I don’t want to spend too long rehearsing the cliches about what a year the Liberal Democrats have had, but it is save to say that their fortunes over the past 12 months or so have been mercurial. This time last year, Cleggmania was at the beginning of the end, but on the plus side the party was in power and had a referndum on AV to look forward to. In the here and now, the party is about as popular as an STD, its leader seems fatally compromised and the other leading lights of the party are either corrupt (Laws), arrogant, naive and stupid (Cable), potentially corrupt and faintly ghastly (Huhne) or just fundamentally unelectable, even within the Lib Dems (Hughes).
And how is the party responding to this spectacular reversal in its fortunes? Why, by trying to goad the Tories over NHS reforms and constitutional reform. It is almost as if the Lib Dems are trying to choose battles in which they will lose in order to prove they are not the Tories. Which does rather have the fundamental flaw that in choosing a battle they are going to lose they’re, well, going to lose that battle and thus look even more ineffectual. And therefore increase the views among naive lefty types that they sold their soul to be in the coalition.
So what can they do in order to regain some of the popularity that has deserted them since last May? Well, they need to be proactive, do something extraordinary and, crucially, so something that the Tories can’t dismiss out of hand. So how about that fabled Freedom Bill we used to hear so much about. How about Nick Clegg leading a campaign to reverse the erosions of our civil liberties that happened under Blair and Brown, and redress the balance of freedom in favour of the people of this country rather than for the authority of an already bloated government?
It would be a bold move, and crucially would be the sort of thing that could be positively sold to the electorate. It would really appeal to me – and I’m the sort of floating voter they need to be snaring – and to many others who voted Liberal Democrat last time in the hope that, as part of a coalition, they might be able to add something to the sum total of freedom in this country. And crucially, it would be an area in which they could show themselves to be distinct from and better than the Labour party (whose record on civil liberties is, frankly, appalling). And the Tories, who flirted with being the party of civil liberties before the last election, would not be able to resist such reforms without ending up painting themselves as utter hypocrites.
So go for it, Clegg. Give yourself something to boast about at the next election and, crucially, something meaningful about your time in power for the history books. A genuinely radical freedom bill could be the very thing to turn around your fortunes and those of your party, and could remind you and your party of why the joined this coalition in the first place. Give us a new politics; give us a government that trusts its people enough to return to them some of the freedoms that have been eroded over the past decades.