Nick Clegg and senior Liberal Democrats sowed the seeds for their disastrous general election performance early in the Coalition government by allowing themselves to be seen as “willing appendages” to the Conservatives, a damning party internal review has concluded.
It paints a grim picture of falling morale among activists and collapsing public support during the five-year power-sharing deal which ended with the Liberal Democrats losing all but eight of the 57 seats they were defending last May.
The inquiry said the party was hit by a “perfect storm” of a well-funded Tory campaign, a weak Labour performance and fears of the SNP propping up a government led by Ed Miliband.
But it also says the Liberal Democrats made a catalogue of mistakes which contributed to their electoral rout, including:
- Failing to communicate their message in government and maintain a “unique offer”
- Making the “almost incomprehensible” decision to back a tripling of tuition fees – six months after standing on a manifesto commitment to scrap them.
- Becoming closely associated with the least popular Tory policies, also including the “bedroom tax”, Andrew Lansley’s controversial NHS reforms , cuts to legal aid and the expansion of “secret courts”.
- Some MPs allowed constituency work to take a “back seat”, while in others candidates were chosen too late.
- No internal polling was carried out for two years to gauge the problems facing the party.
- Election preparations were “late and lacking in oversight” and the campaign was blighted by a “lack of message discipline”.
- Mr Clegg’s failure to repeat the success of his 2010 TV election debate performances.
The review team, which drew on responses from 7,500 party members, warned that “the size of task ahead is immense” because of the loss of 85 per cent of its MPs, all but one MEP and more than 2,000 councillors over the last five years.
It said the 2015 defeat was rooted in the aftermath of the 2010 election when Mr Clegg appeared alongside David Cameron in the Downing Street Rose Garden.
Activists believed it had been right in the national interest to enter the Coalition, but blundered by putting too much emphasis on making work an unfamiliar arrangement in British politics.
“By setting aside the ‘national interest’ narrative in favour of emphasising that of ‘coalitions can work, we unwittingly manoeuvred ourselves into a position of appearing content to be willing appendages to our coalition partners,” the report said.
“The decision on tuition fees in autumn 2010, which represented a high-profile ‘broken promise’, exemplified this, and with memories of the Rose Garden moment still fresh in the collective memory, this narrative embedded itself in the public mind. It did nothing for the morale and sense of purpose for a great number of our own members.”
It said too little work was done in the coalition’s early years to take credit for blocking Tory proposals or promote the party’s own policy ‘wins’.
Morale was further undermined by the party leadership’s initial decision to support Tory-inspired policies such as the bedroom tax and NHS reforms, it added.
“The inability to publicly highlight differences or misgivings left the party activists at odds with the public statements being made by ministers.”
During the five years, a declining number of activists were left campaigning despite “steading reducing support and against an increasingly challenging political backdrop” – and failed to receive sufficient support from some parliamentarians.
“For some MPs, local leadership took a back seat to the demands of Westminster. In many seats, late selection of candidates denied local parties the focal point to rally around,” the inquiry said.
Tim Farron, the Lib Dem leader, said: “It is a credit to our party that we can take such a long hard look in the mirror.
“To me, this review is about setting a blueprint for our future. It is from this moment we can set ourselves a clear vision for rebuilding, and creating the election winning force we know we can be.
“Blame and criticism can provide short-term satisfaction, but do nothing for a future vision. This report is about setting a way forward, recognising the mistakes we made, and learning from them.”
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