Lib Dems remain a vital option for the British electorate, despite the body-blows

 

Jeremy Browne believes the Liberal Democrats should be telling voters that the Coalition has worked and the economy is on the mend
Jeremy Browne believes the Liberal Democrats should be telling voters that the Coalition has worked and the economy is on the mend

It’s been a bad 24 hours for the Liberal Democrats. First, an opinion poll from Ipsos Mori putting them on 6 per cent, their lowest showing since 1990, the year Margaret Thatcher compared the party to a dead parrot. Then today’s excoriating critique of their political strategy in The Independent from Jeremy Browne, once a high-flying Lib Dem minister.

Mr Browne’s view is that having invested so much effort and political pain into making a success of Coalition with the Conservatives, the Lib Dems should be selling that success to the electorate. They should be telling voters that Coalition has worked and the economy is on the mend, and take their share of the credit. Instead, in their anxiety to differentiate themselves from the Conservatives, they have drifted into a “no-man’s-land” from which they have no clear message to deliver to the voters.

It is understandable why an MP from a seat like Taunton Deane, where the Labour candidate took only just over 5 per cent of the vote in 2010, should want his party to stay as far over to the centre-right of politics as it credibly can. But he is wrong.

The Lib Dems are going to have a bad election, whatever they do. The promise they made to abolish university tuition fees has had a catastrophic impact on their popularity, particularly among the educated young. It was a residue from the strategy shrewdly pursued by Nick Clegg’s predecessor, Charles Kennedy, who took advantage of the fact that it was becoming difficult to tell Labour and the Conservatives apart, and ran a campaign in 2005 on two main themes – tuition fees and opposition to the Iraq war.

These days, the Lib Dems seem to treat Mr Kennedy like an embarrassing uncle, but it should not be forgotten that under his leadership they achieved their greatest electoral success, accumulating 63 MPs. That tally runs counter to Mr Browne’s thesis that the Lib Dems can do well only by staying close to the Conservatives.

There is also the broader question of what is good for democracy. The recent experience of the Scottish referendum demonstrated that democracy thrives when people are presented with a clear and meaningful choice. For a long time, the two main political parties have judged it in their interests not to give the voters that sort of choice. When Tony Blair led the Labour Party, he operated on the assumption that left-wing voters had nowhere else to go, so Labour had nothing to lose by leaning as far to the right as it could go without splitting apart. David Cameron, in 2010, made the corresponding assumption about the Conservatives, and tried to sound as much as possible like Mr Blair.

But now the Conservatives have the looming threat of Ukip to their right, while the Green Party is rising rapidly to Labour’s left. These factors are pulling both parties away from the centre ground.

This should not be seen as necessarily a bad thing, because it gives the voters a real choice, provided neither party drifts so far away from the mainstream as to be no choice at all, as Labour did under Michael Foot. It also opens a clear space for the Lib Dems, in the centre between the main parties, exactly where Mr Clegg and Danny Alexander are now trying to locate it. It is too late now to prevent the party taking a big hit in May, but if they hold their nerve, there is a promising future ahead.

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