The Liberal Democrats are in trouble. The party appears to be engaged in a very public form of hari-kiri, accelerating its own political meltdown. The heady days of 23% polling and Cleggmania in 2010 seem a long, long time ago as the party flatlines at around the 7.7% mark in the polls.
It had seemed that the Liberal Democrats recent approach of differentiation from its dominant Conservative coalition partner on some policies, while sticking to the broad government austerity programme – reconciling the “unity/distinctiveness” dilemma – would reap some reward with voters.
The hope was that that as the parties “de-couple” ahead of the 2015 general election, centre-left voters would return to the Liberal Democrat fold while the party would gain credit as a supportive coalition partner as the economy shows signs of recovery. This strategy has been blown apart by the Rennard affair and its subsequent fallout.
Five obvious reasons come to mind as to why this affair is so damaging for the Liberal Democrats.
1. The story will not go away
Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former director of communications, has been attributed with the “golden rule” for managing a media frenzy – if the story grows legs and runs, and is still in the headlines days later, the original subject is toast. The Rennard story broke on January 15 with the conclusion of the internal party review into Lord Rennard’s behaviour. The inquiry by Alistair Webster QC found there was no proof Lord Rennard behaved in a sexually inappropriate way, but concluded the evidence of the women who made the allegations was “broadly credible” and the peer may have violated their personal space.
In an attempt to adhere to Campbell’s “golden rule” (and after Rennard defied calls for an apology), a committee of Liberal Democrats suspended him pending an investigation into whether his lack of contrition had brought the party into disrepute. The story rumbles on, despite calls for the party to “move on”, as Lord Rennard has threatened legal action against his suspension. Interventions by Paddy Ashdown on behalf of Nick Clegg also failed to draw a line under it. A week on and Rennard is still in the news, exposing considerable internal divisions in the party.
2. The party has a serious image problem
The story has become a lightning rod for a range of political commentary on sexual harassment in the Lib Dems and the treatment of women in politics more generally. As Elizabeth Evans has pointed out, the Liberal Democrat party has a problem. The party has the lowest percentage of women in parliament and the lowest number of MPs. With Sarah Teather having stood down and Annette Brook not contesting her seat in 2015, only five incumbent women MPs will remain.
The prospects in each constituency are not good. To compound matters, maverick MP Mike Hancock has been suspended for making sexual advances to a constituent. This all creates an image of a dysfunctional, male dominated party. It damages the “liberal” brand of the party and undermines its attempts to appeal on the basis of its core values of transparency, openness and importantly equality.
3. Clegg, Clegg, Clegg
Just when Nick Clegg was contemplating a change of fortune, hoping to benefit from some good economic news on one hand and a sharper differentiation strategy on issues such as welfare reform and immigration, this hits his leadership. His careful attempts to position the party as a brake on the more right-wing instincts of the Conservatives have been blown off course by having to deal with serious allegations about Liberal Democrat conduct and defend arcane aspects of party rules and culture.
This could have been avoided. The Rennard issue has been around since 2007 and not properly dealt with. Whilst Clegg has complained that he leads a “party not a sect”, his leadership has been questioned as he has struggled to deal effectively with an internal crisis that has spilled out into an external one.
4. Support may not have bottomed
The party has been flatlining in support at around 7.7% in the polls. Since the heady days of 23% of the vote share at the May 2010 election (and a YouGov poll during the televised debates that put the party at 34%), support fell to 14% in polls by September 2010 and never recovered, polling below 10% for the past three years.
This is dangerous electoral territory. The party has been haemorrhaging members and losing council seats. It is likely to be pushed into a distant fourth place (or lower) at the European Parliament elections in May. The mid-term by-election win in Eastleigh demonstrated more that the Lib Dems do well when they have concentrated resources. Those resources nationwide are now seriously depleted. With fewer members and councillors and many fewer supporters than in 2010, the party has a serious capacity problem.
5. Rennard would be a big loss
Which brings us back to Lord Rennard. The Liberal Democrat party is small, with only 57 MPs and 99 peers; it has to spread its parliamentary and policy resources thinly. In elections it concentrates resources to overcome the disproportionality in the electoral system. Even though in 2010 it entered government for the first time since the brief national government of 1945, the party actually lost five seats and increased vote share by only 1%. Rennard, as chief executive of the party until 2009, was the architect of by-election victories and an electoral strategy that made the most of meagre resources.
He is credited with developing the Lib Dem style of localised “pavement politics”. Although no longer chief strategist, he was expected to have a major role in the developing the 2015 party manifesto and maintain an influence on electoral tactics and campaigning. His loss will be a major blow.
The outlook is not good for the party, battered and bruised by a period in coalition that may have done more harm than good to long-term electoral fortunes. All is not lost though, as comparative researchby Akash Paun and Robyn Munro shows, smaller parties are less likely to be punished in a coalition if it lasts the distance and, while they may have little control over whether they stay in government or not, the post election arithmetic may mean that Nick Clegg is still the kingmaker in a hung parliament, even if the party is decimated at the next election.