Lib Dem Voice has polled our members-only forum to discover what Lib Dem members think of various political issues, the Coalition, and the performance of key party figures. Some 560 party members responded, and we’re publishing the full results.
LDV asked: Following this year’s poor local election results for the Lib Dems, it was suggested by Lembit Opik that Nick Clegg should set a timetable for his departure as party leader by the end of this year while continuing to serve as Deputy Prime Minister until 2015. Would you like to see Nick Clegg remain as Liberal Democrat leader to fight the 2015 general election, or should he be replaced before then?
59% – Nick Clegg should stay as leader of the Liberal Democrats
34% – Nick Clegg should be replaced as leader of the Liberal Democrats
8% – Don’t know / No opinion
More than 1-in-3 Lib Dem members in our survey believe Nick Clegg should stand down as party leader before the general election due in 2015, with just 59% saying he should definitely stay to fight. In one sense, I’m not surprised: Brand Clegg has taken a huge hit since the formation of the Coalition, most notably over the U-turn on tuition fees (although the policy’s architect Vince Cable has more or less successfully shrugged off that unpopular decision). It’s clear that Nick’s enthusiastic embrace of Coalition politics has created a serious rift between his leadership and a significant minority of Lib Dem members, who seemingly agree with Tim Montgomerie’s analysis here on LDV three months ago:
… you need to change party leader. Not now. Not, I suggest, until 2014. But you can’t go into the next election with Nick Clegg at the top of your ticket. I can see it now – Clegg in the televised debates looking into the camera and looking for another Manchester moment. After he’s delivered his lines the debate anchor will turn to the Labour leader (it might be Ed Miliband but I wouldn’t like to bet on it) and ask for a reaction. All the Labour leader has to say is “tuition fees”. “No student, no parent, no voter will ever believe a promise you make, Mr Clegg, after you promised to scrap tuition fees and then increased them dramatically.” To recover left-leaning voters you also need a new leader who voters might think could happily form a coalition with Labour. For once Lembit Opik is right (although I think I got there first). Clegg should carry on as Deputy PM until the end of the parliament but he should resign as party leader with 12 to 18 months to go before the election. A new leader can then start the process of establishing a distinctive Lib Dem pitch for 2015.
While it’s an understandable viewpoint, I think it’s entirely wrong-headed.
First, because I think that one of the commonly held criticisms of the Lib Dems is we’re “a bit flaky”, nice guys who are out of our depth when it comes to the serious rough-and-tumble of grown-up politics, that we’ll run at the first sniff of unpopularity. Defenestrating another leader — the first one in 80 years to lead the party into government — would be taken as a further sign that Lib Dems can’t stand the heat in the kitchen. And of course we should take Tim’s advice with a pinch of salt: it’s clearly in the Conservatives’ favour for the Lib Dems to be pushed away from the centre-ground — which is where most voters place our party and Nick Clegg personally — towards the left, ceding ground for others to occupy.
Secondly, I don’t think it makes sense because it assumes Nick’s successor would prove more popular. However, as I’ve pointed out before it’s not Nick Clegg who’s the current problem for the Lib Dems: it’s that the economy is in dire shape, the government is unpopular, and our party is identified with both those drags. I don’t see that situation changing just because the face at the top does. In fact, though Nick’s currently the least popular party leader, he is also the only leader to out-poll his own party’s standing in the polls.
What the poll does show is that there’s much work to be done in re-connecting Nick with the party membership, as pioneered a few weeks ago with the ‘Clegginar’ conversation between the leader and members. When a third of your party starts agreeing with Lembit Opik, then it’s a clear sign that all isn’t well!
* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.