They shall overcome
Facing electoral meltdown, why are the Lib Dems so cheerful?
THE Liberal Democrats have every reason to be miserable. Some recent polls of voting intention have put them on 6%, about a quarter of their support at the last election. The party has haemorrhaged voters to the Labour Party, as well as to its coalition partners the Conservatives, to the Green Party and even the right-wing UK Independence Party. Its backbone—local councillors—has crumbled. It is conceivable that the party will lose two-thirds of its 56 parliamentary seats at the general election, due to take place next May.
Yet at the party's autumn conference in Glasgow, which ended on October 8th, the mood was upbeat. Activists acknowledged the difficulties, but declared themselves game for the battle ahead. Hardly anyone criticised Nick Clegg, the party's leader since 2007 and deputy prime minister since 2010. Even Jeremy Browne, a former minister on the party's libertarian wing who is one of the most vocal malcontents, limited himself to anodyne grumbles about the party's lack of definition (and an apparent gibe at Mr Clegg's reluctance to be seen smoking in public).
Why are the Lib Dems so calm? Any other major British party, facing half the rout that they will suffer next year, would be in meltdown. Circumstances are one explanation. Many unhappy members have left. Others are still buoyed by the thrill of being in government. “There is a sense that we matter,” gushed one conference delegate before hurrying off to a speaking engagement. It was plain to see: security scanners guarded the conference entrances, television crews prowled the corridors looking for interviewees, foreign diplomats sought panellists' opinions at fringe events. After decades on the margins, Lib Dems still find this new and exciting.
And activists know it may not go away. It was helpful that the Conservatives and Labour spent their party conferences appealing to their traditional voters, argues Olly Grender, an influential Lib Dem peer. If neither party breaks out of its electoral strongholds, another hung parliament may beckon—and with it, another five years in which the Lib Dems, however diminished, could be kingmakers.
That prospect helps keep Mr Clegg's rivals from whipping up activists' gripes into something more dangerous. Tim Farron, the darling of the left-leaning grass roots, is biding his time. Chris Huhne resigned as energy secretary in 2012 and later served a prison sentence for perverting the course of justice. Vince Cable, the business secretary, was linked to a couple of botched coup attempts but appears to have lost interest in the top job. At least until the election, Mr Clegg seems safe.
Still, only the party's distinctive traits fully account for its good mood. Compared with the Tories and Labour, the Lib Dem party is democratic and small. Its practice of voting on policy—members raising their conference passes in debates to indicate their views—releases pressure. And its size means that senior figures often know members personally, the better to keep them loyal. Knowing that the leaders care “cheers you up when you're out canvassing and only two people have turned up,” says Leola, an activist from Hampshire.
The party also has a long memory. Asked about its troubles, older members say they have seen it all before; at the 1989 European Parliament election the Lib Dems won 6% of the vote and no seats. Their ability to rebound is embodied by Paddy Ashdown, the leader who led the party back from the brink and today serves as a mixture of loyalist, high priest and party therapist. On October 7th at the Glee Club (a boozy singsong held every year at conference) the former special-forces captain led members in a rendition of “We Shall Overcome”, an old civil-rights song, a cardboard cut-out of Mr Clegg looking on.
Sometimes the party's eccentricities embarrass its leaders. For example, they despaired when members backed a motion regretting that winning had become the “primary concern” in football. But those same eccentricities keep the membership loyal. Luckily for Mr Clegg, the “primary concern” for most Lib Dems is not the winning, but the taking part.