These are challenging times for the Liberal Democrats. Having seen electoral reform cruelly snatched from them not by their political enemies but by the British people themselves, and seen their polls ratings plummet, they must be racking their brains for options for the future.
The party needs to examine options it would never have considered before. First of all, it has to accept that First Past The Post is here to stay in the medium-term at least, and use it.
The party has got to come to grips that its appeal as a party has been to a great degree as a centre-left protest party. It’s hardly surprising that so many of its voters dropped off after coalition, because those voters were onboard only as long as the party pandered to their particular grievances. Don’t forget that there are Tory rightwingers going about ranting that David Cameron has been “captured” by the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dem vote seems, probably because of its historical position as the perennial third party, to be particularly soft. Every party has soft voters. The problem is that most Lib Dem voters seem to be opportunistic rather than actual liberals.
So, what lessons can be learned?
1. The failure of electoral reform is a serious setback, and means that if they are to survive, the Lib Dems, on leaving this government eventually, cannot reenter government again until PR in some form is on the agenda. PR is the only way of protecting the party as it sheds its opportunistic voters.
2. Until PR is assured, the party must remain outside government, fighting a guerilla style campaign against the government of the day, building up its support, and being as selfish about protecting its own interests as the Tories and Labour were about theirs in the AV referendum. I have previously argued that the party should participate in coalition, but that was on the clear basis of getting electoral reform. Now that’s off the table, everything changes.
3. As part of that, the Lib Dems should attack the Tories from the right over Europe. There is nothing inherently anti-European about supporting a referendum to confirm or repeal Britain’s membership of the EU. Should the Lib Dems consider a stand down pact with UKIP in seats where Tory MPs are vulnerable to a UKIP challenge, in return for UKIP agreeing to do the same in Lib Dem seats? Imagine the effect on Tory MPs in Con-Lab marginals who suddenly wake up to the potential of a viable UKIP candidate in third place, specifically targetting eurosceptic Tory voters. Transforming UKIP candidates from a few hundred to a few thousand votes would have them sweating spinal fluid in Central Office, and good enough for them. They lauded the system, and so the Lib Dems should use the much lauded First Past the Post for what it is: Crude, ugly and open to manipulation. It is the choice of the people, after all. AV would have given the Tories UKIP transfers. Now that it is off the table, the Lib Dems helping UKIP drain off Tory votes is in the Lib Dem’s interests, in that preventing a Tory majority (or making a further mockery of FPTP) allows for more opportunities for the party in a new parliament, as well as possibly getting a “loan” of UKIP votes in Lib Dem marginals.
We’re not in Kansas anymore.