The Liberal Democrats have had the fastest rise and fall in modern day politics, whilst, their leader Nick Clegg has gone from being heralded as a potential Prime Minister to being dubbed ‘Calamity Clegg’ by the media.
At his party’s highest point in 2010, weeks before the general election, polls suggested that they were the front runners, one point ahead of the Tories on 33%. The lowest point came not so long ago, in early 2013, when they slumped to 8% in opinion polls, an all time low, slipping into fourth place behind UKIP. So how has this rapid fall unfolded, who’s to blame and where does it leave the party in the long run?
We saw a dramatic rise in popularity for the Lib Dems during the election campaign of 2010, as Nick Clegg performed well throughout the live TV debates. His tenacity and ability to present a viable alternative to Brown and Cameron boded well with the British public gaining him support amongst the masses. His party had gone from being the rebel vote, to being seen as a genuine contender come election day.
The election on the other hand, wasn’t the greatest day for the Lib Dems. With their voters scattered throughout the country, the first past the post system dealt its usually harsh hand, and a share of 23% of the vote throughout the UK earned them only 9% of the seats in the House of Commons.
Irrespective of this, Clegg and the Lib Dems found themselves in a unique position as the power broker in British politics, with a choice of which party to side with to form a coalition and enter government.
Although mathematically a Lib-Con agreement seemed the most feasible of potential results, at first glance, ideologically it looked bizarre on paper. Yet it only takes a brief flick through The Orange Book, effectively the Lib Dem manifesto under Clegg, to see that there’s not a huge difference in the political stances of his party and the Conservatives led by Cameron.
It does however seem that since the honeymoon press conference in the gardens of Downing Street, where we saw the two side by side, the fortunes of both Clegg and his party have gone quite drastically downhill, and the relationship between the Prime Minister and his deputy has deteriorated rapidly beyond repair.
The Tories have been extremely lucky in the sense that it appears they’ve managed to make their coalition partners a shield to distract from any mistakes the government makes. Full of scandals, broken promises and law breaking ministers, the Lib Dems have taken the majority of negative press associated with the coalition.
The anger towards the rising of tuition fees, which was a Tory policy, was directed primarily towards Clegg because of his pre-election promise to prevent any increase, and it has been a similar situation since. When an unpopular policy has been pursued, the public has turned blame towards the Lib Dems, simply because the assumption has been they have the power to stop it and have chosen not to.
So what does the future hold for the Lib Dems? If they carry on in the same vein, I think it’s fair to say that the election in 2015 could ruin the party, leaving them in a worse position than in the early ‘90s under Paddy Ashdown. The left leaning voters, who sided with them in 2010, are long gone, seemingly lured away by Ed Miliband’s Labour party. But the biggest threat will come from their coalition partners, who have pin pointed 20 constituencies currently held by the Lib Dems as key targets for the 2015 election.
This is where the rise of UKIP may come to be a saving factor. As the recent council election shows, it is the Tories who are losing out to UKIP and this could come to the aide of the Lib Dems. With the Tories battling hard to win the marginal seats against Clegg and his party, UKIP could very easily steal a substantial number of votes off the Conservatives and rescue the Lib Dems in these constituencies.
But if the Lib Dems do take a battering in the election, a split down the middle between the classical liberals and the social democrats is not inconceivable and could fundamentally destroy the party. If they wither away from the forefront of politics, there is a strong likelihood that we could start to see a new landscape to British politics without any liberal representation.
What’s worse for the party is that there appears to be no real up and coming politicians in their ranks to take over from Clegg. Ed Davey has been cited as a possible replacement, but as a so-called orange booker like Clegg, it’s likely he won’t change a great deal within the party.
What they need after Clegg is a reformist, someone who can come in, appease both the social democrats as well as the liberals, whilst at the same time repositioning and rebranding the party, to attempt to win back the public’s trust. That’s a key thing that the Lib Dems have lost, with the broken promises slogan branded about almost on a weekly basis, the trust factor has completely gone and it could take years to earn that back. The only way this will be possible, is if the next leader ensures they distance themselves as far away from the Clegg regime as they can.
Regardless of what happens to the party, it must be noted that Clegg and his compatriots are the most successful liberals in almost a century and whether you love him or hate him, whether you think he has caused greater damage to the party than good, he has managed to get a liberal party into government to influence policy in one way or another, something which may not be achieved in a while.