How did the parties to in 2011? My op-ed for The Times

Last week The Times ran this column from me as part of a trio on the main political parties, with the others from Mehdi Hasan and Tim Montgomerie:

This year has certainly not been short of Harold Macmillan’s “events, dear boy, events”.  Political and economic turmoil disrupted even the usually quiet periods deep in August and the final shopping days before Christmas.

Yet at the end of the year the political roller-coaster has left all three main parties in remarkably similar situations to those in which they found themselves at the start of the year. Politically, it has been a year of treading water.

Labour still has a leader with low personal ratings and party support levels far short of what other oppositions achieved during similarly tough economic times. The Conservatives continue to show resilient levels of popularity – better than many previous governments but still far short of showing that David Cameron can win a majority. As for the Liberal Democrats, despite a slow rise during the year, the party’s poll ratings are still low, yet more Liberal Democrat policies have been implemented in the last year than in the previous 50.

The problem the Liberal Democrats face with securing political credit for that is two-fold. First, many of the policies whilst individually popular – such as Home Office minister Lynne Featherstone’s move to end the scourge of rogue private wheel clampers or Ed Davey’s success in modernising the Post Office – are a rather disparate collection of liberal victories scattered government. They do not add up to a convincing and clear picture of what Liberal Democrats have achieved in government.

The danger is that the party ends up making many changes to government, improving what is being done, but, as with a speechwriter, the good work is not noticed by the public as it is behind the scenes.

The second problem is that much of what Liberal Democrats have achieved in government is blocking more extreme Tory proposals, such as tax cuts for the richest. These successes are necessarily intangible and harder to sell.

Nick Clegg has started to flesh out a clearer overall message for the party which brings the different positive threads together. The Budget will provide the big showcase test for that: can the Liberal Democrats ensure the Budget is not just one of austerity but also one of fairness? Even without big giveaways our taxes can be made fairer in ways a solo Conservative government would not wish. Get that right and 2012 won’t be a matter of simply treading water.

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