Let’s not pretend the Lib Dems aren’t in troubled waters. Over the Coalition the party has lost activists, councillors and voters as it has struggled to deal with the twin terrors of the fall out of the greatest economic depression since the war and the 6 fold larger Conservative Party suffocating its appeal and message.
Yet the Liberal Democrats had little choice but to enter Coalition, there was no majority for a Lib-Lab pact and a minority Tory Government would have fallen at the first budget bringing economic ruin for which the Lib Dems would inevitably foot the blame.
Four years of stoicism later the party is widely credited with two things; having the courage to enter government despite the immense difficulties and dangers and being disciplined enough to stick together in the face of those pressures where lesser Parties would have been crushed.
Sadly, this latter credit was discharged this week with the demise and duplicitous behaviour of Lord Oakeshott.
Oakeshott’s remedy to tackle the parties increasing electoral challenges, however is simply wrong. Eleven months out from a general election no party of Government has the time or political capital to knife their leader, spend months bickering about who should take the reins whilst failing to govern and then spend the few months left before polls open rejigging policy and introducing the leader to a sceptical press and an apathetic public.
Nick Clegg may be painted by his opponents as a shrinking man being bullied by Tory Cabinet ministers or even the devil himself for his supposed betrayals but he is the man who took Liberals into Government for the first time in 90 years, righted the economy, created jobs and fought 300 Tories for more school funding, a cut in income tax which directly benefits 24 million of the lower paid and restoring the link between pensions and earnings.
He’s also the man who stopped those same Tories from allowing workers to be fired at will, schools to make profits, weakening the equalities act or cutting the ‘Green Crap’ which will provide jobs and clean energy for future generations.
There is a story the party can tell but they are doing a poor job of doing it so far. If the Lib Dems have to change something it’s how they communicate that story to the public.
When you talk to members of the public about the party you hear the same sort of detractions. “You sold out your principles for power” says someone who doesn’t understand the rock and hard place the party found itself in. “You gave a tax cut to millionaires” says someone who has neither heard that the top rate of tax is higher now than under Labour or that the Party has taken 3 million basic rate payers out of income tax.
“You’re not standing up to the Tories” Says someone who doesn’t know of repeated Tory frustration at Lib Dem roadblocks to their damaging policies. “You break your promises!” says someone angry that the Lib Dems broke one major commitment to ensure deliverance of many others.
The party needs a communications strategy that cuts through to voters to help them understand why it went into government, what good it’s done in government, and what bad policy it’s stopped from happening without getting drowned out by Labour spin and Magpie Tory Policy theft.
I don’t know if that’s a question of resources or messaging but it is the single biggest thing killing the party and the one thing the leadership should address to help the Liberal Democrats recover.
A new leader might get a honeymoon, although I suspect the problem is the brand not the messenger, but only the current leader can explain the journey from opposition, to government, to Liberals having, for the first time in generations, a raft of policies they’ve actually implemented which has strengthened the economy and helped millions of people ,because he’s the one who walked it.
Never waste a good crisis and if this mini one has just one positive impact it has to be a good hard look at how the Liberal Democrats are selling their time in government. A failure to do so will mean it will be the history books, not election returns, which will credit the party’s stint in power.