In the recent local and devolved elections, the Lib Dems polled around 16% of the vote. This was down around a third on the 23% the party polled at the last General Election. Lots of very hard working councillors lost their seats and as a result of this the party's local base has doubtless been damaged. Of course I feel desperately sorry for those people. Fighting against a national trend is very difficult and can feel like one hand is tied behind your back before you even get started.
However what I wanted to focus on today is how the national political picture is likely to pan out over the next few years and to put this into historical context.
Since 1945 there have been 17 General Elections and of the 16 up until 2010 the Lib Dems or Liberal Party achieved precisely 0% of the power in the aftermath of each of them. There was a brief period of influence at the fag-end of a Labour government in the late 1970s with the Lib Lab pact but that was a mere blip and did not result in ministerial office for any Liberal MPs. So effectively we were looking at 65 years when the third party had no executive power to implement its policies.
That historical trend was well and truly bucked last year however when the Lib Dems formed a coalition government with the Conservatives. They got a little over 20% of the cabinet positions including Deputy Prime Minister and a chance to implement all sorts of policies across the political board, even in departments where they did not have the Secretary of State. Indeed recent BBC research suggests that so far the indications are that 75% of the Lib Dem manifesto is being implemented in the government programme vs 60% of the Conservative manifesto! That is an incredible achievement when you consider that the Lib Dems have 57 MPs against 307 for the Conservatives.
But that context is thrown into sharp relief by the opinion polls which regularly have the party in single digit or low double digit figures and the local election results in May which were not quite that bad but still well down from last year as I mentioned at the start.
I suppose there are a number of reasons why the party is doing so badly in the national polls now. Amongst them will be the way Lib Dem MPs mostly signed a pledge promising to vote against a rise in tuition fees and then as a governing party did the opposite (although plenty of individual MPs kept that promise of course), the fact that the party has signed up to a deficit reduction programme that is rather at odds with what was said during the election campaign and so on and so on. The party is in coalition and has had to make compromises but some of them have been hard for Lib Dem inclined voters to swallow.
This would have been the case whoever the Lib Dems had formed a coalition with though. Even if a Lib/Lab coalition had been feasible (and from what I have read I remain convinced it was not for various reasons, both political and mathematical) the Lib Dems would have ended up in a similar position now as well. Lots of people who had voted for the party as an anti-Labour protest vote would have been disgusted that it had "propped up" Labour and would have gone off to vote for another party or not voted at all.
And I think this is the crux of the matter. We have to face up to the fact that a decent chunk of our support in 2010, and for many years before then was made up a protest vote of various kinds. Anti-Conservative certainly, but also Anti-Labour and perhaps even anti-politics. After all, people could vote Lib Dem safe in the knowledge that they would never be in power to do anything about it. Couldn’t they?
Because of the vagaries of the First Past the Post system for Westminster, a drop in support of a third can produce outcomes whereby the number of MPs lost is much more than a third. On some projections, current Lib Dem polling could see us with 15 MPs at the next General Election or perhaps even less. Now in reality there are likely to be local issues and incumbency factors at play that mitigate this somewhat but if the polls stay roughly where they are (even assuming a bit of a bounce if the economy improves by 2015 and the Lib Dems get some credit for this) the number of MPs the party has the next time the voters are asked could easily be half or even less than now.
For the individual MPs and the local parties they represent this will be very difficult. In many cases decades of extremely hard work will have been put into winning and retaining the seat.
But to put this into the historical context I mentioned at the start, all those decades of work, the long, long march from fringe party with only enough MPs to fit in the back of a taxi, never being able to execute any of the 16 manifestos since 1945, to a position where 75% of the 2010 manifesto is actively being implemented is worth considering very carefully. In a way, the investment that those who put all that effort in over all those years is now being realised in terms of political capital, power and policies.
So what if this is as good as it gets? Maybe the party gets one shot at power when the electoral cards fall in a certain way under FPTP and it has to make the most of that when it happens. And that will never be easy for all the reasons mentioned previously. There will always be some voters who will feel betrayed by a party of protest becoming a party of government. And maybe also, the party will lose seats at the next election even if things go very well for the economy and the strong influence the party had had on the government produces very positive outcomes. Nobody ever said life, or politics was fair!
I have talked a lot about positive outcomes of policy but I still think there are plenty of things the party in government could do much better. I certainly think as I have said before they need to make it much clearer to the public what difference they are making (which to be fair to him, Nick Clegg seems to have belatedly realised). And we should certainly keep fighting for as much of our programme as we can get.
But if this is as good as it gets for the Lib Dems when they are in power then I suppose the party has a choice. It can, perhaps after another round or two of bad local election results (which seem inevitable, certainly as the cuts bite) decide it has had enough and withdraw from the coalition, maybe even defenestrating the public face of the Lib Dem compromises on the way in an attempt to shore up its political position. And let’s not kid ourselves that that route would be a panacea. Electoral meltdown could easily follow then too.
The other choice available to the party is to take the long view that this is its chance to make a real difference for the remaining years of this parliament. That difference might not yield immediate political dividends and might leave the party having to rebuild its local base for years to come but at least all the years of hard work in achieving those Westminster seats would have resulted in a very heavily Lib Dem influenced government in the first half of the decade that started with such a remarkable General Election result and one which the party embraced in the national interest.
That is the route I would choose.
This post was first published on Dale & Co.