Could the Lib Dems’ woes strengthen the coalition?

8 09 2010

Next year’s local elections are seen by many in the anti-cuts movement as a prime opportunity to inflict serious damage on the Liberal Democrats, and by extension weaken the coalition.

While the Conservatives’ poll ratings have generally held up since the election, the Lib Dems have fallen back sharply*. While the figures published this week by The Independent showed their poll ratings stabilise, they are still well down on their election result, and light years from their Clegg surge ratings.

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg. Photo not dated 2011.

Most worryingly for the party, the Independent’s poll suggested that only 62 per cent of Lib Dem voters at the general election would vote for the party again if an election was held today – with 22 percent defecting to Labour.

Many in the anti-cuts movement see the Lib Dems as the weak links in the government, and hope that major losses in the local elections next year could unnerve Liberal Democrat MPs. The thinking is that Lib Dem backbenchers – especially left-wingers and those in Lib-Lab marginals – will fear for their seats if they remain in the coalition, and rebel against the government. Enough rebels means the coalition will collapse.

But while it makes sense to target any parties and councillors who support the cuts, and support those willing to fight against them**, we should be aware that a bad night at the polls next year might actually strengthen the coalition.

Consider this – Lib Dem MPs in Lib-Lab marginals see the party trounced at the polls next year. Maybe they will think that if they stay in the coalition they will lose their seat at the general election – the conclusion being that it’s time to get out.

But it’s equally possible that these MPs might think that collapsing the coalition prematurely would force an early general election in which they would almost certainly lose their seats. They could decide that with the polls looking so bad in 2011, it would be best to tough it out and pray that the economy recovers strongly enough by 2015 that the party’s poll ratings recover and they hold onto their seats.

They may see the choice as between certain disaster in 2011 and probable disaster in 2015. If that’s the choice, many will sit tight and avoid upsetting the applecart.

There is a precedent here – as Labour tanked in the polls during 2008 and 2009, one of the arguments successfully deployed by Gordon Brown’s camp against possible leadership rivals was that any new party leader would have to call a general election to have any kind of legitimacy – and that based on the polls in 2008-9, such an election would lead to absolute disaster.

Labour MPs bought it, and stuck it out to 2010. It’s perfectly possible that a local election disaster next year may lead many Lib Dems to the same conclusion.

That doesn’t mean anti-cuts activists should not target Lib Dem councils next year – it’s just something for the strategists to bear in mind. Forewarned is forearmed.

*Of course, the Lib Dems’ poll ratings also fell back after previous elections – in the past, their support has always dipped between elections, before rising during election campaigns. But this was because they only got publicity at election time; now, their leaders get constant publicity as cabinet ministers – and yet still their ratings fall.

**Whether ‘those willing to fight’ the cuts includes Labour remains to be seen

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