Being in power has changed the Lib Dems. How will their first General Election as an incumbent shape them?
The last couple of months has seen a marked Labour shuffle to the Left, with the last few weeks giving us a slightly more modest Tory slink to the Right. Both have been done with half an eye to 2015 and the need to stake a claim to respective issues; Labour will use the cost of living as a platform, with the Tories using welfare and a modest recovery.
So where does this leave Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems?
Being in government has been a mixed blessing for the party. What they gained in credibility, they’ve lost in other ways. Most obviously is the broken manifesto pledge on student fees, which for a party that touted itself as the champion of students, was bound to hurt. Second is the failed attempts at reform. AV was slaughtered, with the other two parties deftly making sure that the Lib Dems were associated with the brand of humiliating failure. Next was the House of Lords reform, which although could be pinned on Tory stubborness, was still chalked up as a Lib Dem defeat. This brings me on to my third point; the Lib Dem identity has been damaged and warped, perhaps irrevocably.
The Lib Dems had marketed themselves on the idea that they were different, and that with them in power politics and government would be different. Quite what they meant by that was always vague, but it was a potent message in an age synonymous with apathy. And to an extent it worked; the Lib Dems got a million more votes in 2010 than in 2005. Yet actually being in government means association with unpopular policies. Being in government means everything is now your fault. Being in government taints you as being Establishment. This was especially true in first half of the parliament when the Lib Dems became the lightening rod of voter anger at the Coalition; everybody expects the Tories to be meanies, but the Lib Dems aren’t.
Further, the Lib Dems paid the price for trying to be all things to all people. The run up to 2010 saw them try to be Tory Lite in the South, and Labour Lite in the North. You can get away with this in opposition, but once in office you have to let somebody down.
Given their new battle scars then, how should 2015 and beyond be approached? The moderate Centre Left looks appealing now that Ed Miliband has continued his purge of the Blairites. Clegg would do well to point out the Lib Dem efforts to curb Tory excesses, while still keeping the recovery on track.
But would Blairites and moderates within Labour take the bait? That’s a far tougher question and would probably vary depending on the constituency.
This leads us on to another salient question, one of resources. Lib Dem membership numbers have taken a hit since 2010 and the heady days of Cleggmania. With membership around the 46,000 mark, the Lib Dems are going to rely a lot more on their well oiled local activist organisations to do more with less. Morale and direction will be critical if activists are to be motivated.
Even if the Lib Dem leadership wanted to maintain their current position on the spectrum, could they? Have the Orange Bookers been discredited or strengthened by being in office. Nick Clegg is far closer to the Parliamentary Tories than the majority of his party, and that will matter if the party lose more than ten MPs; feeling hurt and resentful, the grassroots may opt to retreat to the South West strongholds and dabble in a spell of self indulgent ideological purity, the sort that the Tories engaged in under Howard to disastrous effect.
However if the economy continues to grow, the Lib Dems will avoid a massacre at the polls. As Labour drift further Left they become ever less appealing to Lib Dem supporters, even disgruntled ones. Add the spoiling effect UKIP could have on both Labour and Tory marginal efforts, and things aren’t so dire as they may seem for Clegg and co.
Government has changed the Lib Dems, but maybe they needed it, if only snap them out of believing their own propaganda.