Many of my friends are quite bemused when I say am working for the Liberal Democrats. “They’re a bit of a laughing stock at the moment,” one will say. “They’ll be wiped out at the next election,” another comments. These are not die-hard Labour tribalists or Tory hardliners, who yearn for the end of the Lib Dems and the return to a two-party system. They are just ordinary members of the public, with nothing more than a passing interest in politics.
For me, this is the biggest danger facing the Liberal Democrats: that, despite having been in power for over two years, we are still not being taken seriously as a political party. I accept that we have lost a lot of grassroots support as a result of tuition fees, NHS reform and the Welfare Reform Bill, which are seen by many as a betrayal of our identity as an essentially social-democratic, left-of-centre party.
Undoubtedly, Labour have also been able to capitalise on this by portraying themselves as the only true party of the left, despite being the party that presided over 13 years of increasing inequality. But for many people I speak to, the issue is not the difficult decisions we have had to make, or the fact we are sustaining a deeply unpopular Tory government. Instead, many who are not particularly politically engaged have come to see us as something of a joke; a curious, temporary anomaly which will all but disappear at the next election.
What most concerns me about this is that it may end up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. With so many people talking about how badly the Lib Dems will fare in 2015, many will be discouraged from voting for us as we will not be seen as a credible electoral choice. Insights from behavioural economics suggest that people tend to follow the crowd when voting. If polling reports show a candidate is doing particularly well then people are more likely to support them. Conversely, the worst thing you can do to try and address low voter turnout is to tell people that not enough of the population are voting – this will just discourage them even more. When commentators say that no-one will be voting for the Lib Dems and that our support has collapsed, that results in a further erosion of support. Meanwhile, just a small bounce back in the polls could trigger a significant change in people’s attitudes.
It’s not really clear how to address this issue. Important victories such as those over gay marriage and, hopefully, over House of Lords reform may appeal to a small, progressive minority, but these issues are not on the minds of most of the British public. If anything, they simply serve to reinforce the perception of the Lib Dems as a slightly eccentric party, out of touch with the electorate and more concerned with constitutional reform than economic recovery. Meanwhile, Nick Clegg commenting at Leveson that he was sitting at the children’s end of Murdoch’s table, or his recent description of being in government as akin to being lobotomised, may raise a few chuckles, but they simply give ammunition to those who wish to portray us as a party which is not worth taking seriously.
In order to recover as a political party, we need to counter the perception that we are irrelevant, and that we are no longer a serious electoral threat. Governments may be deeply unpopular, but if they are viewed as resolute and competent the public will still support them at the ballot box. It has already been said many times that the Lib Dems need to stop apologising for being in government. I think we need to do more. We need to show people that we are here to stay, that come 2015 we will not simply keel over and allow a return to two-party politics, but will present a strong, credible choice to the electorate. For that to happen, we need to assert ourselves more as a party of government, and not simply as a party struggling to keep the Tories in check. Ultimately, the biggest paradox of being in coalition is not that we have lost support, but that we have lost credibility.
* Paul Haydon has recently completed an MSc in European Public Policy at University College London.