Comment: The Liberal Democrat dilemma in 2012

Nick Clegg seems to be caught in a web of his own making.

By Dr Matthew Ashton

When people talk about 2011 as the year of the 'squeezed middle', they're usually referring to the economic situation of the middle classes. In retrospect it also sums up the Liberal Democrat position pretty well.

This week saw one of the most significant splits in the coalition yet with Nick Clegg taking a fundamentally different line from David Cameron on the outcome and meaning of the latter's EU veto. Next week he will give a speech where he criticises the Conservative approach to the family as being too '1950s' and will also take aim at the Big Society initiative.

If he intends to use these observations to draw a clear line in the sand between himself and the Conservative party then I think he's missed the boat on both fronts.

Firstly I don't think anyone will be surprised to hear that the Conservatives are not as progressive as the Liberal Democrats on social issues. Secondly the 'Big Society' has already been dismissed by many as a buzz word policy that failed to find traction. If Clegg had really wanted to criticise it for lacking substance he should have done it a year ago when there might have been some political capital in it. Instead of shaping the political mood he seems to be stuck echoing media and public opinion.

This has been the fundamental problem for the Liberal Democrats all the way through 2011, and in retrospect it might well go down as one of the worst years in the party's history. There's an old saying about being careful what you wish for. In this case the party faithful have wished for years to be in government and to have power. Now they're in government but not in power.

They're part of a coalition that has enacted some of the biggest spending cuts in history, witnessed some of the worst riots in the UK in 20 years, and moved significantly to the right on Europe. That's even before you get on to the failed referendum on AV and the loss of so many council seats in May.

The trouble is they don't seem to have an alternative.

To break with the Conservatives now would mean a trip to the ballot box and at this point in the electoral cycle that would be suicide. Cameron may have received a boost in the opinion polls thanks to his veto but I severely doubt this will do the pro-euro Liberal Democrats any good.

Nick Clegg also hasn't been helped by members of his own party. His most popular colleague with the general public, Vince Cable, has been effectively marginalised with the Telegraph uncovering of his anti-Murdoch bias, while it's increasingly difficult to tell the difference between Danny Alexander and a regular Conservative in most interviews. Quite often when Clegg does criticise his coalition partners you can almost guarantee that Alexander will turn up on TV a day later to downplay any talk of a rift.

The only reason Clegg is not under more pressure is that Ed Miliband and Labour are still finding their feet in this new terrain. They don't seem to have quite decided whether to aim their firepower at the Liberals or try to woo them from across the aisle. However as much as the Lib Dem grassroots might prefer a coalition with Labour the electoral maths still don't add up and the media would tear them apart for their inconsistency.

Looking ahead to 2012, then, is there any way out of this downward spiral?

The short answer is not obviously so. The economic situation looks set to get worse due to the eurozone crisis. While this might strengthen the eurosceptic Conservatives, it will do little for the Liberal Democrats. Likewise growing unemployment will also bring with it more social unrest that the Conservatives could benefit from by reminding people that they're the party of law and order.

Nick Clegg will continue to give speeches reminding people of the difference between his party and the Conservatives. The trouble with this is that the differences are actually quite small and he can't exaggerate them without provoking a potentially disastrous rift. He seems therefore to be caught in a web of his own making.

The Liberal Democrat core vote has shrunk, former disaffected Labour voters have gone back to Labour and I can't see disaffected Conservative voters taking a leap of faith. 2012 looks likely to be the year then when Clegg and his party spend a lot of time emulating Mr Micawber and 'hoping that something turns up'. Whether it will or not remains to be seen.

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

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