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Inside Track: Will the electorate opt to save 'plucky' LibDems?

NICK Clegg was in full poetic, campaigning mode this week.With 11 months to go before the 2015 General Election, the Liberal Democrat leader effectively began his party's long campaign.

This is because the LibDems are in such a deep hole, Mr Clegg has to start earlier than the others to try to get them out; if he can.

Indeed, one could argue the Deputy Prime Minister began this gruelling exercise last year when he became the first party leader to engage in the masochism strategy of doing a weekly phone-in and, just as David Cameron and Ed Miliband were abandoning their monthly press conferences, Mr Clegg was introducing his.

As Ukip has supplanted the LibDems as the party of protest, the yellow peril has taken quite a hammering, most notably in by-elections. Back in the heady rose garden days of the Lib-Con Coalition, the LibDems were polling 25 per cent; this month they hit just six.

Since 2010, the party has witnessed electoral decimation: MSPs falling from 16 to five; last month, the party lost another 300 councillors in England and, embarrassingly, saw its stock of MEPs fall from 11 to just one. Such continual pounding will be hitting the party's support base; crucial to getting activists involved in any election campaign. It means the LibDems strategy will be limited; pouring resources into keeping the seats it currently has.

So the DPM appeared before the feral beasts of the media to try to shore up the crumbling edifice, churning out campaign soundbites on the economy. He claimed the LibDems were the "pluckiest, toughest, bravest party in British politics", that history would look kindly on their decision to enter a political marriage with their Tory foes to save the economy. Yet Europe often shows it is the senior not the junior partner in a coalition, who benefits electorally.

Mr Clegg announced his price for another coalition; agreement to ring-fencing all English education spending at a cost of £10 billion a year. Interestingly, he did not spell out how it would be paid for.

This week in a snapshot of 17 Lib-Con marginal seats, the prediction was the LibDems would lose a dozen or more. A similar survey of Lib-Lab marginals is due out soon; Mr Clegg might be watching for the results from behind the yellow sofa.

While the electoral arithmetic means Labour needs a much smaller lead than the Tories to win a majority in 2015, it could be neither gets one; Ukip being the unknown factor.

There could be an irony, of course. While Mr Clegg might see his party lose almost half its 57 MPs next May, because Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband will be desperate to seize power, the LibDem chief could wield greater influence on the formation of another UK coalition than he did in 2010.

In one Mario Cuomo moment, a self-congratulatory DPM declared: "The smallest party has turned out to be the one with the biggest ideas."

We'll know in 2015 if the voters believe him and feel it's time to save those "plucky" LibDems from electoral annihilation.

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