Lib Dems: A moment to consolidate

After over six decades out in the wilderness, the Liberal Democrats were the surprise ticket in 2010’s election and the anomaly of a hung parliament. Thrust into the unique position of kingmakers, Nick Clegg and his party spurned thirteen years of New Labour to become coalition bedfellows with the Tories, negotiating five senior cabinet positions on their waltz to government. Seven months on however, and with the coalition already showing signs of teething problems, the picture is startlingly different. Long gone is the much-vaunted pre-electoral support for a party whose leader so enamoured the public in April’s televised debates. Is such fallout of support – from a peak of 34 percent (YouGov 20th April) to a meagre 8 percent (YouGov 8th Dec) – terminal though, or the inevitable, short-term sacrifice of a five-year coalition commitment which is ultimately set to pay off?

In framing today’s incarnation of the Lib Dems it’s important to delve into their roots. Formed from a merger of the seven year SDP-Liberal alliance in 1987 and headed by Ashdown (1988-99), Kennedy (1999-06), Campbell (2006-07) and Clegg (2007- ), they have pursued a social liberalism enthusing constitutional and electoral reform, environmentalism and defence of civil liberties. Until 2010, nevertheless, they struggled to shake off third-party status, characterised as impotent apologists from the sidelines with scant electability. Now actual participants in government however, and a bulwark to outright Toryism, the Lib Dems constitute a new political animal.

Manifest in this evolution has been the unavoidable policy compromises made in bridging the ideological gulf with their partners – the coalition’s success dependent on the reconciliation of such divisions. However not many expected the party to be shot of credibility so prematurely in its tenure. Undeniably, Clegg’s seat at the table of power has imposed strains on his party as it grapples to assert itself as a so-called ‘‘agent of change’’. Suffering its first casualty in the resignation of David Laws, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, in late May and facing increasing cracks as November’s CSR brought home the extent of the Coalition’s deficit-reducing measures – initially opposed to any cuts until at least 2011-12 – the Lib Dems have had to dig deep.

There have been notable successes of course. May’s likely Alternative Vote (AV) referendum will be instrumental in gauging Liberal support, even if it does represent a departure from initial demands for Proportional Representation (PR). Identity cards have been scrapped and the coalition is reviewing new levies on banks involving their break-up.

Any advance however has been eclipsed by Clegg’s brazen about-turn on tuition fees. Having publicly signed an NUS agreement with all Lib Dem MPs to defend its flagship policy in March, Clegg incensed voters in a stunning renege of policy supporting the coalition’s proposal to in fact increase them. Despite facing a severe backbench rebuke from left-leaning liberals and wide scale student fury, Clegg’s inner circle’s pre-election agreement not to ‘waste political capital’ defending the issue has been, for many, too bitter a pill for them to swallow.

Insofar as his stance on control orders over detention suspects and proposals to increase the personal tax allowance have aligned him to past principles of the Ashdown and Kennedy years, Clegg has nonetheless carved out his own oeuvre. He still remains resolute in achieving his party’s aim despite taking fire from the public perhaps disproportionate to their role in the coalition.

Decisively, Clegg’s legacy will be defined by his dealing of growing pains in the years ahead – whether in an overt or covert coalition. If he succeeds, the Liberals could pose a serious challenge to the two party system.


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