The Liberal Democrat vote is tumbling, with no prospect of let up. The party and its leader Nick Clegg are bearing the brunt of the criticism of coalition policies with the Tories taking far less of the flack. A referendum is due in May and there is the very real prospect that the unpopularity of the LibDems will see the opportunity for electoral reform vanish for a generation. I spoke at length with a senior member of the parliamentary party yesterday and there is a real fear that this might happen.
So what can they do? If they were to leave the coalition there would be a snap general election. The LibDem vote could be halved and a majority Tory government would abandon AV. If they carry on with the status quo the rifts in the party will grow and support will continue to fall. The mantra from the parliamentary party is “wait and see, this is a five year parliament”. That is a strategy of hope and hope is no strategy.
There is one route open. The LibDems agreed to be part of a coalition government and to support a programme of legislation. They however made no promise to remain uncritical. Were there never any dissenting voices within the last Labour government? Didn’t Claire Short call Tony Blair pompous and was she not branded irresponsible in return? Brown and Blair both remained in office whilst waging a cold war over the keys to Number 10. The LibDems in contrast seem to be afraid to voice any criticism lest they should be blamed for a collapse of the coalition.
There need to be a robust defence of LibDem principles. There needs to be visible, brave and principled debate in place of what looks to some like gutless complicity. Where there is clear contravention of election pledges the party must learn to say no. Bad legislation that has been improved at the margins is still bad legislation. The party may be in government but it has all but lost its voice.