The Liberal Democrats are finished as an electoral force. Having accepted the poisoned chalice of going into coalition with the Conservatives and with members leaving the party for Labour and others, the party faces losing its own identity too. They would have stood a better chance as partners to Labour – at least they could have pretended to be left-ish. They would have even stood a better chance propping up a minority Conservative government under a confidence and supply arrangement. But Clegg and the rest of the leadership wanted power…and who could blame them?
79 years of hurt and all that…
As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the rightward drift of the Lib Dem leadership began with the appearance of The Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism. Published by the think tank Centre Forum, the book contained essays by David Laws, Vince Cable, Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne and others. This group is generally referred to as the Orange Book tendency. The Orange Book appeared at the same time as pressure was mounting on Charles Kennedy to resign (some felt that he was leading the party too far to the left). The book was not a hit with everyone as Richard Grayson of Goldsmiths College writes,
Many in the party were deeply hostile to The Orange Book; others simply tried to ignore it. A response eventually came in 2007, in the form of Reinventing the State: Social Liberalism for the 21st Century, which I co-edited with Duncan Brack (also a former director of policy) and David Howarth, then the MP for Cambridge. This sought to give a more sophisticated account of internal party divisions, and indeed included chapters from Orange Book-ers such as Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne. It argued that, although there was much wrong with the state, the answer was not to reduce it, but to reform and relocate it, principally by making public services locally and democratically accountable.
This is confusing me, Clegg and Huhne wrote chapters in a response to the Orange Book? No wonder there is a such a lack of real focus to the party or a uniquely identifiable ‘brand’ image. Grayson also says that there are few factions within the party, which suggests that the Lib Dems are less split over issues that would split Labour and the Tory ranks. Nonetheless,
Political culture helps to explain the party’s support for the coalition. The Liberal Democrats have become extremely leadership-loyal. The trauma of losing Charles Kennedy and Menzies Campbell in quick succession should not be underestimated. However narrowly Clegg won, the party was always going to stick with him, and his brilliant personal performance during the election campaign consolidated support for him. The culture of the Liberal Democrats is also in*herently reasonable. There is a willingness to try to see all sides of an argument and a long-standing belief that coalitions are desirable.
At this point, we need to remind ourselves of the factions within the party. There is the traditional bearded Liberal, sandal-wearing wing; the Orange Book Tendency which is represented by the party leadership; and the residue of the old Social Democratic Party (SDP), which merged with David Steel’s Liberals to form the Social and Liberal Democrats, the Democrats which then became the Liberal Democrats.
A fine mess.
Therefore it comes as no surprise that Charles Kennedy is uneasy about the coalition and so is The Emperor. But the Orange Bookers are in the ascendancy: they are the engine that drove the Lib Dems into the arms of the Tories. There is little difference between the Orange Bookers and the libertarian wing of the Conservative Party; they both want a smaller state. But how much of this ‘small statism’ can the social liberals stomach? Kennedy was once a member of the SDP, while Emperor Ming has always been a Liberal. Campbell stood by and watched as his Young Turks plunged the knife into Chatshow Charlie’s back. Once he became interim leader he rewarded them with front bench positions.
A big mistake.
Campbell, too, would find himself ousted by the very same forces he unleashed within the party: the Orange Book Tendency. They said he was “too old” to lead the party: they wanted a leader that could match David Cameron’s youth. Step forward, Nick Clegg. Huhne stood no chance against Clegg’s youthful good looks and his aristocratic background (he’s the great-great grandson of Ukrainian nobleman, Ignaty Zakrevsky and the great-great nephew of Moura Budberg, who was also known as “The Russian Mata Hari”). Perhaps it was inevitable that Clegg and Cameron would engage in full-blown inter-party relations. Cameron is, after all, an indirect descendant of William IV and therefore a cousin of the Queen.
Two blue bloods for the price of one!
That’s the parliamentary party, what about the membership? Lord Greaves is appalled at the news coming from the coalition. The Guardian ran a story on 15 May that told of grassroots Lib Dem members deserting their party. The leadership denied this
A Lib Dem spokesman claimed that fewer than 100 people had left since the coalition was announced four days ago, while more than 400 had joined.
“We don’t believe it’s anything to do with disillusionment over the new government. On the contrary, we have gained more than 1500 members over the election campaign,”
I find it hard to believe that 400 would join the party because of the coalition but then the Lib Dems have never played with a straight bat. Other parties are working hard to attract disillusioned Lib Dem voters including the Greens and Labour. Harriet Harman claims that Labour has attracted 21,000 new members many of whom are former Lib Dems. But can we believe this? Why would anyone want to join Labour? Libdemvoice claims that 4,500 have joined since the election. Again, this seems a little far-fetched; people don’t join parties because they like the ‘chalk and cheese’ nature of the coalition.
I suspect that the Lib Dem leadership is in denial about the potential loss of members and voters. They prefer to content themselves with how things might look should their plans in the coalition succeed. But the proposed referendum on ‘political reform’ is an awful abortion of a compromise; AV is not proportional representation nor is it the first stop on the road to PR. As with most compromises this one will please no one but those who want to keep the present system for voting. Once voters see AV for what it is, they may decide to stick rather than twist. This will not help the Lib Dem’s cause in any forthcoming election or by-election, because they will not only be seen as liars, they will be seen as weak and wishy-washy.
Here is a history lesson for the Lib Dem leadership: in 1931, Ramsay MacDonald’s second Labour government lacked the numbers to form an outright majority. The Liberal Party agreed to prop up the government but this was too much for some Liberals who broke away to form the Liberal National Party. This party moved closer to the Conservatives and by August of that year, a national government was formed and headed by MacDonald. This coalition government contained many Tories as well as Liberal Nationals. MacDonald was famously expelled from the Labour Party and led his breakaway National Labour Party in the coalition. Most Liberals wanted nothing to do with this arrangement and consequently the support for the Liberal Party plunged and the party split into two camps that would never be reconciled. In fact many Liberal Nationals and National Liberals (as they later called themselves) joined with the Conservatives and fought elections together until 1968. But by then the pretence was over and they were subsequently absorbed into the Tory party. The Liberals on the other hand never scored more than 12 seats from 1945 to 1974 and by 1979 the party could comfortably squeeze itself into a London black cab. Could history repeat itself?
I think so.