The most pro-European Union voice on the political spectrum in the United Kingdom, the Liberal Democratic party concluded its Spring Conference in York with an emphatic re-assertion of its view that UK’s progress and future can only be secured if it is a full and active member of the European Union.
In the larger context of the rise of the right-wing and anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Liberal Democratic party leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s strong plea to retain EU integration has put the issue forefront in the run up to the European Parliamentary elections due this May.
Without referring directly to the UKIP, Mr. Clegg made reference to an “ungenerous, backwards-looking politics [that] has emerged in Britain.” “Drawing up the drawbridge is the way to wreck the economy,” he said, and pointed to the benefits that will accrue to Britain in areas like climate change and cross-border terrorism from partnership with the ‘global economic powerhouse” that is the EU.
Its pro-Europe label is fast becoming the only issue for a party that has seen steady erosion in its popular base ever since it joined a Conservative-led coalition government in 2010. It won 23 per cent of the vote and 57 parliamentary seats in the 2010 general elections, and joined the coalition on the basis of a list of priority issues to fulfil. Its self-image is that of a moderating force in British politics, a middle-ground party that is right of the Labour Party with its tendency towards “profligate spending” when in government, and left of the Conservative Party, which “can’t be trusted to treat people fairly.”
Nevertheless, popular perceptions of the Liberal Democrats in power have not been favourable, primarily owing to its general compliance with the economic austerity measures and political agenda of the Conservative Party. A major credibility crisis occurred when the party did a volte-face on university tuition fees, which it had promised to abolish. Its members however subsequently voted for raising college tuition fees to the highest it has ever been. An intense media and public clamour forced Mr. Clegg to apologise for reneging on a promise.
Electorally too, the party has performed poorly. In council election held in May 2011, the Liberal Democrats suffered heavy defeats in the Midlands, the north, and in Scotland. They also lost heavily in both the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament. In the local elections held in May 2012, they lost more than 300 councillors.
The aggressive pro-EU call coming out of its Spring Conference would suggest a reinvigorated party with a re-prioritised agenda claiming its place and continued relevance to British politics. Much hangs on the defence of this principal made by Mr. Clegg in a face-to-face debate with UKIP leader Nigel Farage slated for April 2 on BBC2.