The Liberal Democrats took another slap round the chops from the electorate on the May 3rd local elections. Yes, there were a few bright spots, especially those ably pointed out by Jeremy Browne MP, but the overall picture was still grim.
Of course it was not unexpected, and neither has the leadership’s response been – hold the course, reiterate what we have achieved and will achieve, compare our policy successes with those of the Conservatives, and emphasise that it was Labour who got us into the financial mess we are in. And so on. All good stuff, and well executed. But…..
If it’s not working with the electorate it is certainly working across the Party – criticism has been noticeably muted and that which has been made publicly mostly has been polite and on relatively minor points. The Party has displayed a mature unity across the country that the Tories and Labour should be envious of (although admittedly a large number have voted with their feet and left the party since May 2010).
The question remains as to what the political plan is to revive the Party’s popularity by the time of the next general election. Waiting for economic growth, and then highlighting our role in it, seemed to have been the main approach up to now. If economic growth is not forthcoming (which seems more likely now) the electoral prospects certainly do not look good. The other cloud for the Party is the shift to the right amongst a large section of the electorate – the EU and immigration are great scapegoats for the UK’s economic woes. Whilst much of the discussion about this has focused on UKIP threatening the Tories in many constituencies, such a shift in sentiment is bad for the Lib Dem’s electoral chances too.
There are some strategic steps the Lib Dems could take to address the problem of electoral unpopularity in such dire circumstances. Two are worth mentioning here.
The first is the Coalition structure – in managing policy areas. The public perception is that there is shared responsibility for each ministry. This is not entirely true since there are ministries without two parties having senior ministers – eg BIS and Energy/Environment on the Lib Dem side and International Development on the Tory side. There is scope however to make changes to ensure that the public perception of ‘Lib Dem policy areas’ is enhanced. Indeed one way of distinguishing approaches to Coalitions across the world is between those where parties share responsibility for each ministry and those where individual ministry control is allocated between the parties. Withyin a framework, the Tories might control the Home Office and FCO and the Lib Dems BIS, Justice, and Transport, for example.
The second is for the Party to apply itself more vigorously to the question of how fiscally sustainable economic growth is achieved in the current circumstances. [I have written before in LDV on this topic]. This in the main means a focus on supply side ‘competitiveness’ issues. This is one of two big open questions in government today (The other being the achievement of much greater efficiency in government). The Tories have made a mess of growth strategy so far – emphasising train projects, feeble employment generation ideas, and even more feeble stuff about de-regulation and making it easier to sack people. The problems and inhibitions in UK growth run much, much deeper than that, and require much more focused work.
It is not too late to avoid a drubbing at the next general election. Few in the Party are arguing for dramatically slowing down debt reduction. But many are waiting for some kind of new approach to both benefit the nation and revive the Party’s electoral prospects.
* Paul Reynolds is an independent foreign policy & international economics adviser, who has had senior political roles in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, among other countries across the globe.