Monday 26 May 2014

Where Now for the Liberal Democrats?

While we wait for the final results from the Orkneys to trickle in so I can scrutinise those all-important No2EU votes, let's spare a thought for the Liberal Democrats. They went from 11 MEPs to just one, and managed to lose even more councillors than the Tories. In all, a very bad night and a grim portent of things just round the corner. With no surprises whatsoever, some have been calling for Clegg's head. Others point to his radio debates with Farage as a contributing author to their misfortune. In short, it's panic stations. So, where do the LibDems go from here? Is this a death spiral that will finish them off for good? Are they forever doomed to be beaten by the Greens?

No. Extinction does not beckon, but they are buckling under the political equivalent of front-loaded austerity. If last night was "peak UKIP", then 2015 is likely to be "trough LibDem". Forget about plots and rumours of leadership plots, nice guy Nick will be leading the yellow party into next year's general election. As previous rumbles and grumbles have shown, Clegg's grip on his parliamentary troops is impressive - Dave must envy the discipline of PLDP. "Left" pressure coming from Simon Hughes, Tim Farron and the recently re-principled Sarah Teather haven't caused him headaches worthy of the name. And, because their stock is so low, the Lord Rennard scandal scandal has barely touched them. Who notices a bit more mud when you're covered already in swill? LibDem ministers also like their cars and offices, and those who'd resigned their Parliamentary careers to a lifetime of opposition are enjoying the novelty of policy influence - an illusion that rubs off on layers of their beleaguered, traumatised membership. It will be an age if the LibDems ever get a look-in at government again, so best enjoy it while it lasts.

Their plummeting fortunes, however, are not a result of being in government per se. Had the arithmetic stacked up differently and the LibDems and Labour had gone in together in 2010, I can't help but think the damage to them wouldn't be anywhere near as bad. They have effectively acted as the Tories' meat shield. Their body politic is riddled with bullets as they betrayed the social liberalism assiduously cultivated from Paddy Ashdown on - tuition fees, bedroom tax, work capability assessments, the backdoor privatisation of the NHS, tax cuts for the very rich. It's the sidebar of policy shame. It's what happens if you promise one thing to the electorate, and do the opposite in power.

Where then do the LibDems go from here? Some hold out the hope that their reduced Westminster posse could hold the balance of power in a hung Parliament. That's possible, but with Ed Miliband nor Dave wanting to run another coalition, you can rule out high office. More likely, in my opinion, is the party looking at the blood price paid for five years of government and concluding they cannot carry on as they are. Returning to their all-things-to-all-people leftish liberalism holds the promise of rebuilding, of repeating all the patient, local work done over the last 20 years and getting the rewards for it. This will be much easier if next year's election takes out LibDem ministers and reduces them even further. On the other hand, assuming Labour wins on its equality ticket the LibDems may find it difficult to outflank them from the left. But as things stand, returning to their old comfort zone is the only viable option.


Mat said...

I suspect the direction the Libdems take after the next election will be very much determined by who is left in the Commons, and the direction of the big two parties.

Also as you say Labour may not leave much a gap on their left, especially if they end up forming some sort of minority government.

The survival and resurgance of the likes of Danny Alexander and David Laws coupled with the Tories tacking right to head off UKIP could well open up a space for a socially liberal, economically right party - The Orange Bookers in full effect.

Speedy said...

The Lib Dems are finished as a force on the Left for a generation at least because they have lost TRUST.

No one will believe them even if they move so far to the Left they fall off Wales.

Sure there were real Liberals who knew what Liberalism was about blah but most people voted for them because they thought they were to the Left of Labour post-Iraq.

So it was okay.

It will never be okay again, at least not while their Leftish floating voters remember that moment Clegg did the un-thinkable then let them privatise higher education and sell off the NHS with THEIR VOTES.

The horror.

And it was no good him pointing out the small print, as Farrage made great play of in the debates.

The Greens are the new Lib Dems - right-on bourgeois with trendy Leftish policies to make the borugeois assholes that vote for them feel good about themselves and not feel threatened in their jobs.

A plague on all their houses.

Anonymous said...

Yes, poking fun at the failure of the LibDems when you are on the left is rather strange.

Personally, I have my head down and feel a bit of modesty is appropriate, but then again I don't fool myself into thinking that picking up 20 odd % of a 30 odd % turnout is anything to write home about, and that assumes I would ever equate the left and New Labour, which I most certainly don't.

So I guess I would give anything to be as successful as the LibDems, especially as Mat points out, the ideological outlook for the orange bookers looks bright, even if their electoral prospects don't!

Phil said...

But the LibDems are not, and have never been part of the left. Which is why I have no compunction about getting the digs in when looking at their prospects.

Whether there's a rerun of social liberalism, or they reposition themselves as the moderate, centre right party Dave wishes the Tories would be doesn't really matter. The wilderness beckons and they'll be spending the better part of the next two decades trying to claw back the political capital they frittered away.

Carolyn said...

I feel really sorry for Nick; it's the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy. A principled and good hero is led by forces outside his own control and by his own hubris to accept a role in high office. He accepts (because he feels he has no choice) and soon finds that he is the cause of his own down fall. If I were in charge, I would let the (inevitable) election failure and the Lord Rennard scandal consume the Lib Dems- they could then disband and start again as a new political party. It will take too long to recover from this- they should pull the trigger themselves and start again.

Robert said...

The Orange Book brigade turned the Lib Dems into another conservative party. We have two already, we didn't need a third. Bite the cyanide capsule, Cleggy.

Anonymous said...

I straight up lol'ed today at a Lib Dems winning here placard. It was a huge one in an area of London where maybe 900 people voted Lib Dem for the euros.

Gary Elsby said...

Yes Phil....but:

Clegg's hand was forced due to Labour's unwillingness to lead.
Therefore a coalition was forced.
In one instant, the Liberal party became a partner in crime.
Liberals cried themselves to sleep and forgiveness is hard to give.

Meanwhile, Dave ransacks the Country and still holds power with a winning formula for 2015.
It doesn't seem fair somehow, does it.

The Liberals will always be Liberal and reject the other mainstreamers as too severe all round and so they shall seek penance within themselves and present themselves as a modern tax sharing party bent on civil freedoms and reform.

I see their main rivals for 2015 as the Uber-Labour Party (uniforms the lot), the Greens.

asquith said...

Clegg, imho, has dealt a pretty woeful hand remarkably well. I don't think anyone could have done it better, and that (plus the fact that, unlike Shameron, he actually bothered consulting his party over coalition) he has faced less dissent within the ranks.

The prospect of me supporting them was finally killed off after so many of them revealed ugly, bigoted attitudes during the Maajid Nawaz controversy. As a secularist, I found their failure to support to Maajid utterly heinous. David "the Jews" Ward, Jenny Tonge, and then Meral Ece, were personal insults.

They have fallen on their own sword rather than let this country be an ungovernable Belgium II, as it would have been if the coalition wasn't formed. And even though I oppose things like the bedroom tax, they can't be called Cleggover's fault. I don't support them but it's not him that I blame.

What I think is this. Kippers, even though I hate them, have shown once and for all that we need fair votes in this country. I would abhor anything their representatives did but that's democracy, they deserve representation. So I hope PR gets onto the agenda (this would in fact result in a Liberal Democrat comeback too). That is what needs to be on the agenda after 2015.