What now for the Liberal Democrats?

The result of the 2015 General Election are taking a long time to sink in, especially if you have been a lifelong supporter of the Liberal Democrats.

All my adult life I’d seen the Liberal Democrats, and the Liberals before them slowly but steadily grow in strength. There were setbacks of course; for years the party was good at winning byelections in seats that proved impossible to retain in the following general elections. But they slowly built up from a dozen or so seats in the 1970s to more than 60 MPs in 2005. To see them reduced to single figures is heartbreaking. And the tragedy is that while nobody seemed to see it coming, it was all too obvious in retrospect.

Yes, they made tactical errors in their campaign, failing to emphasise core Liberal values, and let the two bigger parties squeeze their support. It became obvious just how many of their seats had only been held over the years though tactical voting by natural Labour supporters. Once those voters had enough and went back home, swathes of formerly orange parts of England and Wales went blue. And no party survived the SNP steamroller in Scotland.

Ultimately I don’t think the leadership fully understood how toxic the Tories were to many of their supporters. It wasn’t enough to point out the nasty things the party stopped the Tories from doing in coalition. The things they did were bad enough. The débâcle of tuition fees was unfortunate, but far worse was the failure to challenge Iain Duncan Smith’s callous and inhuman regime at the Department of Work and Pensions. I don’t use the word “Evil” lightly, but Duncan-Smith’s treatment of the weakest and most vulnerable members of society resembled the petty evil of a low level war criminal. It was the vindictive cruelty of a concentration camp guard; he wasn’t the sort to have the imagination or ambition to invade Poland.

This was what the Liberal Democrats were saddled with, and why, as a lifelong voter, I had to hold my nose while voting on Thursday.

The biggest single disappointment of the Liberal Democrats in coalition was their failure to secure electoral reform, thus wasting the best window of opportunity in a generation to replace our outdated and corrupt electoral system. Clegg let himself be fobbed off with a referendum on a compromise system nobody really wanted, conveniently timed to catch the personal backlash from the tuition fees reversal. No surprise it was lost. And with it the parliamentary party was lost too, once the next election came around.

Every man, woman, dog and cat with vaguely liberal beliefs is now going to be telling the party where it needs to go next. It will be a long, hard road to recovery, and the long-term survival of the party isn’t guaranteed in the new uncertain multi-party landscape. The Liberal Democrats aren’t the only party faced with an existential crisis; Labour too need to decide who or what they really stand for if they are ever to win another election, and even the Tories, victorious as the are, could yet disintegrate under the weight of their internal contradictions. David Cameron will enjoy the briefest of honeymoons before they start tearing themselves apart over Europe yet again.

It’s not good enough to position themselves as the “in-between” party equidistant from Labour and the Conservatives; that didn’t work in 1983 and it will work even less now there are more than just three parties. UKIP are the party of “pox on both camps” protest voters, and the Greens can attract the idealist radicals alienated from the money-driven machine politics of the main parties.

They’re not going to come back unless the party can articulate positive things they stand for which set them apart from other parties. They’re still going to be economically centrist, of course, rejecting both the dog-eat-dog winner-takes-all capitalism of the Tory right and the centralist bureaucratic statism frequently espoused by Labour. But they must promote themselves as the party of civil liberties, frequently under attack from the authoritarians of both right and left.

They should, for example, be the party that champions freedom of speech as a cornerstone of a healthy democracy. The right has always been censorship-happy, and we’re already seeing plans from the Tories censor the internet and ban “extremism”. But one worrying recent trend is the way so much of the left has abandoned the liberal principle of freedom of speech in favour of an ill-defined and censorship-enabling “freedom from offence”. Byzantine and ever-changing rules based around structural inequalities decide who can and can’t be offended, and the distinction between defending someone’s freedom to speak and defending the actual contents of their speech is dangerously blurred or obliterated entirely. This has allowed sections of the right, especially racists and other bigots, to position themselves as champions of freedom. But it’s still a liberal principle that any party with the word “Liberal” it its name must defend.

That’s just one issue, but it’s precisely the sort of thing where the Liberal Democrats can and should make a principled stand. There are many other issues like it.

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2 Responses to What now for the Liberal Democrats?

  1. Ian says:

    Very nice piece. I agree with your views about the identity of the main parties. The need for a more representative electoral system is clear (even if it does mean UKIP get represented). I have never hidden my politics, I am and always will be left of centre. My worry is that the Labour Party in its desire to get back into power will try to emulate the Tory lite model of Blair.
    Fundamentally the result of this election was once again decided not on policies but on fear. The media constantly pushed the argument that labour was just a vote for SNP. It was interesting how the main parties all fought for a United Kingdom but we’re against any Scottish voices in parliament.

  2. ard sloc says:

    I share you pain, Tim, but I have been there before: when the number of MPs was cut to five, of whom two were elected through pacts with the Tories in two-member cities. Even then, though, there was an active student membership working on all sorts of policy ideas and local workers getting people elected on to local councils.

    You are so right about the loss of the tactical votes we had taken from Labour, but there was always “a plague on all your houses” ragbag of votes, many of which will have been sucked-up by the Faragist’s. In truth, Liberal party activists have included some with no real political principles but a desire to be a big fish in a small pool.

    Clegg’s leadership in government was poor – interesting that most of the party heavyweights did not have ministerial office – and his General Election centrist stance cut no ice. Liberals and Liberal Democrats have appealed to left-of-centre opinion since at least the time of Jo Grimond.

    Our old friend John Clark has reminded us that there is still a Liberal Party, with representation on local councils. Now that Clegg, as well as Huhne, has gone from leadership a reconciliation might be possible. You are right about the ground on which revival should be based. Fifty/sixty seats may not be possible again, but a fighting party that can’t be ignored will rise once more.