Putting it kindly, the Liberal Democrats have been having a rather troublesome time of it recently. With a loss of nearly 750 council seats nationwide, 12 of their 17 seats in the Scottish parliament lost and a firm rejection of AV in the recent referendum, the electoral benefits of the coalition, from a liberal perspective at least, seem to be diminishing quickly.
Yet they have a little option but to hang on in coalition. Despite numerous calls from Labour for the Liberals to drop out and spark an election, polling figures make it an incredibly unlikely scenario. No political party would embrace electoral suicide simply to save face, nor should anyone expect them to do so. Brown’s electoral dithering back in 2007 when Labour was in far better shape than Clegg’s Liberal Democrats exemplifies this. To criticise the Liberals for their reluctance in committing to an election that they would surely lose is unfair.
What the Lib Dems must do, if they desire a viable platform from which to compete in the next election, is to convince the public that this is a coalition of necessity whilst effectively distinguishing themselves from the Conservatives. This can be achieved if they push through significant policies that they can rally around and claim as their own. The majority of Liberal Democrat policies in their first year have appeared to lack either substance or genuine worth.
Clegg cites cutting income tax for the lowest paid, increasing the basic state pension and the introduction of the Green Investment Bank as Liberal policy demanding reverence, yet the reality of these decisions is neglected. Tax allowances are to be linked to the Consumer Price Index rather than the Retail Price Index, wiping out any benefit from the cut in income tax. Their pension policy is one of regressive simplification rather than generosity. True, the basic state pension will indeed rise to £140 but the means tested top-up pension will be abolished, leaving the average worker £20 a week worse off than before. Furthermore, the Green Investment Bank’s power has been significantly weakened with a delayed opening now scheduled for 2015. Levels of funding for this will inevitably be dependent on the country’s financial position.
There is no denying that the Liberal Democrats have reigned in the Tories to some extent, a cause for which Clegg is due credit. On Trident, inheritance tax cuts and the expansion of the prison system, Clegg has remained firm. Electorally, this matters little. The Liberal Democrats cannot run as the party who toned down the Tories; it didn’t work in the council elections and will not work in four years time. The conundrum is that just as the Lib Dems are in dire need of solid, substantial policy, they have lost vast amounts of the political capital needed to achieve it.
Conservative backbenchers, many of which yearn for a Tory majority, realise this. MP Peter Borne brought this sentiment to the fore, stating, “I think that the local election results indicate the coalition will end sooner rather than later”, arguing it would be wrong for concessions to be given to a party that has “just been thumped in a national election” and arguing that the Lib Dems must “row in behind the government and stop bleating”. Yet bleat the liberals must.
The shepherd and his flock need significant concessions on reforms of the banking system, the House of Lords and national health in the coming year if they are to credibly run on the platform of a centre left party at the next general election. If policy isn’t substantiated and concession granted, they are left with unappetising prospects: either run as a progressive party who helped through the most regressive agenda in decades, or shift to the right. The former is hypocritical and the latter inconceivable. Thus, Nick Clegg must shout louder, fight harder and embrace his newfound ‘muscular liberalism’ if he is to avoid the death of the liberal party. Again.