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Are the Lib Dems throwing away their USP?

September 24th, 2009

Should Clegg’s troops should have more distinctiveness?

The old Liberal Party nearly went out of existence in the 1950s but in the years that followed staged a recovery based round a distinctive localism, a sense of being outside the establishment and the caricature of a politician and of them being the ‘nice’ party.

    If you have no chance of power nationally, you have to offer the electorate something else. A ‘more pleasant and more local’ way of doing politics was the Liberals answer and it served them well, especially in by-elections.

Then in the 1980s the addition of the SDP, brought it votes in areas it had been dormant in for years, as well as producing a sizable centrist grouping set against the Thatcherite Tories and the left-lurching Labour Party. That combined with steady work on the ground enabled the Alliance to consistently pick up well over 20% in polls and elections.

All that is now in danger. The other parties have recognised the importance of doing the local bit, and are putting the squeeze on the Lib Dems claim to the centre. Now their ‘nice’ image is in danger.

Thus they have become neither distinctive nor positive. With ten times more MP’s than in the 1950s and a huge base of councillors they’re definitely an establishment party again. That surely makes being ‘nice’ all the more important?

The momentum of past successes should keep the Lib Dem machine going to some extent. Their MP’s tend to have a strong local base – they had to have to win in the first place – and are unlikely to suffer much (if any) net negative tactical voting. Many incumbents also have the advantage of having squeezed the third party almost out of the game.

Even so, the Liberals nearly disappeared because they lost their purpose and recovered when they were able to portray a new one. The choice then was distinctiveness or death. Today’s Lib Dems are in a much healthier position than half a century ago but the same decay could set in should the point of their existence again become unclear. Third parties trying to sound like governments end up sounding deluded (because no-one expects them to win) and / or irrelevant (because the bigger parties are likely to be saying something similar).

The Lib Dems usually pick up vote share during the election campaign due to a higher profile. Given their performance in Bournemouth this week, that’s much less likely in 2010.

David Herdson