Sunday, 26 August 2018

How the LibDems Can Rise Again

Is he going to? Isn't he going to? In true Liberal Democrat style, when it comes to the fate of his leadership Vince Cable is clinging to that fence. According to reports Uncle Vince wants to push radical reforms through his party before his departure date comes around. And what, pray tell are these? There's opening up party leadership to non-Parliamentarians, which might be seen as a brave attempt to break out of the bounded universe of Westminster. Or the belated realisation the LibDems haven't got many MPs, their total could easily fall at the next electoral outing and this could potentially include their leader. And there's the copying of Labour's supporter status who too would be allowed to vote in leadership elections. Whether there's anything they can say to inspire a wider electorate is another matter.

If you're getting de ja vu, it's because both of these were trailed earlier in the summer. Unfortunately for the LibDems, we've had another silly season of scabbing in the Labour Party and when the press took a breather, they decided to quickly visit the Tories' racism problem before resuming normal service and renewing the attacks on Jeremy Corbyn. The yellow party were lost in the noise. And this points to a wider problem. With just 12 MPs, and a fall in their vote in absolute terms in 2017 (despite a net gain of four MPs), the party is just not relevant. Even the £77k/year talkers of a good split in the Labour Party don't factor in the LibDems as part of their calculations, and neither do the establishment commentators providing their efforts with publicity.

Yet, theoretically, this should be a good time for the LibDems, no? We're told by Blair and sundry punditry that the centre ground is huge and has been vacated by Tories and Labour. If this was so, then why aren't we seeing the existing centrist party delivering the goods? Its membership is at an all-time peak, it is the only main party to have set its face against Brexit, and the LibDems were politically hegemonic at the recent Remain demo in London. The LibDems' problem is more or less identical to its brethren in Labour, and those contemplating a similar move in the Tories: there isn't much of a constituency for their wares.

The political story of the post-war period was one of weak polarisation. By that I mean, for the most part, there was a great deal of consensus between the two main parties on the fundamentals but politics manifested itself in large votes for the those parties. Partly because of the farce of First Past the Post, but also it more or less corresponded to Britain's class make up. This came under sustained challenge from the 1980s onwards where the two-party duopoly faced, in order, the SDP/Liberal Alliance, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats, UKIP and the SNP. The combined Tory/Labour vote share unevenly declined between 1979 and 2015, before politics repolarised in 2017, but this time around qualitatively different programmes. Yet this wasn't inevitable. For large numbers of people throughout the 90s and 00s, that nice Mr Tony Blair put off progressive-minded voters aplenty with his wars and his market monomania. Allied to their pavement politics approach, which saw them effectively having the doorsteps to themselves as many a Tory association and CLP more or less give up door knocking, and not without some skill the LibDems were able to cultivate a sizeable, socially progressive constituency. The late Charles Kennedy was a friendly, welcoming sort and seemed comfortable with the shallow left liberalism his party was then articulating. Nick Clegg never was equally at ease with the positioning, but at the time he took over conventional centrist wisdom was that young(ish), smooth-talking besuited personnel managers were the passport to electoral success.

What happened next is an important lesson for all political parties. Having assembled a left-centre electoral coalition that could be relied on to return 50-odd seats at an election, Clegg threw it all away. Getting into bed with the Tories was bad enough, especially when the price for a ministry or two was a doubling down on the sorts of policies millions of LibDem voters were opposed to. But to then publicly junk the pivot of the previous election campaign - the much famed pledge to scrap tuition fees - in favour of tripling them was mindbogglingly stupid. At a stroke, their reputation as the party of students was on the scrapheap, the polling tanked, and their betrayal has left an indelible stain on their political character. They, justifiably, collapsed and the toxicity hasn't gone away. Who knows how long the half life will be, but the radioactivity is far from dissipated. The rehabilitation under Tim Farron went totally off beam when he became mired in controversy around same sex relationships, stalling their come back, and with Vince in charge the party has become the political equivalent of tumbleweed rolling through a one horse town. Toxicity plus uninspiring leadership isn't the stuff of a LibDem comeback, and so instead they cling to Remain and the alphabet soup of pro-EU hashtags in the hope better times will come.

A pathetic spectacle to be sure. Nevertheless, there is a way forward for them, but it all depends on the choices they make. They could join in the scurrilous attacks on the Labour Party and, if their record is anything to go by, they probably will. The problem is concentrating fire on Labour prevents them from capitalising on where they are enjoying some electoral success, and that is at the Tories' expense. The Conservatives are consistently bleeding a trickle of council seats to the LibDems, certainly more so than Labour. There certainly is a layer of their vote receptive to what the party has to say, and this in itself is nothing new. If we go back to the halcyon days of Paddy Ashdown, it was by primarily going after the Tories that they consolidated a strong base that later allowed them to thrive in the New Labour years. It seems to me their answer is to go after the centre-leaning socially liberal Tory voters who are squeamish about Corbyn in a repetition of the de facto anti-Tory alliance of the 1990s. It's a long game to be sure, but what's the alternative? Shilly-shallying with has beens and never-weres from the two main parties in the hope they'll break the mould? Please.

7 comments:

Robert said...

This party is no more. It has ceased to be. It is a dead parrot.

Anonymous said...

Some big questions need to be answered before the Lib Dems can go back to their constituencies and prepare for government:

1. Can Vince (the hat) Cable use the word 'Zionist' in a non-ironic & responsible way?
2. Where is Nick Clegg? I thought I saw him in my local off licence last night?
3. What is the actual difference between a Liberal Democrat and a Tory? My friend Malcolm estimates it's less than factor -0.25.
4. When will we see a Whig revival? They've been in the political wilderness for far too long?
5. Where is Jo Grimond when you need him, eh, eh?

Daniel said...

Surley labour lefties should be praying for a split? It seems it would harm the Tories more than Labour.

Johny Conspiranoid. said...

I remember voting for the Liberal/SDP alliance, whenever it was. It seemed loke a good idea at the time. Still, that was then and this is now. More recently I voted LibDem in 2010 because they were to the left of Nu-Labour, at least as reported in the Independant at the time (in the days when I used to read newspapers). Then that Nick Clegg went into a coalition with the Tories! How did Nick Clegg get to be leader again, and just what was wrong with Charles Kennedy? The subsequent colapse of the LibDem vote is being re-written in some quarters as a desetion by a right leaning section of the electorate.

Since then the Labour Party seems to be taking similar positions to what the LibDems talked about for a while pre-2010. This is the centre ground if your reference point is somewhere in the 1970s, it only looks left wing because the main partys and the media have formed a single posse and galoped of to some right wing horizon leaving most of the country behind.

HM Queen Elizabeth II said...

"Opening up party leadership to non-Parliamentarians." Interesting. David Miliband wouldn't be a good fit because he's too right wing and bomb happy. Gina Miller. It's gonna be Gina Miller. The bankers need their champion in the Brexit carve-up.

Anonymous said...

LibDem members would have to vote for such a change by a two-thirds majority, apparently. Unlikely to happen, then - at least for now.

Tmb said...

Nice to see your Madge posting here with your subjects, your Madge.

Anyway, It could be Gina Miller, but in that case, if she doesn't have any links to the Lib Dems or history with them, it could be her or it could be anyone. Jamie Oliver, Prince Edward, Mitchell and Webb, Ed Sheeran, sheesh the skies the limit.

In all seriousness, politics is a massive joke in the UK, partially because the centre is now seen as hard left, thanks to a propaganda media with its head up the Tories arse, and a centre left leader like Corbyn has been pilloried as a threat to society???!!! The world turned upside. Left wing politics is ultimately a threat to the unaccountable, the very wealthy and the very powerful in the establishment and various elites. Which is the way it should be, quite frankly.

There's a new wind blowing, and many of us tagged as working class, chavs, brexiteers, and by default called racists and fascists by the fake left liberals want to see an end to the rich getting richer, a political class who are simply managers and social engineers for the establishment, and where there are shortages for this that and the other, low wages and ZHCs and hard luck stories for the rest of us at the bottom of the economic pile.