The real reason the Lib Dems are languishing in the polls

Is there a pantomime in the land that didn't feature a "Nick Clegg breaking a promise" joke this Chr

There is a great (though sadly, totally erroneous) quote attributed to Catherine the Great, which says:

You can be a murderous tyrant and the world will remember you fondly, but f*ck one horse and you will be a horse f*cker for all eternity.

It strikes me that there's a lesson in there for us Lib Dems.

There's an increasing tendency within the party to accept that our languishing in the polls is a natural price for being in government, especially during the worst economic maelstrom for 80 years. In such circumstances you do all sorts of unpopular things you'd rather not do -- and no-one likes the person administering the nasty medicine.

To adopt such an attitude ignores the fact that the other party in government is riding high in the polls regardless of the treatment they're doling out, while the Prime Minster remains the only national party leader with positive approval ratings.

So how come David Cameron gets to play the role of beloved tyrant, while Nick Clegg...?

It is because the nasty medicine is not at the forefront of people's minds when they think of the Liberal Democrats. It is lack of trust. Betrayal. An inability to keep a promise. It is still tuition fees.

Most people in the party are pretty bored talking about this now -- which is fine. But the country isn't. Is there a pantomime in the land that didn't feature a "Nick Clegg breaking a promise" joke this Christmas? I suspect not.

We can write a long list of positive, liberal achievements in government -- the pupil premium, lifting nearly a million low paid workers out of income tax, restoring the pensions to earnings link. Next year there'll be a load more -- like the Green Investment Bank.

But no-one will really be listening or giving us any credit. Because we still haven't put the original sin to rights yet. We could stand on a street corner throwing out £50 notes to strangers, and everyone would look at us quizzically before holding them up to the light to see if they're fake.

Of course, we must still carry on delivering on our manifesto and championing liberal causes in government. But we shouldn't expect the polls to change one iota when we do -- just as they didn't change last year. Because we'll get no credit for anything unless we resolve the tuition fees debacle.

Nick needs to say sorry. And sort it. Because until then, everyone has us marked down as horse f*ckers.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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