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The problem with the Lib Dems: No-one likes them, and they do care

By Mark Wallace
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Clegg UnhappyI dare say I won't win any prizes for political analysis for this, but it's fair to say that the Liberal Democrats are quite unlike Milwall fans.

Neither the woolly jumpers and sandals, the bleeding heart greenery nor Nick Clegg's confession that he "cries to music" would sit comfortably at the Den. By the same token, Milwall's famous chant, "No-one likes us, we don't care", would never make it into the songbook at the annual Glee Club held at Lib Dem conference.

The first clause might be acceptable, given that the Coalition's minor party still lag behind UKIP and regularly dip below 10 per cent in the polls. It's the second half that they struggle with.

The crippling problem for the Liberal Democrats is that they do care about their unpopularity - and they care very strongly. 

It's a symptom of being the all-things-to-all-men third party for so long. Coherent principles may never have been their burden to carry, but being the "nice" party certainly was. Consciously or not, they enjoyed the warm feeling of being able to promise whatever made people like them without the hangover from actually having to implement anything.

They were Parliament's conscience, or so they thought, without realising that a conscience is only meaningful if you have to use it in practice on difficult decisions.

That's why the last three years have been such an uncomfortable shock for many Liberal Democrats. They decided to live up to their promise that they were a serious party of Government by entering coalition when the country needed stability - which is to their credit. But the party had not fully come to terms with what was actually involved.

It's a naturally appealing strategy for a third party to seek to scoop up protest votes on a range of issues in order to use those supporters to further a political end. You can see UKIP doing it now on everything from Syria to gay marriage. A logical analysis of such a strategy would include preparing for the day when you succeed and those voters get a shock as reality collides with the fantasy you constructed to win them over.

Not only did the Lib Dems not do this, but they failed to realise that they have been performing the shtick for so long that their Parliamentary Party features quite a few of those flakey protest voters, who had travelled up the ranks and become MPs. Sarah Teather is a good example - a morass of contradictions, confusion and growing distress at actually being asked to make decisions, she has clearly struggled to deal with being woken up from the dreamland of eternal opposition.

Part of that waking up process is the acceptance that quite often government involves doing things that some people don't like. Suddenly, when your job involves deciding to support one policy or another rather than supporting both in different leaflets across the country at the same election, you can be pinned down. You have to be one thing, not all things, to voters - and you have to take responsibility your decisions.

It isn't a good thing that a sizeable tranche of the electorate viscerally and habitually dislike the Conservatives. This site has written extensively about how we might change their minds about us. But one positive side effect is that the archetypal Tory has thick skin - if we were easily upset by Radio 4 comedians being nasty about us, or badger cull/"bedroom tax"/Owen Jones junta protestors outside our conferences, then we would have stayed in bed.

Not all Lib Dems are as soggy as Ms Teather, of course. Jeremy Browne, coincidentally one of those yellows who is closest to being a Tory, is made of tougher stuff. In today's Mail on Sunday he urges his colleagues to start standing by - and standing up for - their work in government:

"We will only get the credit for our achievements if we unambiguously stand by our record in Government - no foot dragging, no craving the easy gesture politics of opposition, no fence sitting"

He is right, of course. Not only is there a moral case for not shirking your responsibilities or denying your decisions, there is a political case. Voters vastly prefer someone with whom they disagree but who sticks to their guns over someone who tries to pretend a big boy did it and ran away. 

Browne may have intended his comments as a broadside against Cable, Teather and Matthew Oakeshott. Unfortunately for him, according to the Sunday Times Nick Clegg has today joined the fearty tendency, ordering his ministers to go public when they disagree with the Tories in a bid to appeal to voters who dislike the Government. The idea that he can be Deputy Prime Minister and still appeal to protest voters is remarkable - it is to political strategy what chocolate is to fireproofing.

Clegg and co should embrace the governing experience, not cringe from it. A rough ride can be good for a party. People learn faster, and they learn more useful lessons, under fire than when things are quiet and comfortable. Character - good and bad - is revealed by testing times, as it has been in the contrasting cases of Browne and Teather. 

The question is, will the Lib Dems draw the right conclusions in their hour of discomfort - and will they do so fast enough to save their skins?


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