UK Politics

'Elections will force Lib Dems to face identity crisis'

File photo dated 21/12/10 of Prime Minister David Cameron (right) and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg
Image caption Both David Cameron and Nick Clegg have said they want to "move on" from the UK's AV vote

In the throes of defeat, a political party thrashes about in spasm. It attacks its coalition partners - in the same breath as it promises a more businesslike relationship.

Its members have a go at the leadership and one leader resigns.

Above all, the party agonises over why the voters turned against it. Witness the Liberal Democrats in the wake of their election rout.

The brutal truth though is that they remain in coalition and - election defeats or no - they must continue governing.

They have nowhere else to go. They are locked into a government whose fate depends on economic recovery in four years time.

It is that truism that colours the urgent debate now taking place within the Lib Dems about what they should do now.

Some Lib Dems want their ministers to assert their independence more and be open about disagreements with the Conservatives.

Others want them to push the party's agenda further, demanding changes to policies outside the holy writ of the coalition agreement.

Their cause of the moment is the government's health reforms, with many Lib Dems looking for tangible restrictions on the involvement of the private sector in the delivery of NHS services.

'Differing ideas'

Other Lib Dem ministers disagree with this analysis. They say the call for greater independence is code for the Lib Dems to be a bit more left wing, a bit more of an opposition within a government.

This, they say, is a path to electoral oblivion.

They argue that it is foolish and pointless to demand transactional concessions from the Conservatives that would not be granted or make any difference if they were.

"People did not vote against us because we weren't pushing hard enough on Lords reform," said one minister.

At the heart of the debate is that question: why did people stop voting Lib Dem?

Some blame the spending cuts, others blame the so-called broken promises, and others just blame the fact of their being in coalition with the Tories.

Underlying it all is an identity crisis, long brewing, that these elections have forced on the Lib Dems.

For years they have won votes from a variety of voters, many of whom have had vastly differing ideas of what the party is about and for.

Those who thought the Lib Dems were a soft-left, anti-war alternative to Labour have long gone.

Those who thought the Lib Dems were a party of civil liberties and electoral reform alone have been left puzzled and disappointed by their coalition with the Conservatives.

Some who thought the Lib Dems were a respectable centrist alternative to the Tories in the South West have either drifted away to UKIP or been attracted by David Cameron's social liberalism.

Image caption Nick Clegg admitted the Liberal Democrats had taken a "real knock" after the election losses

And of course, many who voted Lib Dem just to protest against the government of the day can no longer do so.

In other words, in the wake of these elections, the Lib Dems are having to decide what they are for.

No longer can they appeal to different voters in different ways. That is the straitjacket of government. They have to agree policy that affects people's lives, not positions that can be flavoured differently around the country.

In the short term, the Lib Dem leadership's preferred solution is not to have vocal rows with the Tories, but to shout out loud the achievements they have already made in government.

Nick Clegg will tell his party activists in a speech next week that he - and they - are in this for the long haul.

On the first anniversary of the coalition, he will say the two key decisions - to join the coalition and to cut the deficit quickly - remain the right ones.

But he will also make clear the Lib Dem's achievements, telling voters what they get from the Lib Dems being in government.

As an example of that, he will appear at a joint event with David Cameron to highlight what they are doing on youth unemployment.

That, for now, is the strategy. It does not, though, change the fact that the party is in government and many voters don't seem to like it.

Their task now is to become some thing that voters do like.

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