults between 30 August and 4 September.