The Strange Death of the Liberal Democrats
This week the Coalition government celebrates its first year in office. A once-implausible marriage of Conservative and Liberal Democrat minds, the Coalition defied expectations and confidently strode onto the stage a fully-formed entity, ready to govern “in the national interest”. Since then, it has implemented the most severe spending cuts since the Second World War and clung together in spite of increasingly divergent interests. What a staggering year for Britain’s third party.
Great Britain is, by now, so used to the affable double act of Prime Minister David Cameron and his Deputy Nick Clegg that it seems odd to reflect that just over a year ago very few people saw this one coming. But last year an electorate battered by crises both economic and political, with its faith in its elected representatives at a generational low, simply could not bring itself to trust any one party with the running of its affairs. Few, however, expected that burden to be taken up by a Liberal-Tory coalition.
Come polling day 2010, the British chose to hang their Parliament, a beautiful piece of electoral graffiti if ever there were one. The incumbent Labour party had been decisively routed, gaining its worst share of the vote since 1918, a staggering verdict on thirteen years of majority rule. It was an indictment of both the long-awaited and then bitterly disappointing leadership of Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his party’s position at the country’s helm during the catastrophic global economic crisis. Whatever skill he’d belatedly demonstrated in response, the country blamed Brown’s Labour for building Britain’s prosperity on a bubble which had now resoundingly burst.
The Liberal Democrats, long Britain’s third party, had had a good campaign by all accounts, their previously invisible leader, Nick Clegg, rose to prominence after stellar performances in the country’s first televised leader’s debates. But the euphoria of the poll bounce saw zealous campaigners take their eye off the ball. Diverting resources to target seats they never had a hope in hell of winning, the Lib Dems gained a million more votes but lost seats, unable to convert the campaign’s goodwill into meaningful electoral gain. ‘Clegg-mania’ seemingly disintegrated upon contact with a ballot box.
An inexplicable focus on the vague, mutualist ideological mish-mash of the ‘Big Society’…
And what of the Conservatives? The once heir-apparents had turned to nearly-theres, failing to seal the deal with voters still wary of the divisive days of 1980s Tory Britain. Although gaining significantly more votes than Labour in 2005, the Conservatives were victims of this country’s questionable constituency sizes and failed to secure what it had, for some time, expected to inherit. An inexplicable focus on the vague, mutualist ideological mish-mash of the ‘Big Society’ had also wasted valuable campaigning time for the Tories and, while it remains their best attempt to give some meaning to their government beyond deficit reduction, it hardly resonated on the doorstep.
Seeing the exit polls come through in a rowdy pub in Surrey, one could hardly believe that what a year ago had appeared to be an assured Tory victory had descended so incongruously into a kind of national hissy fit. There was something gleefully anarchic about it all. That night, I presented a rather inebriated and largely unheard (some things never change) general election radio show, and we all confidently predicted a minority Tory government by the morning. The lesson? Never, ever trust the ‘confident predictions’ of a political hack.
David Cameron’s “big, open and comprehensive” offer to the Liberal Democrats the next morning was certainly staggering. While Labour had occasionally toyed with the idea of a coalition of the centre-left, most notably in the run-up to the 1997 election, few would have placed the Liberal Democrats, a protest party of classical liberals, 1980s Labour exiles and European enthusiasts in bed with the bastard Tories, a party they’d previously been all too keen to knife in tightly fought constituencies where voting Labour was akin to punching your own child in the face.
But that was the proposal on the table. Not just a polite but distant confidence-and-supply agreement, but a full-on Continental-style coalition. And so it was left to a Politician’s fix, to the smoky back room deals the Tories had tried to warn us about in their desperate ‘Hung Parliament Party’ broadcasts after the Clegg bounce, to try and hammer out a government that could command the confidence of Her Majesty and, more importantly, the international markets. Nick Clegg rightly honoured his promise to talk first with the party who had achieved the most votes, a basic acceptance of the democratic will of the people, since endlessly misconstrued as betrayal.
…it arrogantly assumed that it could always rely on them in a bind.
While negotiations with Labour did indeed take place, the Lib Dems were confronted with the five conflicting faces of a party in meltdown. There was, I’m told, none of the extensively war-gamed and surprisingly flexible compromise offered by the Tories, instead, a desperate clique with a bunker mentality, a truculent leader and talk of a ‘rainbow coalition’ of unstable nationalists, fringe parties and also-rans. Labour may have derided the Lib Dems since their inception, but it arrogantly assumed that it could always rely on them in a bind. The electoral numbers said otherwise.
It’s often overlooked in these heady days of Clegg-bashing, but a coalition with Labour was always mathematically impossible, if ideologically more palatable. Consider the outcry if Clegg had propped up Brown and his party. Imagine the clamours from the Tories for another general election. The shouts of ‘stitch up’ from the voters. For all its flaws, the keenest observation of New Labour was that the voters are never wrong. Pliable, gullible, yes. But wrong? Never. There remains no better device in the long, clumsy human story for electing our leaders than representative democracy, and the country had spoken. It didn’t want Brown and it didn’t want Labour.
As Labour talks came to nothing, commentators, myself among them, who had long resigned themselves to a Tory government, suddenly found themselves excited by coalition, by an economically competent partnership, one tempered by Liberal influence, a buffer against Thatcherite excess and a modishly-titled ‘new politics’ of political maturity. A new dawn had broken, had it not? This was grown-up stuff.
You hide these sentiments now, of course, but in May last year it genuinely seemed like a new era may just have crept up on us unawares. Cameron, long regarded as the smuggest of peacetime leaders, was humbled, the Tories less tribal than at any time since 1979. Coalition negotiations had given a staggering amount of leeway. The Liberal Democrats had a chance to prove they meant business. Importantly, Labour had been sent to the opposition benches to think about Iraq, about the trashing of civil liberties, about actively encouraging the poorest in society to borrow their way out of trouble, of false promise, of spin. Naively, perhaps, we thought this thing could work.
Economic policy defines all else…
A closer look, as we now know, reveals that the hand forced by the election result, with a Liberal Democrat party winning far, far fewer seats than their partners, left the party in a cripplingly weak position. They may have implemented 70%+ of their manifesto, lifting the poorest households out of income tax, introducing a pupil premium and tapering some Tory excesses, including resistance to an outright redblooded free market approach to tuition fees, but the party lacked the legitimacy to oppose Cameron and George Osborne’s spending cuts. Economic policy defines all else, and Lib Dem successes elsewhere are merely pissing into the wind in the face of such monumental reductions.
By signing up to Tory spending plans, to the conjuring trick of blaming excessive government spending rather than the freewheeling financial services industry who got us there, the Liberal Democrats have put pen to the paper of their own death warrant. They had no choice, of course, but it will likely finish the party (a ‘confident prediction’ again, I must admonish) and that is the ultimate tragedy of the Liberal Democrat story.
…they have agreed to the very measures which will kill them.
The recent local elections and AV referendum devastation have shown that, regardless of the fact the voters put them there, we will not hesitate to blame the weaker party for measures we don’t like. Clegg has gone from untainted saint to red-handed villain in the space of a year and no posturing to demonstrate Lib Dem influence is likely to overcome the sheer force of emotion that brands him a traitor, a Judas, a Tory-boy. He is the new Bush, the new Blair. A villain no rational explanation will vindicate.
The irony of the Liberal Democrats journey this year is that, in their steadfast commitment to democracy, in their fundamental belief that the will of the people should govern all, they have agreed to the very measures which will kill them. In proving their own worth, their seriousness as a party of government, they have propped up a Tory economic policy that the country didn’t have the guts to back.
In doing so, they have taken every bullet, while the Tories only gain in stature. Labour, under new leader Ed Miliband, has been the ringleader of such tormentors, keen to gun down the Lib Dems for a verdict handed down from on high. In 2010, The electorate may have rejected Labour, lacked real confidence in the Tories and baulked at backing the unknown Lib Dem quantity, but emotionally it will forever blame the Liberal Democrats for the parts it doesn’t like.
Nick Clegg, to his credit and ultimate detriment, is the face of electoral compromise in a world of winner-takes-all democracy. We voted for this and now we can’t stomach it. The voter is always right, even if we hate that which we created.