Have the Lib Dem leadership lost their senses?. They can’t see or hear supporters who have turned their backs on the party. They can’t smell the putrid stink of seemingly inevitable electoral punishment in 2015, and they’re certainly out of touch with public perception.
I split my vote across a broadly progressive ticket in the London Mayoral election on Thursday – Siobahn Benita first, Ken Livingstone second, Green in the constituency and Liberal Democrats London-wide. I’ve not had much luck backing winners in elections, but this time round my vote felt particularly futile. I can understand why many just don’t bother.
Nick Clegg has shifted public perception of the Lib Dems from being a distinctive party of the centre-left, to an identikit party of the centre right. In making this shift many socially progressive voters felt deserted, and conservatives are deeply suspicious of the over-eager new kid on their patch. It’s hopeless terrain for Clegg.
The party is in danger of becoming a toxic brand. The local elections again demonstrated that Nick Clegg’s calamitous dance with the right is dragging down the fortunes of all associated with the title “Liberal Democrats”. There are some who would vote for Lib Dem campaigners – stalwarts of their local communities – if they stood as independents. Progressive voters will not vote for candidates associated with a party which is daily sacrificing its principles in order to cling to power. As independents are not yet a credible political force, most simply don’t vote.
Though I (and many thousands of others) left the Liberal Democrats, I swallowed some pride on Thursday and voted Lib Dem on the London-wide ballot. This ballot paper is intended to express party support, but I used it to elect an individual – Caroline Pidgeon. Caroline has been a tireless and effective campaigner over the last four years, and was top of the Lib Dem list. The assembly will be stronger for her presence. The vast majority of voters simply saw the Lib Dem logo, and moved on. That’s why the Lib Dems now have just two London assembly members – on level pegging with the Greens.
The Westminster consensus is that Liberal Democrats stay in government for fear that they will be obliterated if they walk away. Even Nick Clegg must now have noticed that they are being massacred for staying. The public are not stupid. Everyone can see the Lib Dems aren’t advancing their agenda in government. Time after time Liberal Democrats have held their noses and voted for measures with which they do not agree. Brilliant campaigners like Norman Baker and Lynne Featherstone have been gagged by stifling protocols of government communication.
The Liberal Democrats have little to show for their loyalty to their government partners, and no clear plan to wrest control of the agenda now that their big potential prizes have slipped away. The party should take the genuinely brave decision to say “this isn’t working for us, this isn’t why people voted for us, and it’s time for us to walk away from this coalition.”
The party could maintain the national financial interest from a position of supply and confidence. With this, much stronger, hand they could have a great deal more to show their voters in 2015.