With the General Election looming next year, the political alarm bells are beginning to sound in the parties’ campaign offices to tell them to prepare for war. The Conservatives must be worried about Labour’s lead in the poll, but surely the man with the most anxiety and pessimism towards the big one next year must be Nick Clegg.
Even though Clegg guided the Liberal Democrats into government by a fluke of parliamentary politics, it can’t really be said that he has done well. The Lib Dems’ 2010 General Election performance in terms of seats won was actually down on their 2005 total that Charles Kennedy fought to win – earning only 57 seats compared to 62 five years earlier. Nick Clegg’s performance in the TV debates with David Cameron and Gordon Brown earned him a lot of praise, but he could only convert that praise into a 1% increase in the Lib Dems percentage share of the national vote. Don’t be fooled into thinking that because the Lib Dems were the chosen bedfellows of the Tories to form a working government that Nick Clegg had pulled off a great election.
Worse still, Nick Clegg has become almost a silent figure over the last four years compared to his vocal and relatively strong role in opposition. His role as Deputy Prime Minister has been reduced to being a political punching bag for the difficulties that the coalition government has faced. His main public job over the last few years has been hosting a weekly radio show on LBC where members of the public phone-in and chastise him and his Government for their work so far. He has filled in every so often at Prime Minister’s Questions but has been treated with a respect so tarnished that you could almost expect Ed Miliband to ask: “When’s the real guy showing up?”
Despite being members of the Government, the Lib Dems have achieved very little of their manifesto aims during their first time in power. Time and again they have been forced to concede to Tory policies that at best disagree and at worst destroy the values that won Lib Dem MPs their seats. The party of the students were powerless to stop the rise in maximum tuitions fees to £9,000 per year in England and Wales. The biggest austerity measures since the recovery from World War II have been brought in despite the Lib Dems’ belief in the welfare state. The Royal Mail and most of the NHS in England and Wales have been privatised against Lib Dem values. The Lib Dem crusade for voting and Lords’ reform has been crushed by Conservative stalling and a referendum on the introduction of the Alternative Vote electoral system that backfired horribly.
Now Clegg and the Lib Dems are well and truly on the ropes. The latest YouGov poll of voter intentions for the General Election puts Labour in the lead on 37%, the Conservatives just behind on 36%, UKIP in 3rd place on 11% and the Lib Dems languishing behind on 9%. Only 38% of those who voted Lib Dem in 2010 intend to do so again next year. Things look dismal for the Lib Dems at the moment.
Things went from bad to worse on Wednesday night as Clegg went head-to-head against UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage in a TV debate ahead of May’s European Parliament elections where UKIP may well beat even the big two parties. A YouGov poll after the debate suggested that Farage won the tussle, with 57% calling it in his favour compared to just 36% for Clegg. It may make sense to battle one of your closest political rivals in a debate but it is far less wise to debate a charismatic leader of what is almost a one-man party (I certainly couldn’t name any head UKIP honchos without looking them up). As Nick Robinson of the BBC pointed out: “Few voters were likely to be watching or listening weighing up whether to back Farage or Clegg”, but I’m sure it doesn’t help Clegg’s image to be defeated in what was termed a “second division” debate.
It is not good for democracy in our country and certainly not good for those of us with left-leaning political ideals that our choice of governments in the next General Election is limited to the Conservatives and Labour. The Liberal Democrats’ slow rise to power has hit its peak and now the roller-coaster ride is hitting the big drop. The relatively youthful leadership of Nick Clegg has been exposed as the naïve experiment that it was with the Lib Dems’ weak promotion of its’ own policies in Government.
The Lib Dems need to completely re-evalutate their policy platform and their image to appeal to voters that are likely to desert them, and they can’t break off the shackles of their association with the current Government and their reneging on manifesto promises without a new man or woman at the helm. Nick Clegg’s seven year stint as leader needs to end before the next election if the Lib Dems are to avoid ending up in an even wore position than when he took over.
Unlike the horsefly with which he shares a name, Clegg has no bite and should be removed from the leadership if the Lib Dems don’t want to face political purgatory until 2020 at least.