It says something about a political environment when a party is singled-out, and questioned, for focusing its European Parliamentary campaigning on… Europe. But that is just what has happened – the Liberal Democrats have decided to do their utmost to focus the political debate ahead of next week’s elections on European issues.
The unwritten cardinal rule of the European Parliamentary elections is that ‘you don’t talk about Europe’. The flagrant Liberal Democrat contravention of this rule has been met with surprise and confusion – Clegg clearly had his go at a pro-Europe message in his head-to-head debate with Farage and got trounced. The public obviously won’t hear any of it so why continue beating the drum?
The Liberal Democrat strategy for next week’s elections is a consolidation of an existing, if bruised, power base rather than an expansionist land grab.
More nuanced commentators have argued that, beyond the clear public reticence to European issues, the relevant importance of the European aspect of Thursday’s elections is minimal when compared to the locals, for informing each party’s success in May 2015. Under this assumption, the Liberal Democrat gamble on Europe looks to be a catastrophic miscalculation that may cost the party most of its MEPs and further depress its outlook ahead of 2015.
This analysis of the novel Liberal Democrat approach to the awkward marriage that is the European-cum-local elections fundamentally misses the unique position the minority coalition partner has found itself.
What is beyond debate is the dismal public position the Liberal Democrats have found themselves. Commentators have moved beyond critique to pity, national polls indicate stagnation in single-digits, and social media commentary is overwhelmingly negative. The malaise facing the party is not lost on anyone, either within or outside the party.
There are obviously a number of explanations for this malaise, but an increasingly significant factor remains the party’s inherent internal divide between two camps that are often referred to and conflated with a number of monikers: Right vs. Left; Orange Bookers vs. Beveridge Group; Cleggites vs. Cablers/Farronites. These titles confer onto these respective sections of the party considerable assumptions, both accurate and inaccurate. Ultimately, the party’s divide is simply between those party members who have been proud of the party’s participation in Conservative coalition and those who have not.
Liberal Democrat Coalition supporters have felt increasingly marginalised both in government and publicly and, as Tory polling numbers and economic data have improved, optimism for the continuation of coalition has diminished drastically. Coalition apologists, for lack of a better term, have blamed the diminished national appeal reflected in polls on coalition participation. This difference in perspective inevitably leads to a chicken-and-egg debate between the two of whether this internal divide has led to a poor position or the poor position has led to exacerbated divisions. Regardless, the end result is the same: it’s one week out from the May elections and neither camp is particularly happy.
Despite this division, the coalesce of the party is not completely artificial as many policies and political priorities continue to unite the various wings of the party. Many of these policies have however been ‘tainted’ by coalition – either by being co-opted by the Coalition and thus Tories (income tax allowance) or sacrificed for the sake of government (House of Lords reform). This makes many political campaign planks potentially toxic for Liberal Democrat campaigners: sure to alienate as much as motivate some part of their base. The party’s approach to Europe however continues to unite and inspire all corners of this party.
By focusing on Europe, the Liberal Democrat leadership is attempting to stave off complete irrelevance through internal division by reminding the disparate and jaded members of the party why they’re in it together. It is a consolidation of an existing, if bruised, power base rather than an expansionist land grab akin to 2010’s appeal. Although a mature and self-reflective approach, the strategy is not without its risks. It inherently gambles that voters it has enticed into the booth with its Europe message will apply this support to not only the European Parliamentary vote, but the local vote too. It additionally relies heavily on council campaigners to fend for themselves by mounting local campaigns without the assistance of a national message or support base. These risks, however, are less pronounced for the Liberal Democrats compared to any other party attempting this strategy; as this is how the party has always fought elections – viciously loyally locally.
So the next week will see more Europe, more ‘IN’ messaging and continued comparisons to Nigel Farage’s UKIP. The party will emphasise the unattractive character of UKIP, the isolationist nature of the Tories, and the indecisive approach to Europe from Labour. The party will determine to make this election be about nothing but Europe, hoping to consolidate its natural base and encourage any stray voters feeling marginalised on Europe by these other parties. It is risky and unlikely the party will be able to change the frame of the entire debate significantly. But the party has all to play for and it may just consolidate a much-needed unified base come Friday 23 May.