May 12, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith
The Liberal Democrats are trumpeting the five thousand new members that registered with them in the aftermath of their defenestration at the ballot box. That will be some consolation for what happened. But it won’t be much compensation. The disappearance of so many voters (a drop of 15% in vote share and over 80% of their seats) was bad enough. Worse, I would think, is the thought of what could happen to the party as a whole.
Some Liberal Democrat members point to the minute Nick Clegg and the Lib Dem leadership decided to join a coalition with the Conservatives as the end of the party as a political force. It is ironic that the moment the Liberal Democrats finally put themselves in a position after 90 years to actually enact some Liberal Democrat policies played a key part in their downfall. Tempting as it obviously is for people to forget, but a coalition with Labour was mathematically impossible in terms of creating a functioning government. That the Tories were forced to hold a referendum on electoral reform and properly consider House of Lords reform, in addition to other influences the Lib Dems had on pupil premiums, raising the personal tax threshold, could be seen as a triumph. But instead it was a disaster.
It was a disaster as it turns out much of the Lib Dems’ vote was a protest vote. They lost those when they entered government. It also turned out that much of the Lib Dems’ vote were left wing. Those went to Labour and Greens in England and SNP in Scotland. The thought that a vote for Lib Dems could lead to another coalition with the hated Tories was too much for many people.
Added to that was the toxic effect of the tuition fees fiasco. Now, I would argue that giving up the abolition of tuition fees in return for reforms, in the form of electoral and House of Lords reform, that the Liberals have searched for for over a century, was ideologically the right decision. But politically it was incendiary. Clegg hadn’t just put it in their manifesto, he had gone around the country and physically signed, alongside local candidates, a large poster saying “I pledge to vote against tuition fees”. That the Lib Dems lost every single university town they stood in sums up how well the u-turn on that went down. No explanation was going to suffice and it didn’t.
The campaign they ran for this election was either going to be a massive winner or a complete bust. They ran it as potential coalition partners and nothing else. They said they would give the Tories a heart and Labour a brain – which meant that anyone who had voted for either and was thinking of voting Lib Dem was insulted. They pulled out of campaigning in many constituencies and just concentrated on the ones they held and had a chance of winning in. They hoped that a good record of local constituency work would help too. I wondered on this blog if it might work. It didn’t, big time. They became irrelevant, something satirised brilliantly in the TV programme “Ballot Monkeys”, in which Ben Miller’s character (on the election campaign bus) spent every morning searching for a mention of them, in vain. When Clegg stood up to speak on Leaders’ Question Time on April 30th, Twitter activity died down, kettles were put on, and the audience became visibly disinterested.
The sad thing about what happened on Thursday night was that the country lost some superb public servants who still had a lot to offer. David Laws, Vince Cable and Danny Alexander for instance are a loss to politics. They say that an advantage of First Past the Post as an election system is that you can get rid of an MP you don’t want, but there was some proper collateral damage that I am not sure is to the country’s benefit. We also lost Jo Swinson, Jenny Willott and Tessa Munt. They may all find a place in the House of Lords (ironic, given the Lib Dems want to end the appointments system), but the Liberal Democrats are left now with a tiny rump of MPs who will have to work extremely hard to offer any influence at all.
The favourite is Tim Farron, a committed Christian unsullied by Ministerial post in the last Government, which meant he voted against the tuition fees rise. He is from the left – so much so that many constituents have asked why he isn’t Labour (more on that later). Norman Lamb, the Health Spokesman, had a good campaign too, often being used as a spokesman when Nick Clegg wasn’t available. There is also Greg Mulholland, and we shouldn’t ignore Alistair Carmichael – the only Liberal Democrat to hold onto their seat in Scotland. Sadly, there are no woman Lib Dem MPs at all – which means that the sum total of all women Liberal and Liberal Democrat MPs are still fewer than would fill the famous pink Labour battle bus.
The leadership contest, which will apparently be over by July 16th, is a diversion from what is the greater existential question. We are a liberal democracy in which both the mainstream parties are fundamentally progressive liberal in many of their policies. Is there actually a place for a separate Liberal Democrat Party? Who would vote for them? Is there any reason to continue to vote for them?
I wonder, if Labour took on electoral and House of Lords reform properly, whether the Lib Dems might not consider merging with them? Impossible? As Thursday showed, nothing is impossible.