The Lib Dems' identity crisis just got a lot more critical

Coalition was meant to be a journey to political maturity and professionalism. But it's amateur hour yet again.

Let’s start, as justice demands we must, with the assumption that Chris Rennard, the Liberal Democrat peer and former party chief executive, is not guilty of allegations of sexual harassment levelled against him. They are not proven and he denies them. Still, since we know that Nick Clegg’s office was informed of complaints of that nature back in 2008, there can only be two possible reasons why the matter was not thoroughly investigated.

The first is that no-one really took the allegations seriously. The second is that the allegations were deemed grave and credible but the importance of Rennard to the Lib Dem political operation and the fear of besmirching his and the party’s good name made thorough investigation feel politically too risky. Both interpretations imply contempt for people who say they have been sexually harassed. Either way the party leadership comes out of the whole business looking negligent and disorderly.

That impression has been amplified by Clegg’s handling of the affair – specifically, his tantalising statement on Sunday, dragging Danny Alexander into an opaque narrative of "non-specific" allegations and vaguely sought reassurances. The Lib Dem leader admitted to having known something all along but couldn’t say exactly what it was. It is hard to imagine a response more finely calibrated to send the press pack into a feeding frenzy.

Most of the British press doesn’t need much incitement to sink claw and fang into the Lib Dems. The timing of the scandal – breaking in the middle of a crucial by-election campaign – has lead to some reasonable suppositions of ulterior anti-Clegg agendas at work. The Eastleigh campaign certainly adds electoral piquancy to the story but the Lib Dems can hardly complain about that. Wishing it had not come out now implies that there might have been some better time for it to come out, which is really a way of wishing it had never come out at all and that instinct is what makes the whole thing scandalous in the first place.

This is bad for Clegg. But how bad exactly? Most of the people in Westminster I’ve spoken too in the last couple of days think the Lib Dems will still hold Eastleigh. It is almost impossible to tell whether any of the Rennard-related news cuts through on the Hampshire front line. If it does, I’d imagine a likely consequence will be mildly affiliated Lib Dem voters staying at home on polling day. Since the party’s strategy on the ground relies on a ferocious Get-Out-The-Vote operation, a surge in abstentions would be problematic.

But I suspect the Lib Dems' pain in this saga will go further and deeper than seeing their by-election campaign blown off course. A central problem for the party since joining coalition government has been clarity of identity. They surrendered the vague pieties of perpetual opposition in the hope of graduating into the status of grown-up party of government.

Clegg’s office has a clear enough sense of where they think he and the party can stand on the political spectrum. They are supposed to be more compassionate than the dinosaur Tories and more fiscally rigorous than profligate Labour. Opinion polls don’t yield much evidence that the Lib Dems are actually perceived that way but the aspiration is plausible enough. There is, in theory, a gap in the political market – a Blair-shaped hole – for third-way candidates who combine economic rigour with a social conscience.

But to fill that gap the Lib Dems must above all look like a serious political outfit. The pitch is non-ideological and pragmatic. They are supposed to be the go-to guys for coalition when the voters don’t fancy handing unalloyed power to either of the bigger parties. They are offering themselves as the moderate technocrats who aren’t afraid of compromise and keep Westminster grounded and centred. You aren’t necessarily expected to like the Lib Dems anymore, but, according to Clegg’s strategy, you are supposed to think it worthwhile having them around in government.

The defining feature of this offer is professionalism and it is the absence of that very quality that stands out from the mess they are in over Lord Rennard. The charges themselves (unproven and denied, it must be said), the original handling of complaints five years ago and the sprawling case study in crisis mismanagement over the past week all conjure up the impression of an organisation staffed with chancers and over-promoted amateurs.

It is already pretty hard to overstate the problems with the Lib Dem brand. Not enough people know what they stand for. (Do they even know anymore?) Clegg himself is still seen as a slippery character, a betrayer of promises and a trader of principle for the baubles of office. The electoral life raft that strategists were crafting was fashioned from claims to be delivering stable, effective government. Lib Dem plans for 2015 are based on the hope that eventually some voters will come to look at their record in office and judge them to have been decent and useful. Yet here they are in a colourful parade of shabby and useless.

Nick Clegg renewing his coalition vows earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty Images
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Britain's shrinking democracy

10 million people - more than voted for Labour in May - will be excluded from the new electoral roll.

Despite all the warnings the government is determined to press ahead with its decision to close the existing electoral roll on December 1. This red letter day in British politics is no cause for celebration. As the Smith Institute’s latest report on the switch to the new system of voter registration shows, we are about to dramatically shrink our democracy.  As many as 10 million people are likely to vanish from the electoral register for ever – equal to 20 per cent of the total electorate and greater than Labour’s entire vote in the 2015 general election. 

Anyone who has not transferred over to the new individual electoral registration system by next Tuesday will be “dropped off” the register. The independent Electoral Commission, mindful of how the loss of voters will play out in forthcoming elections, say they need at least another year to ensure the new accuracy and completeness of the registers.

Nearly half a million voters (mostly the young and those in private rented homes) will disappear from the London register. According to a recent HeraldScotland survey around 100,000 residents in Glasgow may also be left off the new system. The picture is likely to be much the same in other cities, especially in places where there’s greater mobility and concentrations of students.

These depleted registers across the UK will impact more on marginal Labour seats, especially  where turnout is already low. Conversely, they will benefit Tories in future local, Euro and general elections. As the Smith Institute report observers, Conservative voters tend to be older, home owners and less transient – and therefore more likely to appear on the electoral register.

The government continues to ignore the prospect of skewed election results owing to an incomplete electoral registers. The attitude of some Tory MPs hardly helping. For example, Eleanor Laing MP (the former shadow minister for justice) told the BBC that “if a young person cannot organize the filling in of a form that registers them to vote, they don’t deserve the right to vote”.  Leaving aside such glib remarks, what we do know is the new registers will tend to favour MPs whose support is found in more affluent rural and semi-rural areas which have stable populations.  

Even more worrying, the forthcoming changes to MPs constituencies (under the Boundary Review) will be based on the new electoral register. The new parliamentary constituencies will be based not on the voting population, but on an inaccurate and incomplete register. As Institute’s report argues, these changes are likely to unjustly benefit UKIP and the Conservative party.

That’s not to say that the voter registration system doesn’t need reforming.  It clearly does. Indeed, every evidence-based analysis of electoral registers over the last 20 years shows that both accuracy and completeness are declining – the two features of any electoral register that make it credible or not. But, the job must be done properly.  Casually leaving 10m voters off the electoral resister hardly suggests every effort has been made.

The legitimacy of our democratic system rests on ensuring that everyone can exercise their right to vote. This is a task which shouldn’t brook complacency or compromise.  We should be aiming for maximum voter registration, not settling for a system where one in five drop off the register.