A liberal challenge: These are traumatic times for Lib Dems. But there is an appetite for British liberalism that they can and should feed


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The Independent Online

Even the most upbeat of Liberal Democrats – and you have to be one of life’s optimists to be part of that happy band – expect the party to take some punishment in the general election.

As they gather for their spring conference, though, the Lib Dems seem to have little inkling of the slaughter that may be about to end so many parliamentary careers. None of the omens are encouraging. The local government base, built on years of hard “community politics”, has been decimated. In Europe, they are reduced to just one MEP. The national opinion polls suggest a substantial swing to the Tories, Labour and the SNP; local polls confirm that old names and familiar faces such as Simon Hughes may have a scrap on their hands.

The Lib Dems could easily lose all the urban bridgeheads taken from Labour over the past decade or so, and be left with a tiny representation in Scotland. Their precious second-place position in many constituencies will be given up to a variety of other parties. And they have long since lost their usual status as the default party of protest for disaffected voters.

Most worryingly, their messages about what they achieved in government, why they are still needed as a moderating influence on the Conservatives and Labour and what they plan to do next time are not getting through. They have paid a heavy price indeed for the tuition fees fiasco. In terms of policy, the past five years have been mixed – with the millions of poorer people taken out of income tax and pensions reforms being the proudest boasts – but the party has played politics badly, and no one is listening.

None of this means they are necessarily out of government next time. In the “rainbow parliament” everyone seems to expect will assemble in May, it is at least possible that, say, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats would be able to scrape together a parliamentary majority and continue with their coalition.

With a much reduced Liberal Democrat contingent, the Lib Dem voice in such an administration would be still more diminished. Even if Nick Clegg hangs on in Sheffield Hallam and remains Deputy Prime Minister, there may no longer be a Lib Dem in every important department of state. Whether the Lib Dems would actually be happy with such a paltry deal would be something they may have to decide rapidly in the aftermath of the election. There would be little room for Lib Dem backbenchers in such a situation, and any senior MPs in “reserved occupations” would need to be called up to make the case for Lib Dem policies in government. Much the same goes for any arrangement with Labour.

If the party goes into opposition, it faces no less of a challenge. It would mean fresh leadership, and a similar challenge to the one that confronted Paddy Ashdown when he took control in 1988. Then, as now, the party’s fortunes were at a low ebb, with the Greens starting to overtake it in popularity, a collapsing membership and a chronic shortage of funds. It took Lord Ashdown and his allies a decade to rebuild what had been the electoral base of the SDP-Liberal alliance, and 10 years is often thought to be the “going rate” for a Lib Dem leader. (Mr Clegg was elected leader in 2007.) It will take the next Lib Dem leader at least as long.

And to whom should that task fall? It depends on who survives. Danny Alexander, a highly clever and effective Chief Secretary, may not, if the polls conducted by Lord Ashcroft are correct (though they may not always properly take account of the “incumbency effect”). Tim Farron, party president, is a strong, energetic and canny candidate for the rebuilding role; Norman Lamb has many merits; Ed Davey has brains on his side; Jo Swinson would be a radical choice. One man who should definitely run is Vince Cable, an exceptional parliamentarian whose age may prove a virtue rather than hindrance.

Whoever does take over faces enormous strategic problems. Liberal Democrats often content themselves with the thought that they have known lean times before, eras such as the 1950s when their entire parliamentary party really could fit into a taxi cab. They have known plenty of electoral booms and busts since, but there is no law that gives them the divine right to recover. Complacency, rather than Tories, Labour, Ukip, SNP or Greens, is the Lib Dems’ most potent enemy.