Last week Nick Clegg said that people were beginning to listen to the Liberal Democrats. If he was right, clearly people don’t like what they hear. Why? Part of this is probably due to lingering distrust of the party over pledges dropped on entering government. That relates not only to an issue like tuition fees, but crucially the fundamental economic questions of the day. On the latter, the potentially insurmountable challenge for the Liberal Democrats is that in government, the party is taking precisely the course it said it would not take, by supporting cutting the deficit in one parliament – a plan against which the party had campaigned vigorously during the 2010 general election. Indeed, in their election manifesto even the Conservatives were not quite so bold as the plan now being pursued.
To explain the shift, we have been told by our leaders that suddenly, as the election ended, it became clear that the economy needed more drastic action than any party had realised. Of course, parties in power have to react to circumstances, but there is no compelling evidence that backtracking on core issues of economic policy was necessary. In fact, the reverse is true. In the USA, were there has been less aggressive deficit reduction, and the recovery has been more robust.
The people bearing the brunt of the coalition’s economic policies are those who have to live their daily lives facing the hardships caused by such policies. We should not be surprised if these same people seek to make their voices heard through the ballot box.
Among the victims will be many local councillors who have worked hard for decades for their local areas, making a real difference to the lives of those they serve. The leadership line will be partly to say that this is the reality of being in government. But all those who have lost their seats, and the campaigners who have worked for them, need to ask some hard questions today about the direction in which the party is being taken, a direction which Liberal Left believes threatens to disconnect the party from its core support for a generation, if not permanently.
Throughout the country, the pattern of results has been poor, with just a few examples bucking the trend for specific local reasons. Around 40% of the seats defended have been lost, in a year where the slide was supposed to be halted. In some areas, results have been just as bad as a year ago: in Manchester, the party has lost all the seats we were defending, just as in 2011. Meanwhile, although ministers might claim that the party has done well where it is long-embedded, the evidence from Cambridge suggests otherwise. Indeed, there are few parts of the country where the party is more embedded than in that city, so it is no surprise we now have fewer councillors than at any time since our party was formed in 1988.
Today’s set of results should be a wake up call for the party. But instead, Liberal Democrat ministers are adopting a tone of carrying on regardless. This sadly shows the toxic combination of arrogance and naivety that has brought us to this point. It may well be that the problem is not that people are not listening to Liberal ministers, but that they are. It is now time for the party to reassert its centre-left values and ensure that there is a fundamental change in the economic policy being pursued in government.