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Leader: The question for the Lib Dems is if not Clegg, then who?

With Clegg fatally damaged, the party should look to Vince Cable to limit the damage,

As the Liberal Democrats gather for their third annual conference since entering government, the question they will ask is: “was it worth it?” Support for the party has more than halved from 23 per cent to 8 per cent, a figure that, if repeated at the election, would leave it with just 15 of its 57 MPs. Over the same period, party membership has declined by a quarter and the number of Liberal Democrat councillors has fallen below 3,000, the lowest level for two decades. Alarmed by these figures, half of party members now believe Nick Clegg should be replaced as leader before the next general election, according to a poll by the website Liberal Democrat Voice. Vince Cable, the Business Secretary who will be 70 in May, remains the most plausible alternative leader. He has made it clear that he is available should a vacancy arise.

In his essay on page 26, Richard Reeves, who served as the Lib Dem leader’s director of strategy from 2010 until April of this year, rightly identifies the debate over Mr Clegg’s future as a proxy for a deeper one: “Liberal or not Liberal?” If the party is to be liberal, he writes, “it has to be Clegg. If not, it should be almost anyone but.” He argues that the Lib Dems should jettison their social democratic heritage and reposition themselves as a party of the radical centre, truly liberal, more socially progressive than the Conservatives and more fiscally responsible than Labour.

All political parties are coalitions but this is truer of the Lib Dems than most. Classical liberals such as education minister David Laws, who favour a drastically reduced state (he has called for public spending to be cut to 35 per cent of GDP), sit alongside social democrats such as deputy leader Simon Hughes and party president Tim Farron, who favour an expansive welfare state and Scandinavian levels of public spending. In Mr Reeves’s view, the party’s ideological dilemma must be firmly resolved in favour of the liberals. He derides those who “yearn to pull the party back to the left” and argues that the Lib Dems should abandon any attempt to win over the millions of voters who have deserted them since the election. “The left-wing voters ‘borrowed’ from Labour in 2010 will not be available in 2015,” he declares. “New ones must be found.”

There is something admirable about Mr Reeves’s intellectual ambition, but his political strategy, explicitly adopted by Mr Clegg, is dubious. Psephologically speaking, he may be right to contend that many of the party’s former left-leaning supporters will not return but, almost three years away from the election, it is reckless to abandon them to Labour.

Should such fatalism prove appropriate, however, it is worth restating that the party’s collapse in support was not inevitable. The decision to enter coalition with the Conservatives and the return of Labour to opposition was always likely to squeeze the Lib Dem vote but, through a series of political blunders, Mr Clegg intensified the damage. He needlessly alienated many of the party’s natural supporters by presenting the coalition as an ideological marriage with the Conservatives, rather than as a temporary pact. As a result, his sporadic attempts at differentiation, most recently in the form of a proposed wealth tax, have been unconvincing. This original error was compounded by his decision to sign up to a deficit reduction programme that lacked a complementary plan for growth and his inept handling of the tuition fees row. He went on to approve Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms, for which the government had no mandate, without, according to Shirley Williams, taking the time to read the bill, and agreed to the abolition of the 50p income tax rate without securing a “mansion tax” in return, thus making the Lib Dems complicit in a giveaway to the richest. Along the way, Britain has been isolated in Europe, the Alternative Vote referendum has been lost, and House of Lords reform has been abandoned. Faced with this record, an increase in the income tax threshold is scant consolation.

Mr Clegg is now fatally damaged and it is in the Lib Dems’ best interests to replace him as leader before the next general election. It is to Mr Cable, who stands in the social liberal tradition exemplified by Hobhouse, Beveridge and Keynes, that the party should look to restore support. Were he made leader, according to one poll, the party would claw back four points, entirely from Labour, and retain 39 of its 57 MPs. There is room in British politics for a party that combines social democratic economics with a stronger commitment to constitutional reform and civil liberties than Labour. If the Lib Dems recognise as much, they could yet avert the disastrous general election result that otherwise awaits them.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lib Dem special