What challenges might the future bring?

Challenge #1 – the electoral system

I nearly wrote this a few weeks ago, at which point it would have looked prophetic – writing it now just looks like I’m crowbarring it on the back of the rather sensational Yougov / Sun poll, news of which is breaking on Twitter.

Any number of people have taken the poll figures, Con: 33 (-4); Lab: 28 (-3); Lib Dem: 30 (+8), plugged them into UK Polling Report’s uniform swing calculator, and reeled, aghast at the revelation that our awful electoral system is so completely bust that it’s conceivable that the party that came third in the national vote might also win the most seats.

It is of course, something the Liberal Democrats, and the Liberals before that, have been banging on about for some considerable time. The system is broken. Almost all elections in recent history have delivered a party that diverges significantly from how people actually voted, and many millions of votes are cast for people who don’t win.

So, the challenge here would be turning the momentum of getting a third of the electorate to vote for us into a much wider campaign for that normally nerdy of pre-occupations, electoral reform. That issue which we still believe in, but which we almost never talk about for fear of watching the voters’ eyes glaze over.

Challenge #2 – joining the establishment

Much of the Lib Dem media narrative in recent years has been along “Labservative” lines. We are the outsiders. The other two parties are the establishment and we have been excluded. If only we were given a chance, we could show the world we’re amazing.

The problem with that, is that lots of other very small parties are also trying to make that same pitch, with the numbers changed a little bit. I’ve heard each of UKIP, the Greens, the BNP and the two nationalist parties on the radio over the last week making exactly the same point that the “three major parties” all agree on issues X, Y and Z and only us, in the smaller party can possibly have that true external, outsider, anti-establishment perspective.

The better the Liberal Democrats do, the more the argument swings in favour of the smaller parties. Which presents us a conundrum. Which would earn us more respect? We can continue to argue we’re the outsiders, or we can big our experience data. We’re smallest of the three main parties – but we also have a big, respected parliamentary team, and in local government, a quarter of the population of England and Wales live in areas led by the Liberal Democrats. Can we be both? And if this the general election which first sees Greens, BNP or UKIP members joining in the smaller parties in the House of Commons does that give us credibility for being a larger party or rob us our remaining rags of outsider status?

Challenge #3 – managing everyone’s expectations

This is another challenge that finds us arguing from a surprising place, for us. Normally, the general assumption is that we won’t do terribly well, and we have to argue like mad that we can win, that we can be important and that we can be relevant to our country’s future. Our own party’s activists have wildly over-optimistic expectations that we need to manage down, and the wider public have disproportionately low expectations that we

But after Clegg’s debate success, suddenly we find ourselves having to manage things rather the other way. Huge numbers of excitable members of the public are suddenly thinking we can win. Celebs on twitter, and the game changers on Facebook who got Rage Against the Machine to number 1 in the charts suddenly all think that we will be running the country after the next election, and it’s the sensible Lib Dem activists who are having to apply the brakes and murmur, steady on chaps!

Perhaps most importantly, we have to pace ourselves. There are still weeks left to go. True, postal votes will be arriving from Wednesday onwards, so we only have to preserve the momentum for less than a week to get the first batch of voters. But there are still weeks left of the race, and if we are to find ourselves surpassing expectation in the final furlong we need to keep our nerve and our pace along the way. Clegg did so well in the first debate – however will he fare in the second two? Can he possibly do as well again? Will both other party leaders manage expectations better even if they don’t manage to perform? Only time will tell.

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