Yesterday the campaign news cycle was dominated by the launch of the Labour manifesto. Labour Leader Ed Miliband delivered a confident and assured performance as he attempted to overturn perceptions that Labour are anti-business and lack fiscal credibility. After years of criticism for appearing ‘weird’ or ‘geeky’, Miliband is looking more and more comfortable as a leader; it couldn’t come a moment too soon for his Party. There is a sense that his blossoming has come too late in the day to convincingly win an election that always seemed an open goal for Labour.
The open goal was the result of an initially unpopular Coalition Government; a Government some perceived as unrepresentative (if they don’t understand democracy) as the party in power was not clearly the one they voted for or against – it was a mix of two parties with different but hard to differentiate views. Over time, this has changed. The Conservatives and Lib Dems, once pictured happily together in the Downing Street rose garden, have become more effective at distancing themselves from one another.
Nonetheless, as we move into the final weeks of the election campaign, the Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, faces a challenge not unlike Miliband’s. He and his party left it too late to change perceptions – The Lib Dems only began to truly distance themselves from their partners in 2014. While party membership has increased over the last two years, this followed an exodus of members disappointed their party had got into bed with the age-old enemy, the Conservatives.
So it is fair to say the Clegg and the Lib Dems have a fight on their hands – a fight for survival and relevance rather than victory. When there is so much at stake, Clegg’s every performance matters.
He has always been a smooth operator; he shows interest in the issues, defends liberal views passionately and is cool under pressure. Where he differs from Miliband is, while many are watching Miliband waiting for him to fail, most aren’t watching Clegg at all; whether he succeeds or fails is almost immaterial. Nonetheless, after being sidelined by an election debate format secured through strained agreement, Clegg has performed well in all his tests thus far. In the televised debate with six other party leaders, Clegg positioned his party as the sensible ones, who won’t borrow or cut too much. He also was keen to show the Lib Dems as the ‘anti-UKIP’ as his party courts young, liberal votes that could be tempted by Labour’s radical plans for housing and pro-EU stance.
Last night, Clegg participated in a leader’s interview with Newsnight presenter Evan Davis. His colleague, Prime Minister David Cameron, will face the same test tonight.
In the interview, Clegg performed well. Davis went for the obvious attack –that the Lib Dems had betrayed their principles and members by going into coalition. Clegg parried it well. He said the Party had been willing to take a hit in order to do the right thing, which was to form a stable government amidst economic turmoil, and then to secure an economic recovery. This, he said, was a principled, rather than unprincipled, approach to politics that other parties would be unlikely to take.
Clegg was at pains to stress the Lib Dems’ achievements in Government and explain to Davis that a minor coalition party does not always implement the policy it wants, and must at times agree to policies it dislikes. Nonetheless, he communicated that the Lib Dems had blunted some of the sharper cuts planned by the Tories and listed a few of the Lib Dems’ more notable achievements.
It was a strong performance, but was anyone watching? The audience for the interview was probably formed more of One Show viewers too lazy to change the channel than engaged swing voters keen to hear what Clegg had to say. Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on how you look at it), the Lib Dems are currently more concerned with damage control and shoring up their base.
As long as Clegg continues to perform consistently well, and communicate his party’s achievements, the Lib Dems will get the votes they need to survive. If he wins back some of the old support, Clegg’s party could keep 30-odd seats. It’s a big if, but it means the Lib Dems could again hold the balance of power after May. The party may not look back at the rose garden with rose-tinted glasses, and they may be less kind to future coalition partners than in 2010, but they’ll still be more attractive to the ‘Big Two’ than the SNP or UKIP. A coalition held up by a reliable and pragmatic, centrist party? That’ll be a more attractive prospect to most than a coalition reliant on a controversial, nationalist party with policies that would push their partner further to the left or right.
Image Source: Lib Dem Flickr