2014 election focus: An existential crisis for the Lib Dems

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May 27, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith


If we just talk about the numbers, the last week has been a complete disaster for the Liberal Democrats. In the local council elections they lost 310 of their 737 seats, which was worse than the Conservatives did, even though the latter are supposed to the senior partner in the coalition government. Then, in the the EU Parliament elections, they came within a whisker of a total wipeout, retaining only one MEP, with some MEPs who had been in the Parliament for 30 years losing their seats. They got 6.87% of the vote, less than the Green Party, putting them in a miserable 5th place.

But we can’t just talk about the numbers, because existentially the current political situation looks like a calamity for the Lib Dems, and unlike the other parties, it is very difficult to see a way out for them in the short term. The truth is, I’m not sure it’s possible to work out what they are actually FOR at the moment. It’s not clear why someone would vote for them. For a party with such an honourable and important tradition in British politics, that is a very troublesome place to be.

They can no longer claim that they are the hearty of protest against the political system, or the two main parties, because they ARE now part of the political system. They have shown that they are prepared to make some quite unpalatable compromises in exchange for power, and those who are thinking of voting for them in the 2015 election will read their manifesto with justified scepticism, now understanding taught the commitments they make in there are possibly only bargaining chips in coalition discussions, which will mean that you could vote for a Lib Dem MP who is making some policy commitments but then find that should they get a ministerial job in a coalition government they are going to have to support different policies and drop some of their commitments. This means a voter may as well choose between the two main parties, as it is their policies that will dominate the government.

Some Lib Dems will argue that it is only they who are guardians of true liberalism, but we are now a liberal democracy, and all of edge main parties essentially subscribe to a form of liberalism. The Conservatives are a mix of classical liberalism on economic policies such as reducing the deficit and progressive liberalism in many social policies such as gay marriage. Labour is a progressive liberal party, with some socialism thrown in around the edges, with the biggest difference between they and the conservatives being in the size of the role of the state, in which Labour have far more trust. The Lib Dems will argue a that it was they who fight most for civil liberties, and they who    brought in policies such as the pupil premium, which was a classic progressive liberal equality of opportunity idea. But the truth is that I would bet that in the 2015 manifestos it would be very difficult to spot the difference between their policies and the two main parties, especially given they have to be extremely wary of any policies that they definitely can’t deliver in government (e.g. Tuition fees).

So all in all there should be a real fear that they could lose a lot of their seats next May. They will hold on to the fact that they still retained 427 council seats last Thursday, so people are still prepared to vote for them, and that could mean that come a general election it may be possible that the electorate will be more likely to vote for them as a genuine party of government instead of using their vote as a protest. But an interesting fact about these EU elections is that the vote share of the two main parties actually ROSE 7%, and I think this is because people no longer see as much point in differentiating between those parties and the Lib Dems.

The final question has to be about who should be the leader. Commentators are pointing at Vince Cable and Tim Farron as more left-leaning Lib Dems who would apparently be more ‘palatable’ to the Labour Party should they be in poll position to form a coalition next May. But is that really what the Lib Dems stand for now? Forming coalitions? Why, if the Lib Dems have a left wing leader, would a voter not vote for the Labour Party instead? I am not predicting total wipeout at the next election, but I wouldn’t be surprised if at least half the seats were lost, at which point the Lib Dems should think very seriously about whether they should help form the government, or whether they should stay out of it, think about who they are and want to be, and see if they can offer something different to the electorate. Because at the moment I just don’t think they do.




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