Andrew Whitaker: Lib Dems to pay at ballot box

THE Liberal Democrats have just over one year left of their long-awaited time in government at Westminster before they have to face the verdict of the electorate in a general election.

Nick Cleggs decision to join the Tories in government has been controversial. Picture: Robert Perry
Nick Cleggs decision to join the Tories in government has been controversial. Picture: Robert Perry

Nick Clegg’s decision to join the Tories in a centre-right coalition government has been controversial from start to finish with the Lib Dem leadership facing heavy criticism within and outside the party.

Mr Clegg has repeatedly defended the role of the Lib Dems in the coalition that has seen the party’s MPs backing controversial policies such as the Bedroom Tax in the Commons lobbies.

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Even the most left-of-centre and anti-Tory Lib Dem cabinet minister Vince Cable – the self-styled good man in a bad government – pushed through the privatisation of the Royal Mail, which critics say has shortchanged taxpayers by hundreds of millions of pounds.

The Lib Dems have already paid a heavy electoral price for their link-up with the Tories at Westminster, with the party in Scotland pulverised at the last Holyrood elections, as well as experiencing poor results at various local elections and by-elections since 2010.

Any Lib Dem involvement in a government making deep cuts to public services was always going to be unpopular with the party’s supporters.

However, to understand why the Lib Dems are facing such an electoral hammering in 2015 it’s perhaps necessary to look at the way the party has positioned itself over the last few decades.

Following the creation of the Lib Dems in the late 1980s from the old Liberal Party remnants and the bulk of the defunct SDP, their then leader, Paddy Ashdown, moved the Lib Dems towards an anti-Tory stance.

Although Mr Ashdown was forever issuing challenges to Labour under Neil Kinnock and the late John Smith, it was by and large clear that the Lib Dems under his leadership were part of a growing anti-Tory alliance from the early 1990s onwards.

Following Mr Ashdown’s departure, his successor Charles Kennedy continued in the same vein and positioned his party to the left of Tony Blair’s Labour government on some issues, with the most notable example being the Lib Dems opposition of sorts to the 2003 Iraq war.

Indeed there were large numbers of former Labour voters who became disillusioned with the Labour governments of Blair and Brown and opted to back the Lib Dems.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of The Lib Dems’ decision to throw in their lot with the Tories, it is broadly true that the party got itself into a strong electoral position in the first place due to its longstanding anti-Tory or at least left-of-centre stance.

It’s for that crucial reason that the Lib Dems face desertion by many of their former voters in Westminster seats held by the party – a factor that could well determine the outcome of the next election.