There is a party fighting for its political life, desperate to be noticed again and it is meeting this week in Glasgow. The Liberal Democrat conference so far has a very “after-the-lord-mayor’s-show” feel to it. It was always going to struggle for coverage after two weeks of announcements from Labour and the Conservatives, but Nick Clegg and co now also have to contend with UKIP for headline space as the Clacton by-election approaches.
The party is, as we know, not in great shape. It may still be in government, but the heady days of Cleggmania and May 2010 feel a very long time ago. Opinion poll ratings have slumped from a post-election high of 21% to the current 7%. This is no blip either. The Liberal Democrats are in intensive care with little hope of recovery. The party needs to see past the gloom though, by focusing on its single advantage to survive the coming election.
Things have looked bad for the Liberal Democrats for some time. The European Parliament elections in May 2014 were a disaster that saw the party register only 7% of the vote. As a result, it lost 10 of its 11 seats. Local election polls looked better, but in the end more than 300 councillors lost their seats. And two Liberal Democrat candidates lost their deposits in by-elections in 2014.
On top of this gloom, the party is dogged by internal strife over a sexual harassment scandal that has refused to go away and the lingering resentment of the broken tuition fees promise that has damaged its credibility among many of its natural supporters. The party is lampooned by all sides for going into power with the Conservatives and is now largely ignored by the electorate.
With time running out before the next election, Nick Clegg needs a strategy to turn his party’s fortunes around.
Clegg and his party face a classic dilemma for minor centrist parties that enter a coalition with a dominant centre-right party. How do they differentiate themselves from the dominant coalition partner when the election comes round and avoid shouldering the blame for government policies?
The “decoupling” approach of the past 18 months or so has seen a more strident Nick Clegg openly criticise Tory policy on a range of issues including Europe, welfare, immigration and Leveson. In Clegg’s 2013 party conference speech he trumpeted his credentials as the man who thwarted Tory right-wing policies. At the same time, the party, via Clegg, is desperate to claim credit for successful government policies, such as the pupil premium, that it can present as Lib Dem wins. We will see more of this approach at the party conference, including attacks on Theresa May’s hard-line approach to domestic security and much more in the run up to the general election.
While differentiating themselves from the Tories, the Lib Dems have also attempted to present a more distinctive policy agenda. This is a return to a pre-2010 campaigning strategy that presented Clegg’s team as a party unlike the other two main parties.
This involves setting out a positive case for immigration, the Human Rights Act and pro-Europeanism. On Europe, Nick Clegg chose to take on Nigel Farage in March in a series of debates. This high-risk strategy may have only given Farage more exposure, but it at least showed that Clegg and his party were still firmly pro-European and prepared to defend the benefits of EU membership.
Expect a sharpening up of distinctiveness as the Glasgow conference unfolds, although not in all areas. In some areas we can see policy convergence. When it comes to tax, for instance, the Tories have already committed to a Lib Dem policy of raising the threshold at the bottom end and Labour has backed the Lib Dem mansion tax.
One distinctive policy has gained some traction though, and that is the Lib Dems’ emphasis on localism. In the post-Scottish-referendum frenzy, much was promised by the Tories but it is the Lib Dems that have the most distinctive and settled policy on devolved power in the UK.
In 2012 the party published proposals from its Home Rule and Community Rule Commission , led by former party leader Menzies Campbell. The report presented the case for a federal structure for the UK, giving Scotland more autonomy but also the regions of England. In the wake of the Scottish No vote, the Lib Dems are in the position to point to a well-established policy that provides answers to longstanding questions thrown up by devolution.
In fact, one of the party’s strengths is its devolved structure and emphasis on localism. The doom and gloom over electoral prospects needs to be tempered by some hard realism about the state of the party on the ground. Although the party has been leaking membership and councillors at an alarming rate, it still retains a reasonably strong local base. Party membership is not necessarily the only indicator of the health of a political party. Researchers have pointed out that Lib Dem activists tend to be more embedded in the local community than their rivals and tend to be more successful at reaching out to non-party activists.
The Lib Dems have been deepening support within local associations and should be able to utilise this capacity to defend seats. Such a strategy - of holding on to what the party has - is likely to result in an overall slump in vote share, but may end up preserving a larger proportion of the 57 seats it holds than has been predicted by many. In such a case, do not rule out the party again playing a role in a possible hung parliament.