LibLink: Julian Astle – Reports of the Lib Dems’ death have been greatly exaggerated

Over on his Telegraph blog Julian Astle, after much focus this week on the Liberal Democrats’ short-term prospects in the upcoming local and devolved elections, takes a look at the party’s likely fortunes over a slightly longer period.

It’s a lengthy but perceptive piece which is well worth a read, but in the meantime here’s a short taster:

It would be a mistake to think that the Lib Dems are where they are because of circumstances alone, however. Clegg heads a serious and ambitious cohort of MPs who have no interest in the politics of perpetual opposition. They want to change the country. But they also want to change their party, and change it for good.

Having studied extensive private polling from the past 20 years, they know that there is significant latent support for the Lib Dems waiting to be tapped – as there is for any party of the centre that can capture the public imagination. A majority of voters have long claimed they “would consider voting Lib Dem” but worry about “wasting” their vote if they do so. What do they mean by this? In part, they mean that they don’t think the Lib Dems can win outright so won’t vote for them – a chicken-and-egg conundrum with no obvious solution. But they are also revealing some other, related opinions: that the party is insufficiently serious; that it cannot be trusted with power; that it isn’t capable of governing.

Clegg is hoping the next five years will change these perceptions. By governing – and by facing up to the difficult decisions that governing involves – his party is already recasting its image in the public eye. In doing so, it is addressing important and long-standing brand weaknesses. It is making the difficult transition from the politics of protest to the politics of power, swapping public affection for public respect. The fact that the former takes less time to lose than the latter takes to win explains the party’s current malaise. That is why Clegg himself remains rigidly focused on 2015; though he can’t admit it to his councillors, his strategy was not designed to deliver mid-term triumphs. He always knew he would have to take a few steps back if the party was ever to take more steps forward in the future.

You can read the whole piece here – and it’s worth doing so if only for the penultimate paragraph.

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  • paul barker 14th Apr '11 - 7:11pm

    Both peices are intelligent but way too pessimistic about our prospects in May. We are very unpopular with a big chunk of the electorate & that affects the way the Media cover us & pushes our Poll ratings down. If there was a way for people to vote against Parties that would be bad but the vast majority of those who dislike us now have never voted for us in the past were never likely to vote for us in the future, many dont vote at all.

    In 3 weeks time my feeling is that a lot of shy Libdem voters will come out for us & a lot of “Experts” will be surprised.

  • @Bob. Excellent piece, agree with every word.

  • Ruth Bright 14th Apr '11 - 9:45pm

    Perceptive? Read the last paragraph of the original article and he sounds like a Top Gear presenter.

  • Keith Browning 14th Apr '11 - 10:01pm

    ‘Clegg is viewed as duplicitious, insincere and opportunistic.’

    Yes he’s a politician.

    No different to the majority of the Prime Ministers and party leaders over the past 200 years.

    Churchill would be number one on that list but the rest not far behind.

    Why is Nick being slagged off for being ‘normal’.

  • Whilst I found myself agreeing with an awful lot of that Telegraph article, it just seemed to miss two words – Orange Book.

    A lot of the charges thrown at Nick Clegg and the party are unfair. There were no lies, no deceits, no one was misled.The party did not, ‘sell out for power,’ and there was no reason to see Coalition as some sort of permanent alliance. And yet, and yet, and yet……

    Undeniably an awful lot of people feel that what they have is not what was advertised. Where the promise, certainly to my mind, was that Lib Dems as junior coalition partners would show influence, what we have actually seen is confluence. The Orange Book and the drift to the right were no secret to anyone who looked. But they were not really advertised. Some of it is self-inflicted. HE fees are frankly indefensible, the product of poor politics. Similarly the speed in the change of stance on deficit reduction left a bad taste in the mouth for many. But it is wider than that. Anyone who voted for the Lib Dems thinking that they were voting for something identifiably on the classic left were never really put right – at least not explicitly.

    Buyer beware. Voters will most certainly look closer next time, and they have a right to do so.

    Is any of this a problem? The Telegraph article is compelling in its argument that it is not – as I said, I agree with much of it. But the real question here is how much of the Lib Dem vote is real and how much is protest – at local level the protest is likely gone for a decade (hence Councillor’s comments), but at national level I don’t know. I am a borderline optimist, but the Astle article did seem to only look at what it wants to.

    Just one other thing political adviser to Ashdown in Bosnia is nothing to be proud of.

  • “Why is Nick being slagged off for being ‘normal’.”

    Obviously, because he put himself forward as the man who _wasn’t_ a run of the mill, lying politician.

    May 2010: “No more broken promises … Don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be different.”

    A few months later: “I’m going to break my written promise to the electorate because (1) …”

    As to whether reports of the party’s death have been exaggerated, I’m always amazed at how little people understand about “expectation management.”

  • Bill le Breton 15th Apr '11 - 9:54am

    Duncan’s contribution is a fine piece of analysis. Indeed it was not a sell out to enter a coalition with the Conservatives, there were many positives in so doing, the first and most important being the avoidance of a political crisis in this country at the time of a global economic crisis, and, yes Julian, one of the many other advantages from entering government could be its ability to counter the wasted vote perception that has prevented many who supported our policies and personalities from actually voting for us.
    But the meat is in what we are perceived to stand for in government, and here Duncan’s point is very well made that rather than demonstrate ‘influence’ we have demonstrated ‘confluence’ in policies on the deficit, tax, schools, HE and now health which were diametrically opposed to both our manifesto pledges and the gravitational centre of the Parliamentary Party, Conference, councillors, campaigners and the vast majority of those who actually vote for us.
    I am sure that councillors would not mind losing for the right causes. My experience of those councillors is that they are tenacious and optimistic. Those who have lost when national tides were against them have fought on and regained their seats in different times. So it is plain wrong to alledge that our concern now is about the effect on these elections. The concern is about what is right for our country.
    The real issue is that over the couple of years before the general election Nick Clegg’s influence on policy was repeatedly frustrated and overturned by the PLDP, the Policy Committee and Conference. The British system gives party leaders when in Government greater freedom from their parties both in the Houses of Parliament and ‘out of doors’. Thus Clegg in his selection of ministers and advisers and in his influence on Coalition policy has been free of those restraints that operated before (effectively) the first leaders’ debate this time last year. As a result, we have had a year of Cleggism.
    The question is: for Britain, is Cleggism where it has diverged from party policy, especially as articulated on tax and spend, HE, so-called free schools, and now on the NHS (which as Duncan reminds us he did sign off) better policy than Liberal Democracy as expressed in the Manifesto. For me … No it is not.
    Because we negotiated Cleggism after the election and because Cleggism is now represented in full force in day to day Coalition policy determination, we shall never know just how much more of our manifesto we might have gained, that is, how much greater might our influence have been for achieving party policy.
    Also as a consequence of this shift of power from policies of the Party to those of the Leader, the public perception has been of duplicity and the consequence of that has been a catastrophic loss of trust which makes campaigning at any level and on any issue very difficult.
    That is the tragedy of the last 12 months, not any impact there might have been on our performance in the referendum or in any national or local elections.

  • “The less introspective elements of the Labour party are beginning to wake up to the Lib-Dem and Tory ambition; namely that of replacing Labour as the natural home of the progressive-left.”

    And the first stage of this cunning strategy is to get rid of all their left wing voters.

  • May 2010
    Lab 29% Lib Dem 23%

    YouGov April 2011
    Lab 42% Lib Dem 10%

  • So your idea is that in 2015 the Lib Dems will be campaigning as the left wing alternative to themselves?

  • The Tories hate us because they don’t have absolute power, Labour hate us because we wouldn’t prop them up to cling onto power – either way neither can say that we’re ‘lite’ on making a tough decision, even when caught between a rock and a hard place – How dare we be able to make a call like that!

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