Nick Clegg must be wondering where he went wrong, as he looks at polls that have dropped from 24% to 9%. At that sort of rating, AV or no AV, the annihilation of his parliamentary party is a distinct possibility. Of course, the tuition fees pledge has been flung at him, but it’s not just the pledge that is the cause of the Lib Dem slump. See, this thing was probably inevitable: When you take a party that, as long as living memory permits, was always as the harmless nice party, and put them into a decision-making role of course it is going to suffer a slump. The fact is, there were Lib Dem voters and members who were never going to make the leap from Tinky-Winky Land to Hard Choices Street. When the PDs went into coalition with Haughey the bitterness lasted for years, and people continued to quit the party over its relationship with Fianna Fail for years afterwards.
But the party also recovered. It attracted more serious, pragmatic voters and members, and built a new identity for itself in the 1992 and 2002 general elections as the emergency brake on Fianna Fail. The Lib Dems have that option, as the antidote to Tory extremism.
Having said that, they do have a fundamental problem. We had proportional representation, which meant that at least the votes of people who voted for us were counted. 9% for a liberal party in Europe is not bad under a PR system, but under First Past The Post it could be an Electorally Injected Death Sentence. Which means ironically, that the survival of the Lib Dems could end up being in the hands of David Cameron, which opens all sorts of problems for him. Could he deliver PR for an upper house? Could he deliver an electoral pact? Would the Tory party, or indeed Tory voters, vote for Lib Dem candidates if asked? It’s a big if. Would he want to ask? One interesting point (to me, at least) is that the combined poll figure of the coalition parties continues to outstrip Labour. How grating would it be to David Cameron to lose an election to Labour despite the fact that the significantly greater majority of people voted for the governing parties?
One thing about coalition politics that the British media are only beginning to grasp: It does make things much more interesting.