Saturday, 16 December 2017

Liberal Democrats: trying the same thing and hoping for a different outcome...

“My girlfriend,” the comedian we were watching told us, “is a Liberal Democrat. So she really is one in a million.”

We all laughed. In truth, though, it’s no laughing matter to see what’s become of the Liberal Democrat Party.

It was a while back now that the forerunner of that party, the Liberals, bestrode the British political scene. A while but hardly a time lost in the mists of history: my grandfather was two years into an apprenticeship as a lithographic artist and well into his teens – school leaving age was 14 at that time – when the Liberals won a landslide majority in parliament and opened ten years of apparently unassailable, and certainly unassailed, rule in the country.

That only ended in 1916 when the last Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, was forced out of office for his supposed mishandling of the First World War. He was replaced by his Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, whose political guile clearly outweighed his loyalty. However, Lloyd George headed not  a Liberal government, but a coalition with the Conservatives.

David Lloyd George
Led the Liberals into coalition with the Tories
and sealed their fate
This was the national government, intended to rise to the challenges of the war, though it continued to 1922, well into the peace. Then the Conservatives won a majority on their own. The Liberals, split between the followers of Lloyd George and Asquith, never formed another government. The legacy of coalition with the Tories wiped them out for decades. Instead, they were replaced as the main opposition to the Conservatives by the Labour party, then barely a generation old.

From the time I first became aware of politics, I’ve watched the Liberals struggling to re-emerge onto the political scene. They would win occasional by-elections to loud fanfare in the press, much of it orchestrated by themselves. But when a general election came round, they would be reduced to a handful once more, often losing the very seats they had won in the by-elections.

In my youth, we used to talk about the “taxi Liberal Party”, since all its MPs could have fitted into a single London cab.

Then came the eighties. Labour decided to try its luck under a leader from the Left and a manifesto with a radical bent to it. In 1983, it went down its worst defeat since the 1930s.

Out of this brief flirtation with the far Left came a breakaway group, the Social Democratic Party. It won a few seats and made a few waves. But essentially it was battling for the same voters as the Liberals; the two parties at first collaborated and then eventually merged into the Liberal Democrats. And prospered.

At the 2005 General Election, they peaked at 62 parliamentary seats. Small compared with Labour’s 418 that year, or the Liberals 397 in 1906, but a huge improvement over the taxi cab days – in 1970, they had just six seats.

And then, in 2010, they went into coalition with the Tories.

You’d have thought they’d have learned, wouldn’t you? They apparently thought they could go back into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010 and come out with a different result from 1916.

Nick Clegg
Led the Liberal Democrats into coalition with the Tories
and sealed their fate
Well, they were wrong. In 2015 they were reduced once more to just eight seats. At the election this year, they won a few back and reached 12. They’d need two cabs rather than just one, or three if they wanted to be a little more comfortable. But anywhere near power? Not a chance.

It’s a loss. Often, particularly on matters of human rights, the Liberal Democrats were out to the left of Labour and acted as a useful antidote to the occasional illiberal inclinations of some in my party.

I remember at the time of the coalition getting into lively debates with Lib Dems on Twitter. One assured me that having a Lib Dem influence on government was worth even a price as high as a generation of irrelevance.

Well, they had their chance between 2010 and 2015. It’s not clear they exercised much influence, and today what influence they had has left little trace. Now we’re well into the period of irrelevance; I wonder if my adversaries from back then still feel the price was worth paying.

It seems to me the political landscape has been impoverished by the fate of the Lib Dem party. Especially in so far as it has benefited the Tories. Even if it occasionally provides some good one-liners for standup comics.


Stephen Milton said...

In the period after the 2008 near banking collapse when the government was underwriting bank debts of multiples of our country's GDP, it was rather important that a stable government was in place and the reassurance that came with that stability resulted in the very low interest rates that helped us survive. I know that there are some that feel it would have been better for chaos to rain down on society and let the establishment reap what it has sown, but I suspect that we would all have been the poorer for it.
Then, of course, there was Brexit. The LibDems were the only party that campaigned against Brexit in the 2015 election. Labour and Conservative both hedged their bets in the hope that there would be time to change the prevailing narrative in advance of the promised referendum. A colossal miscalculation for which we continue to pay a massive price.

That was the moment I decided to join the LibDems...

Sometimes, doing the right thing is not rewarded and is even very costly. That does not automatically make it the wrong thing to do, even if it does make you an easy target for light weight comedians who like to mock the application of principles in politics.

Chair of the Hastings & Rye LibDems

David Beeson said...

Hi Steve

Most of what you say strikes me as having a lot of merit. But I'm not sure that the financial crisis of 2008 absolutely had to have a government with a majority to sort it. If one allows that a Tory government had to be formed, only because they were the biggest single party in parliament, I think the Lib Dems could have argued that they owed it to the country to let the Conservatives form a government precisely to deal with the crisis and nothing else, which could have been done with a confidence and supply arrangement, as we have today.

As it happens, I think this would only have been defensible on the grounds that the Tories had come top in 2010, not because they were more suitable to solve the problem. I think Alastair Campbell did a far better job in his seven quarters of fighting the crisis than Osborne ever did.

Had the Lib Dems gone for a confidence and supply arrangement, I think they'd have avoided the taint of association with some terrible policies. They might not have found themselves having to go back on their pledge on student fees, which cost them horribly. Naturally, the arrangement would have been unsustainable in the long run, but the Lib Dems could have said after a couple of years, "well, the worst is over. Let's go back to the country and look for another mandate."

Naturally, I don't know what the outcome would have been. No one can when we're talking about a counter-factual. But I think it could hardly have been more damaging to the Lib Dems - or, for that matter, to the country.

As for Brexit, both main parties are split. That's what made the referendum campaign so lacklustre and ineffectual. With the Tories, I expect no less. But I am deeply upset that Corbyn won't speak out on the issue. I feel he's proving an extraordinarily ineffective leader of the Opposition to the Tories.

I won't, however, follow you into the Lib Dems, precisely because of what happened in 2010. I believe the Lib Dems should be a party of the centre left, and its most natural ally should be Labour. That it propped up a Tory government for five strikes me not just as a poor tactical choice, but a profound betrayal of principle. I think we're not quite into year 3 of what might be a 20 or more year struggle to rebuild the Lib Dems by putting that terrible decision behind them...