We are told that being leader of the opposition is the toughest job in British politics. But the gloomy face of the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg at every prime minister’s questions tells a different story. Being the leader of the opposition might be a difficult job, but being deputy prime minister of a coalition government is definitely the hardest.
The perks of carrying a government red box do not cushion the blows of waking up every day to the news that your party is today more unpopular than it was yesterday, or of having to go through the weekly ordeal of sitting through PMQs in supportive silence of a prime minister who most members of your party dislike.
The problem for Clegg is that the future promises more misery. He might even lose his seat, according to controversial secret poll commissioned by Lord Oakeshott. Over the past six months, opinion polls have shown the support for the Liberal Democrats flat line between 10 and 7%. If this level of popular support is reproduced at next year’s general election, the Liberal Democrats will see their representation in parliament cut by half. In the best case scenario, the party may obtain 14% of the share of the vote and retain 44 of their seats. But this is only imagined by generous pollsters.
So what can Clegg do to avoid electoral meltdown? The answer to this question is far from straightforward. As leader of the junior party of the coalition there is not much he can do, apart from accepting the electoral costs of sharing power with the Conservative Party. He can claim to be different from the Conservatives but he cannot disown unpopular coalition policies.
At best, the Liberal Democrats will be able to claim, as they are doing now, that the economic recovery happened thanks to their moderating influence over their Conservative partners, but even here they will have to tread carefully. The coalition’s economic record is not as positive as it seems. The coalition missed its deficit targets, austerity policies will continue until at least 2018 and the governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney keeps reminding voters that the current economic recovery is built on the shaky foundations of private consumption and a housing bubble.
Thus, to sit on the coalition’s laurels will not be enough to convince disillusioned Liberal Democrat voters to trust the party again. The party seems aware of this and has pursued a “strategy of differentiation” whereby it highlights the areas where it disagrees with the Conservatives and claims ownership of the coalition’s policies it has authored.
In recent weeks, the leadership of the party has intensified efforts in this direction. Any minor policy disagreement with the Tories has been widely publicised, every coalition policy that was “authored” by the party is presented as a transformative initiative. For instance, Nick Clegg has made a great deal of his proposal of free school meals, shouted his pro-European credentials and is now showing his vigorous support for a private member’s bill that seeks to enshrine in law the United Nations overseas aid spending target.
The problem is that no one is listening. The Westminster lobby dutifully reports these announcements but no one makes much of them. Most of the time, the Liberal Democrats are absent from the newspapers’ front pages and when they achieve some media visibility it is often for the wrong reasons. recent sexual harassment allegations, the scarcity of women or ethnic minority MPs in the party’s front and back benches and the failed attempts to oust Nick Clegg as party leader are hardly stories that will improve the image of an already unpopular party.
But the Liberal Democrats’ lack of visibility is not only the result of media negligence. They have contributed to it too. Their strategy of differentiation is too timid. The policy “splits” from the Conservative Party are hardly on issues that excite voters. At best, initiatives like free school meals or a carer’s bonus are well-intentioned micro-policies that will remain invisible to most voters. And it is unlikely that students will come back to the party that trebled tuition fees because of their promises on international aid.
It is equally improbable that banging on about their pro-European credentials will save the Liberal Democrats in 2015. It was not a successful strategy at the May local and European elections where the party lost more than 300 councillors and saw their presence in the European Parliament being reduced from 11 to one MEP.
Given the limited room for manoeuvre that coalition governments offers smaller parties, and the unpopularity of Nick Clegg on the doorstep the Liberal Democrats’ best option is to focus on pavement politics and hope for the best. After all, their strong presence in local constituencies has been the party’s greatest asset since the days of Paddy Ashdown. Quite a few seats can be (and have been) retained by MPs who have invested time and resources in their constituencies.
This strategy will not work in all of the party’s current seats but if it is well deployed it may avoid the humiliating electoral meltdown predicted by some.