The Death of Liberal England?

  Those who recognised the reference to George Dangerfield’s 1935 treatise on the decline of the Liberal Party, ‘The Strange Death of Liberal England’, take a house point. Shame on the rest of you…

The Liberal Democrats are going through what even the most optimistic Cleggite would be forced to describe as a rocky patch. The party leadership’s seeming inability to deal with the scandal brewing around former CEO Chris Rennard is but the latest nail in what is already looking like a fairly well-sealed coffin. Having claimed in 2010 that they were creating three-party politics in the UK, they seem to have succeeded admirably – the problem is, they’re not one of the three.

Yes, the spectre of UKIP would appear to have manifested itself in all its betentacled glory. The latest poll, which happens to be the ComRes/Independent on Sunday, puts voting intention for UKIP at 19% – more than twice the Lib Dems’ 8%. UK Polling Report, a website which publishes – among other things – a weighted rolling average of the most recent polls, puts the figures closer (UKIP 13%:11% Lib Dem) but even this is a worry for a party savouring its first taste of power in eighty years. If the Lib Dems don’t want to end up cast back into the political wilderness, they need to show that they are a stronger party than the upstart UKIP. If an organisation which started out as little more than a single-issue pressure group should manage to overtake the inheritors of a political tradition which stretches back to before the reign of Queen Victoria, it would spell the end of any Lib Dem hopes of further experience of government for the foreseeable future.

Most likely the UKIP threat will fade somewhat after the European elections this year, and the Liberal Democrats will find themselves back in third place, if only barely. But even that is just not good enough. If Clegg and his party want to be taken seriously as an alternative to the Labour and Conservative Parties, they will have to do much, much better. At the last general election, the party took 23% of the vote. The chances of them matching that feat this time around seem slim to say the least, and – due to the admittedly unfair first-past-the-post electoral system – they will have to increase that by at least another 10% to pose a serious challenge to the entrenched parties. On their current course, this is simply not going to happen.

The reasons for the Lib Dems’ paltry performance in the polls are many. The betrayal over the tuition fees issue early on in the Parliament is still a wound fresh and raw in the minds of many students, traditionally one of the party’s core target demographics. The number of students voting Liberal Democrat in 2015 is likely to be small. Then there is the simple ‘guilty by association’ effect of being in government with the Tories. With every right-wing policy Cameron or Osborne announces, the Liberal Democrat brand becomes further and further toxified. Meanwhile, those government policies that are the Lib Dems’ own – raising the tax threshold, the recent announcement of support for a higher minimum wage, etc. – and would likely prove popular with voters are effortlessly hijacked by the Tories. It seems the poor boys in yellow can do nothing right.

Put simply, Nick Clegg’s strategy of ‘aggressive differentiation’ is failing. The long years of coalition have alienated many of the Lib Dems’ traditional supporters, whilst those who would otherwise have used the party as a protest vote against the government are now forced by their participation to defect to UKIP, or even the Greens. Sad though it may be to see it happen, the Liberal Democrat party seems fated to crash and burn in 2015.

And with scarcely a hair’s breadth of difference on most policy areas between Labour and the Conservatives, that cannot be good for British democracy

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