Reaching out to the right is the only way forward for the Liberal Democrats

Nick Clegg proposing to dumb down the NHS reforms

Nick Clegg tried to win sympathy for his amendments to the NHS reforms, but this approach is not working

 
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.

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The Lib Dems are better than they’re given credit for

Before the election last year, Nick Clegg had a higher public approval rating than Winston Churchill had at the end of the War. Now he has lost more than half of his party voters, he has been burnt in effigy in demonstrations and has had dog shit posted through his letterbox. But I really think he deserves a lot more credit for what he’s done as Deputy PM, and what his party in general, has done in government.

Of course, the thing that has understandably angered people most, especially young people like myself, has been their broken promise that they would always vote against any increase in tuition fees. This sparked angry and sometimes violent protests, with some even targeting the chairman of the Nation Union of Students because he had condemned the violent behaviour of some of the protesters as “despicable”.

Obviously it was a stupid promise for the Lib Dems to make, given that there was always a very high chance of a hung Parliament, and both of the main parties (both – including Labour) would have risen tuition fees. But it’s not just the Lib Dems. Tony Blair promised fourteen years ago that the Labour Party had “no plans to introduce tuition fees for higher education”, and what did they do? They introduced tuition fees for higher education. That was just one of the many important things they said they were or were not going to do, and then went back on their word. Still, dismayingly, their blantant hypocrisy of using this of all issues to gain votes from the Lib Dems appears to be working, if opinion polls and the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election are anything to go by.

NUS leader Aaron Porter being led to safety from violent protesters. Apparently he’s “a f***ing Tory too” for saying that throwing a fire extinguisher over the Tory headquarters is despicable.

And this may seem surreal to everyone who is only concentrating on the fee rises and not the change of system, but overall, most of us – especially the poorest – will be better off in our twenties than before, under Labour. No-one will have to pay up-front tuition fees; it will all be transferred to loans. The rate at which we have to pay off our loans will depend on how much we’re earning, so that if my first job is working in the London Metal Exchange for £100,000 p.a. I’ll be paying off my debts far more quickly than if I’m just earning £21,000. If I’m earning less than that, I won’t have to start paying them yet at all. And these progressive changes are mostly likely due to Lib Dem pressure on the Tories to make the fee rises more progressive.

And let’s stop assuming that tuition fees discriminate against the poor – they don’t. The gap between rich and poor going to the top universities was always large, even way before fees were introduced. In the US, where universities are very expensive indeed, half of the poorest fifth of the population – and half of the overall population – goes to university. It all depends on the system, and on how well competition is encouraged between the universities, which needless to say, is not going to happen if we don’t have fees.

And generally, considering the Lib Dems are a far smaller party in Parliament than the Tories, they have had quite a lot of very good influence on government policy. Because of them, those earning less than £10,000 a year no longer have to pay income tax, ID cards are being scrapped, civil liberties are generally receiving more attention (except with regards to the EU, obviously), we’re having a referendum on AV, the government is more “environmentally friendly” and rich people are bing taxed more. Personally, I don’t entirely agree with the latter two points, but you can’t deny the party is making a lot of influence, given their smaller number of votes and seats.

So let’s stop bashing the Lib Dems. They are still putting their position in government to some good use. And frankly, if they actually deliver on their manifesto pledge to give us a referendum on EU membership, I’ll forgive everything else. But we’re still waiting…