Lib Dems face popularity slump as party meets

LONDON Sun Sep 19, 2010 12:25am BST

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg speaks during a Yes to Reform rally at the Liberal Democrat conference in Liverpool, England, September 18, 2010. REUTERS/Nigel Roddis

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg speaks during a Yes to Reform rally at the Liberal Democrat conference in Liverpool, England, September 18, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Nigel Roddis

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LONDON (Reuters) - Liberal Democrat leaders and activists meet in Liverpool this weekend with their poll rating in freefall since joining a coalition government set on slashing spending and sacking thousands of public sector workers.

The centrist party has seen its popularity slump since agreeing to join the larger Conservatives in government after a May election that ended 13 years of Labour party rule.

While support for the Conservatives has remained steady, the Liberal Democrats have slipped as low as 12 percent in opinion polls from 23 percent on polling day and a peak of 33 percent the week before the election.

"It's been a rollercoaster ride and the last four months have all been downwards," said Julian Astle, director of CentreForum, a liberal thinktank.

"The sense of celebration that should surround the conference will be offset by worries about the future."

Party leader Nick Clegg became deputy prime minister after seizing the chance offered by an inconclusive vote to join the first peacetime coalition government in Britain since the 1930s.

He is likely to call on anxious delegates in a speech on Monday to set aside their concerns about the party's direction.

"If you obsess constantly about every passing opinion poll and headline, you never end up doing anything big or changing a thing," he told the Independent newspaper.

"We are at the point where all the achievements of this government and the measures it is taking are obliterated by the fear of cuts," he told the Evening Standard in a separate interview.

"As people start seeing it is a plan that makes sense and will work, we will restore economic growth and confidence will grow."

In June the coalition agreed cuts of 25 percent across most state departments to tackle a deficit that soared to record levels following the global financial crisis. Details of where the axe will fall will be unveiled in October, with forecasters predicting that 600,000 public sector jobs could be lost.

Although the Liberal Democrats had campaigned on programme of steep cuts, they wanted to delay them to avoid damaging the economic recovery, a concern they set aside in coalition talks.

In return they won agreement for a referendum on a more proportional voting system in national elections, a long-held goal after decades of losing out in Britain's "winner-takes-all" electoral system.

Some commentators forecast the pressure of supporting the coalition will split the party down its dividing line between left-leaning social democrats and its economic liberal wing, which includes Clegg.

But party activists said talk of a schism was exaggerated and overlooked the party's commitment to the coalition after generations out of power.

"They are all very keen to make the coalition work, because if the coalition government fails then it is the Lib Dems who lose," said David Hall-Matthews, chair of the Social Liberal Forum, an centre-left Liberal Democrat pressure group.

"We are a party that believes in coalition government and can only realistically expect to govern in coalition," he said.

Liberal Democrat legislator Norman Lamb said the party's leaders were aware of the risk that as the coalition's junior partner they would "take the flak" for unpopular measures.

"We recognised that, but it would certainly not have been a good reason not to have gone into government and not have the opportunity to shape events.".

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