THE Liberal Democrats, more so than the other main parties, depend on their grassroots presence in local politics.
While the latest YouGov poll has them on nine per cent of public support, the reality on the ground tells an even bleaker story.
Senior Liberal Democrats at Westminster and in local government are seemingly in a state of denial about their problems and this denial becomes more incredible as the May elections move closer.
The party faces financial difficulties because it has lost “short money”, the funding from central government which is only available to opposition parties.
It is overdrawn with very little coming in from the small number of fundraisers. This limits its ability to produce materials for canvassing and publicity.
Another problem is a reduction in activism. Even in the era of twitter and email, political parties need people to push leaflets through millions of letterboxes and engage with the voters. The massive reduction of the number of Liberal Democrat volunteers to do this work has resulted in politicians being pressed into doing their own leaflets.
So what has caused this reversal of fortunes?
One former activist in Sheffield states: “Liberal supporters and councillors have been used to feeling comfortable with people on the doorstep. They have been used to putting forward alternatives and it is now becoming increasingly uncomfortable defending the national position and their Conservative partners in government.”
The almost complete lack of a campaign by the party in the Barnsley by-election was not merely a blip in what, in the past, has been a ferocious campaign machine. Instead it was a reality check as the party worked out of the candidate’s car boot, without support from central office.
Even the very expensively policed Spring Conference in Sheffield failed to paper over the cracks.
The televised speeches revealed large gaps in the audience and an auditorium only half-full even for the leader’s speech.
This brings us to a key issue for many grassroots Liberal Democrats – that of the party leadership.
There cannot have been a more roller coaster ride in popularity in modern politics since the days of Winston Churchill. Nick Clegg moved from “Calamity Clegg” in the Liberal leadership campaign, to “Sky HD pin-up” before the general election.
He is now seen, by many of his own activists, as a politician who can be cavalier with the facts and then has to back track.
In a recent radio interview, for example, he claimed that the average motorist would save £4 on petrol in the recent budget, whereas the true figure is closer to 40 pence. He was also unaware that the winter fuel allowance had been cut and, in a Gordon Brown moment, was caught on microphone bemoaning the lack of political difference between the two parties in the coalition.
All this contributes to the demoralisation of local activists who do not actually feel inspired to get out of the house and canvas support for the party.
As another local activist points out: “What do I say the Lib Dems currently stand for and why should I ask people to vote for us? Free university education? No. Helping to reduce the gap between rich and poor? No. Protecting the NHS? No. Proportional representation rather than AV? No. It’s not exactly motivating for the grassroots.”
These Liberal Democrat grassroots are not resigning en masse; they are just staying at home and not returning the local councillors’ calls when leafleting and canvassing is required.
Before the general election, the party had been delivering five leaflets to wards (even safe wards). They are now frequently having to leave whole swathes of Sheffield, Rotherham and Barnsley without a single contact from the local Liberal Democrats. There are also problems in even putting up paper candidates in unwinnable seats.
The likely meltdown after May could scorch the grassroots of the party. It might be in no position to fight the next round of elections leading up to the general election. This could lead to a downward spiral where the party becomes an inverted triangle – with its MPs at the top, its diminished and demoralised councillors in the middle and very little at the bottom in terms of grassroots activism.
The party in Yorkshire, which has been built up over the past 30 or 40 years, could well become the fourth party in UK politics behind UKIP. In the urban centres of Yorkshire and Humberside, it could well disappear as an electoral presence for more than a generation, similar to the fate of the Conservatives in the 1980s in places such as Sheffield.
Many of their former activists will move back into the communities from which they emerged. They will not be replaced by young people, for whom the Liberal Democrat party has become a discredited brand which no amount of marketing can change.
* Alan McGauley is a principal lecturer in politics at Sheffield Hallam University.