It is a peculiarity of British politics that local elections are rarely decided on local issues. The recent election’s outcome was always going to be a judgement on the Westminster coalition.
The decision to hold the AV referendum on the same day may have saved £30m, but it reinforced voting on tribal lines. Tories (mainly in the south) are clearly happy enough to continue supporting their party. Many voters elsewhere feel differently and in the absence of Tory councillors in the large metropolitan areas, the Lib Dems were in the firing line.
Compounding the issue is the electoral cycle. Most seats were last fought in 2007… a high water mark for the Lib Dems in the dying days of the Blair government with Iraq dominating the agenda.
The Lib Dems attracted substantial votes from natural Labour sympathisers. These votes were lost the moment the party entered government.
Joining the coalition was never likely to win them popularity. This was nothing to do with ‘hunger for power’. It was the responsible course of action to work with the party with most seats to tackle our appalling economic problems. It also provided a compelling opportunity to put Lib Dem policies into practice and to temper the natural urges of the Tory right wing.
What went wrong? Academics talk about the ‘unity-distinctiveness dilemma’ which affects all junior parties in coalitions. By accepting collective responsibility, the Lib Dems became the Tories’s human shield for opposition to policies such as the VAT rise and changes to student finance.
However, this election suggests that the public prefers distinctiveness to unity. The Lib Dems in government need to be louder and more robust and not support legislation until they’re completely happy with it. Far from being weakened by these results, Nick Clegg’s hand may be strengthened,
The Tories may come to regret their collusion in the duplicitous and deeply personal gutter campaign for a ‘No’ to AV.