James Reed: Red line between Lib Dems and oblivion at polls

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PITY the poor voters. Barely had woolly heads cleared after the New Year celebrations and they were being filled by the shouts of politicians launching their first salvos in what will be a very long election campaign and which will, to many, feel even longer.

The Prime Minister began proceedings at Dean Clough Mill, in Halifax, on this day last week with Messrs Miliband and Clegg at least waiting for the weekend to pass before seeking to make their mark. And after just a few hours of campaigning the air was already thick with allegations of unfunded promises and “dodgy dossiers”.

By Monday evening, even seasoned political watchers were wondering whether they could cope with more than 100 days of this. As one council leader said to me this week: “I thought I was a political animal but even I was switching off. What are ordinary voters going to make of it?”

What indeed? I suspect among those who are engaged to some degree will have picked up that the Conservatives are going to bang on about the economy a lot while Labour will be talking about public services.

But when it comes to the Lib Dems, the message has been far from clear. And that must be a concern for a party that really needs the campaign to have a positive impact on its fortunes if it is to avoid a very unpleasant night on May 7.

Many Lib Dems will argue that they are squeezed out because the media prefers to present the election as a two-way fight.

But the truth is they did not do enough to help themselves. In his press conference on Monday, Nick Clegg’s opening remarks framed the Liberal Democrats as the party that would anchor either the Conservatives or Labour in the centre ground.

It was a pitch that contrasted sharply with the tone the Sheffield Hallam MP has struck over the near five years the Lib Dems have been in coalition.

Back in 2010, defending the decision to go into coalition, Mr Clegg told the Lib Dem conference: “People have got used to us being outsiders, against every government that’s come along. Maybe we got used to it ourselves.”

It is a theme he has repeatedly returned to, summed up in 2013 when he described the Lib Dems as being on a journey from being a “party of protest to a party of Government”.

Scarred by the fallout from failing to deliver on their university tuition fees promise, Mr Clegg recognised that for the Lib Dems to be taken seriously again in 2015 and beyond, the party needed a very different approach to campaigning.

For the party members, that meant having policies that were deliverable in office and an end to the annual conference rows over fringe ideas.

And it meant doing more to educate voters on what a third party can realistically achieve in a first-past-the-post electoral system.

That was a significant departure for a party that had enjoyed so much success – much to the anger of Labour and Conservative activists – by targeting voters in council wards and constituencies who wanted to unseat the incumbent but whose preferred party had no chance of victory. This tactical approach was summed up by the Lib Dem placard “Winning Here”.

It is curious then, as the election campaign gets underway, that Mr Clegg should return to positioning the party as the palatable alternative to Labour or the Conservatives, rather than as worthy of support in its own right.

“We are the least worst option” is hardly a great political rallying cry either for voters or for the army of activists the party will need to mobilise.

It is a tactic that allows Labour and Conservatives to portray the Lib Dems as unprincipled guns for hire – as Labour’s deputy leader Harriet Harman sought to do in House of Commons clashes with the Deputy Prime Minister on Tuesday – while also closing off what could be a productive line of attack for Mr Clegg’s party.

Both the major parties will do all they can in the coming weeks to resist discussion of coalition as they try and persuade voters a decisive verdict is the only one that can secure the country’s future.

But the Lib Dems are not burdened by that expectation. Voters already know they can only stay in office as part of a coalition and they should be using that to their advantage.

By stating early in the campaign which of their pledges would be red lines in coalition discussions, they would give the voters an honest picture of what a Lib Dem vote would mean and avoid a repetition of the fees disaster of 2010. Crucially, they would also force the Conservatives and Labour to do the same.

And when another hung parliament looks the most likely outcome of the election, that would bring a welcome dose of honesty and clarity to a campaign which is already threatening to generate an awful lot of heat and very little light.

• James Reed is The Yorkshire Post’s political correspondent.