Why Nick Clegg can’t escape his “original sin”

Lib Dems have spent the last week articulating their new strategy of "differentiation". But new polling shows the party can't escape their original sin on fees, cuts, and VAT.

Nick Clegg

Will Straw is speaking today at a debate at the Institute for Government on ‘The Coalition One Year On’

Liberal Democrats have spent the last week articulating their new strategy of “differentiation“. But new polling by Populus for the Institute for Government (IfG) to mark the anniversary of the coalition suggests that the public already understand the difference between the two parties and the influence that Lib Dems are having on the overall coalition programme. The problem they have is the Lib Dems’ acquiescence on key policies such as spending cuts, tuition fees, and NHS reform.

Since the local elections last week, Liberal Democrats have talked about a more “business-like” coalition. Nick Clegg said yesterday that his party should be:

“more assertive about our different positions on certain issues … In the next phase of the coalition, both partners will be able to be clearer in their identities … You will see a strong liberal identity in a strong coalition government.”

Lib Dems have also been keen to show the impact that they’d already been having. In his op ed for the Observer, Lib Dem President, Tim Farron was keen to stress that, “75% of the Lib Dem manifesto is in the coalition agreement, as opposed to only 60% of the Tory manifesto”. Danny Alexander made the same point at a speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research on Monday.

But the IfG poll finds that the public already accepts these claims. Only 28% believe that “there is no difference between the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives in terms of their views on the most important policy questions” while close to half the population (44%) accept that “Liberal Democrats have had a significant influence on government policy as a result of forming a coalition with the Conservatives”. Although a slightly higher number (50%) contest this view, a majority of men (+1), 18-24 year olds (+8), and pensioners (+8) accept the statement.

But while the public appear to accept that the Lib Dems were “right to join the coalition” (+9), they also believe that they “abadoned their principles” in doing so (+22). Specifically, they are angry aboutthe u-turns that Lib Dems have performed on the most important issues. As Rick Nye, Director of Populus, writes in his chapter in the IfG’s report:

“When it comes to judging the impact that Liberal Democrats have made on specific Coalition policies, in every sphere tested more think that the Liberal Democrats have failed to exert significant influence over the Coalition than think they have in fact exercised significant influence. On NHS reforms (−27%), university funding and tuition fees (−37%) and tax and spending decisions (−17%) large majorities think they haven’t had had influence. Only in the area of constitutional reform (−3%), Nick Clegg’s personal policy responsibility, do the numbers thinking the Liberal Democrats have had influence even approach those who believe the opposite.”

The critical point that the Lib Dems don’t seem to understand or accept is that their predicament is due not to the fact of the coalition but to their u-turns. The moral certainty taken during the election on tuition fees, VAT rises, and spending cuts was dropped as soon as the prospect of a ministerial car and red box were dangled in front of their noses. They could have drawn red lines on these policies rather than electoral reform. Nick Clegg described the coalition agreement as his “original sin“. It seems the public agree.

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