Liberal Democrats enter the impending general election campaign with a sense of foreboding. Battered and bruised from our experiences in coalition with the Tories, we can expect to face the wrath of those left leaning progressive voters who, with some justification, feel that we gave too much in exchange for too little.
The value of Liberal Democrat ‘currency’ is probably the lowest it has ever been in my lifetime. I’ve spoken to many people who bought into the Lib Dem vision in 2010 who feel they have been short-changed. The U-turn on tuition fees has almost become a cliché for what our target voters perceive to be broken promises, unpalatable compromises and illiberal decisions in government. There is little political capital to be made from the good things that we have done because they simply aren’t listening to that message.
Against this backdrop, we are preparing for the worst in May 2015. Another hung Parliament looms, our opinion poll ratings are dire and Nick Clegg is the most unpopular party leader of modern times. Party strategists are basing our general election campaign on the premise that voting Liberal Democrat will keep the worst excesses of either the Tories or Labour in check, arrogantly assuming that the party will be involved in another coalition.
If tuition fees have become the cliché for broken promises, then the phrase ‘centre ground anchor’ is emblematic of a campaign strategy that fails to communicate a clear message about what voters will get if they vote Liberal Democrat. Our Leadership and strategists seem more concerned about telling voters what we would stop opponents doing rather than focusing on the positive story about what we would do in government.
Since last September’s Federal Conference the Party has gone to great lengths to differentiate itself from the Tories with a raft of policy announcements that members can justly cheer. Some will say that this alone should be enough to distinguish us from the others and, under normal political circumstances, they would be right. There is, of course, nothing normal about the current political landscape. Everyone anticipates a hung Parliament and most anticipate a coalition. Under these circumstances voters will rightly want to know what the Party’s ‘bottom line’ is – what are the four or five key pledges that we would demand as part of any coalition agreement or use to negotiate with in a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement?
For a potential junior partner like us, it’s even more important to have this clear commitment to our key ‘deal breaking’ policies. Not only would it send out a strong message about what voters would be buying into, it leaves the larger parties under no illusion as to what our basic terms for a coalition or pact would be. By not being clear about the bottom line we encourage suspicion and doubt in respect of what we would concede in exchange for a government role.
Alas, there is to be no bottom line. That much was made clear during the panel discussions at the SLF Conference last July, and it is a point that has been laboured since by the likes of Danny Alexander and David Laws. This no doubt suits the party hierarchy as it lets them off the hook, giving them undue power to decide what’s in and what’s out.
‘What’s the bottom line?’ is the single question that Nick Clegg will be asked time and again by the media during the campaign, yet it is the one question that he will pointedly refuse to answer. It will make an already sceptical public even more suspicious of what our potential compromises may be beyond May. The Leadership is sending its depleted and wounded troops into battle with blunted bayonets and guns without bullets.
Nick, we will give it our best shot for no other reason than we have to, but brace yourself for the worst.