The question is ‘why’ rather than ‘what’, and simply answering with “the coalition” isn’t good enough.
People’s attachment to parties is a reflection of their values, and one organisation has analysed this in depth: Cultural Dynamics.
The remainder of this post won’t make much sense if you are unfamiliar with Cultural Dynamics’s methodology and its world ‘Settlers’, ‘Prospectors’ or ‘Pioneers’. If so, before you go any further, read this short description of the value modes and this map of value-based politics, then take this online test to discover where you fit, and all will become clear.
Cultural Dynamics has just published a state of the parties analysis, and the problem faced by the Liberal Democrats is stark. As you would expect, of the three main value modes (Settlers, Pioneers and Prospectors), Liberal Democrat support tends to be concentrated among ‘Pioneers’, people driven by individually-based ethics, with some some support among ‘Prospectors’:
Whatever their protestations about being ‘hated less than they were’, our 2012 data shows that the LibDems are in deep trouble.
Mid-2012 data shows their support beginning to concentrate in a small Pioneer rump. Late-2012 data shows an even more dramatic fall in Prospector Now People support, and a further retreat among Pioneers towards Concerned Ethical territory.
Concentration in only one area of the values map indicates that as far as identification with their values is concerned, the LibDems are now a fringe party.I have long argued (here and here) that the fundamental problem of Liberal Democrat strategy has been a failure to consolidate a core vote, so that the party has no foundation for building outwards. Indeed, the party is hostile to the very idea that not all people are equally predisposed to vote Liberal Democrat (as evidenced by the fatuous slogan ‘We can win everywhere!’). The problem faced by the Liberal Democrats is therefore paradoxical: despite their obduracy, they still have a core vote but, because they refuse to recognise it, they don’t appreciate that they have alienated it or understand why. The Cultural Dynamics analysis continues:
It is hard to see the Liberal Democrats continuing as a significant national force on the basis of our data as they have offended their mainly Pioneer natural constituency so deeply. There are significant tensions within the party that may surface in the run up to 2015. A change of leader and of emphasis may help, but as long as they are in coalition with a Conservative government that is perceived as both incompetent and moving further to the ‘right’ they will not attract a significant Pioneer vote. Prospectors do not vote for ‘losers’ and the LibDem’s Settler penetration is insignificant.The only way the Liberal Democrats can rebuild support is to accept that they have a natural constituency, understand what makes these people tick, consolidate this core vote and build out from it. Doing so is not contingent on leaving the coalition but it does depend on the party conducting itself within the coalition in a manner that builds rather than loses support.
The strategic priority for the Liberal Democrats is to work out how to win back the ‘Pioneer’ vote but there is no sign of this happening. Instead, we get that wizened old chestnut, the ‘centre ground’, and a reliance on empty slogans about a fairer society and a stronger economy. This suggests that there is not exactly an abundance of master strategists at work.