Comment: Lib Dems stuck in a trap of their own making

By Dr Matthew Ashton

Another year, another conference season. This weekend saw the start of the Liberal Democrats' annual jamboree, and it promises to be an even more awkward affair than last time. Most of the discussion will centre on Nick Clegg and the growing murmurs of discontent from all around him. These can roughly be divided into three main areas: the economy, Liberal Democrat policies, and the style and direction of Clegg's own leadership.

Clegg initially sold the coalition to many within his own party on the grounds that it was the mature grown-up thing to do in order to deal with the country's economic problems. However this meant adopting a whole raft of policies that he and his colleagues had decried before the 2010 election as being absolute madness. If the economy had rebounded as they'd hoped with positive growth and a significant cut in the deficit then this could have been swept under the carpet. It now looks like it's going to be difficult to achieve one, let alone both, by 2015. Even if there is a radical turn around in the economy than Clegg is deluded if he thinks the Conservative will let him, or his party, take any credit for it. As the AV referendum showed, the Conservatives, strategically and tactically, are much better negative campaigners compared to their coalition partners.

Equally, at the end of this five-year parliament (assuming it lasts that long) it will be very difficult for the Liberal Democrats to point to other major successes. Electoral reform is essentially a dead-duck, while House of Lords reform has gone much the same way. The NHS policy is still unpopular up and down the country, while the raising of student fees has potentially alienated a whole generation of young people from ever voting Liberal Democrat again. The public apology was an attempt to lance that particular boil and so far doesn't seem to have succeeded. For many observers it came across as half-hearted at best, and about two years too late. Unfortunately Clegg will now find it difficult to use the word pledge in public again without being jeered at.

There are some good policies that they've managed to get through, but if you stopped several thousand random people in the street, and asked them to name them, only a handful could name more than five. The party is currently attempting to push for a wealth tax as part of their fairness agenda, but again it seems like a long-shot considering who they're in government with.

Another problem is that Clegg is fast losing power as a leader. The rank and file grassroots would deny this to their dying breath, but it would be delusional to suggest that he hasn't lost both influence and authority since 2010. Many Liberal Democrat MPs supported the idea of going into coalition because it promised the party's first taste of real power in several decades. However many are now beginning to wonder if it will be at the expense of their seats. Various local elections have already proven catastrophic, and there are more by-elections coming up that look to continue this trend.

Take Corby, for instance. The Liberal Democrats were never serious contenders in 2010, but managed roughly 8,000 votes. In November it'll be very interesting to see how that result holds up. By-elections are often about punishing those in power. A lot of the 2010 voters will either stay home or transfer their allegiance to Labour. If the Liberal Democrat vote suffers a total collapse then many of their MPs will suddenly get a sharply focused vision of what the next election will look like.

Even taking all of this into account, the Liberal Democrats are still stuck in a trap of their own making. They may dislike the direction they're heading in, but changing course, or even the driver, runs the risk of collapsing the entire coalition. Their electoral prospects in 2015 might not look great, but there's always the hope that the economy could improve. An election tomorrow on the other hand would be more reminiscent of a cull. As a result the party will continue to lurch on like Dickens Mr Micawber, desperately hoping that "something will turn up".

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

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