Over my month away from blogging I’ve absolutely lost the sense that the Lib-Dems are making the best possible use of their prominent position in government. Indeed, they don’t really seem to be softening the impact of the Tories’ plans either. After the heights of Nick Clegg’s speech on reform of the electoral system and Parliament’s Upper House, the Lib-Dems appear to have lost their voice at the heart of government. Opinion polls are beginning to reflect this. According to a YouGov poll published yesterday, only 40% of Lib-Dem voters at the General Election approve of the coalition’s performance compared to 36% who disapprove. Similarly, only 46% of Lib-Dem voters at the General Election would vote for them in another General Election today.
It isn’t a huge leap to suggest that a drop in support for the Lib-Dems could lead to defeat for the ‘Yes’ campaign in the referendum on the Alternative Vote. In another YouGov poll published yesterday, AV’s lead over FPTP was down from 13% a fortnight ago to just a single percent. As much as supporters of the ‘Yes’ campaign will try to avoid this, the referendum could all too easily end up being a poll of the public’s view of the Lib-Dems.
As the main parliamentary advocates of electoral reform, the Lib-Dems have a huge responsibility to keep a strong, distinctive and successful role within the government. It’s important that they show that coalition government – slightly more likely under AV – works. Equally important though is that they ensure that they, as the party which will be campaigning hardest for AV, keep to the principles that their supporters voted for at the last General Election. It will be nigh-on impossible for AV to be passed without Lib-Dem voters voting in favour of it. Unfortunately, the Lib-Dems seem to be forgoing the principles upon which they were elected which has of course been reflected in their poll numbers.
The introduction of legislation in the budget such as a rise in VAT which hits the poorest hardest suggests the Lib-Dems in the Treasury aren’t pushing principles of social justice particularly hard. A similar trend seems to be taking root in the Department of Education. Sarah Teather, the Lib-Dem Minster of State for Children and Families, gave an interview to the New Statesman this week where she spoke in glowing terms about her Tory boss Michael Gove. While some will argue there are elements of Liberal thought within Gove’s Free-Schools plan, Teather seemed to suggest that rushing the plan through Parliament wasn’t problematic because Gove was ‘clever.’ I’m certain most Lib-Dem voters would hope for somewhat deeper scrutiny of such far-reaching legislation in Parliament.
On top of this of course are are the government’s spending cuts; huge in terms of their unpopularity and their effect on public services. The pre-coalition Lib-Dems argued for delaying deep cuts in government spending until the economy was more stable. They saw mass unemployment and cuts in front-line services as damaging to Britain’s economy and communities. The days after the coalition negotiations with the Tories saw a swift climb-down as senior Lib-Dems converted to monetarist supporters of immediate and deep cuts.
None of this is to say they are completely unable to regain a rhetorical and legislative role in the coming months and years which is in touch with their principles. The issue for campaigners for electoral reform however is that because most voters will probably see AV as a Lib-Dems project, success in the AV referendum is bound up with the popular support of the Lib-Dems and their performance in government. I’m not sure it’s going to be possible to completely remove the party-political aspect of the electoral reform debate entirely but it’s certainly important to try.
It seems to me that the only way to soften the impact of the Lib-Dems’ potential unpopularity on the ‘Yes’ campaign is to have an exceptionally vocal, independent campaign which is united behind its cause. Senior Lib-Dems will of course want to be involved at a high level of the campaign but I’m not sure how productive that will be. If their unpopularity is going to harm the ‘Yes’ campaign then they may have to step back from the front line of the campaign and let strong, independent voices articulate the need for electoral reform.