The reason for the Lib Dems’ collapse in support last year was because they had failed to reach out to the right.
This may sound ludicrous, given that they’re criticised for being too right-wing, but hear me out. Throughout the Labour years, they relied too much on support from disaffected Labour voters – so obviously if they go into coalition with the Tories, they are going to be disliked by a lot of their voters.
Of course, they also made a stupid pledge about tuition fees which they knew they wouldn’t be able to keep if they went into to coalition with either party, rightly angering their voters – but that was just part of a wider thing about them being too left-wing.
You can’t blame Nick Clegg for this, as he actually brought his party closer to the centre than it had been since the Liberal-SDP merge (God knows where the party would be now if Chris Huhne had been elected leader). But since the AV referendum/local elections this May, he has adopted a new strategy – trying to show that they are having some influence in the government and are not just propping up the Tories.
Given his party’s main source of criticism is the perception that they basically are just propping up the Tories (though that’s not entirely true), this is an understandable idea. He followed it through mainly by trying to dumb down the NHS reforms, which worked, but didn’t work – as public opinion of him and his party is still at an all-time low.
I think he and the Liberals just need to face up to the fact that most of the left-wing votes they’ve lost are gone and he won’t retrieve them any time in the near future. Instead, Clegg needs to see this as confirmation of the need for him to continue shifting his party to the market-liberal centre. Or does he really want to just spend the rest of the term trying to win back left-wing votes, when at best this will only benefit him in the short-term and at worst it will not deliver any meaningful progress?
The way to go for the Lib Dems is to change into a proper liberal party that embraces economic liberalism (good for wooing right-wing voters) as well as civil and personal liberties (good for wooing left-wing voters). They need to build on the reasons why people switched from Labour to them, but also make the party attractive to Tory voters as well. If any of them need inspiration, this blog kept by classical-liberal Lib Dems, supporting tax cuts and a limited government as well as personal freedom, might be helpful.
They’re already on this path unintentionally. Before the AV vote, an ICM poll showed that less than a quarter of Lib Dem voters would put a Labour candidate as a second choice, compared to 31% who would rather put a number 2 against a Conservative candidate. The Liberals’ second-preference support from Labour voters had plummeted from 51% at the last general election to 16%, and they were now second-choice to more Tory voters than ever before.
This is what they need to build on. Going into coalition government with either two parties was always going to be dangerous for the Lib Dems, but perhaps it wouldn’t have been so bad if they had been a genuinely centrist party – reaching out not just to the left but to all corners of the political spectrum. And maybe that’s the lesson they need to learn from this, because in the near future, they’re far more likely to win new votes from the right than win back old votes from the left.