Analysis: Unless things change, Lib Dems face wipeout

Many will wonder: What is the point of being in power if it ends up destroying your electoral power base?

By Dr Matthew Ashton

With the Liberal Democrat conference continuing today, this seems as good a time as any to take stock of their political situation. On the plus side they're in government, hold several ministerial posts and Nick Clegg himself is deputy prime minister, something his predecessors could only have dreamt about. Also assuming that the coalition holds together they're likely to remain in power until at least 2015. However in the long term their position is less stable, with polls showing that a significant number of the party's supporters are dissatisfied with their overall direction.

At last year's conference Clegg was given a pass, mainly because the coalition was in its honeymoon period and the Liberal Democrat rank and file were still intoxicated at the idea of being in power for the first time in what felt like forever.

This year the grassroots representation will be angrier and Clegg will have to work harder to justify the decisions he has made. The spending cuts have really begun to bite and the promised economic improvements have yet to materialise. While inflation continues to increase Britain looks worryingly close to sinking into a double dip recession.

If this forces the Conservatives and the Liberals to change course then it will destroy their position of the past two years that there is no alternative to their economic policies. Likewise many of the more left leaning members are incredibly angry about the decisions made over the NHS and tuition fees.

On top of this there is the referendum failure in May. Electoral reform had been the Holy Grail for Liberal Democrats for the past few decades and the promise of a referendum on this was seen as one of the chief successes of the bargaining process that put the coalition together.

Even those unhappy with the idea of being in government with the Conservatives kept quiet mainly because of this. A victory would have significantly increased Liberal support and permanently broken the mould of the British two-party system. However it's probably now going to go down as one of the great mistakes in British political history.

Clegg's critics argue that AV was the most difficult system to sell and he should have pushed harder for a referendum based on proper proportional representation. The campaign itself was a disaster and its failure means that the issue of electoral reform has now been taken off the table for probably at least a generation.

Possibly Clegg's biggest problem is his relationship with his new best friend Cameron. To quote the late Alan Clark: "There are no true friends in politics, we're all sharks circling and waiting for traces of blood in the water." There is no longstanding bond between the Conservatives and Liberals like there is between the CDU and FDP in Germany. For many Liberals the Conservatives have always been the traditional enemy. The electoral result that gave birth to the coalition is a once in a generation event and Clegg cannot guarantee another hung parliament. It's in Cameron's best long-term interests to win a general election outright so he can govern alone and if that means sacrificing Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats he'll do so. The referendum campaign, along with the way Vince Cable has been treated, has given us a taste of how pragmatic the Conservative leadership can be when they feel it's necessary.

Ultimately Clegg will argue that it's better for them to be in power putting their policies into practice then sitting outside government criticising. However many will question what the point of being in power is if it ends up destroying their electoral support base.

Last year's Barnsley by-election gave a lot of people in the party a nasty shock when the Liberal Democrat candidate came in sixth behind Ukip and the BNP. Overall they got four per cent of the vote, down from 17% in 2010. While some dismissed it as a one-off, for others it was a potential glimpse into a very bleak future. Other polls suggest that up to 40% of people who voted for them last May will not do so again. This, along with the recently announced boundary changes which eliminate a whole raft of safe seats, means that unless there is a radical change in their fortunes the Liberal Democrats could be looking at electoral wipeout in four years' time.

Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.

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