The republican Labour MP Willie Hamilton once asked what Princess Margaret was for, and I think it’s now time to ask the same of the Liberal Democrats.
I have fought them for over twenty years and still don’t have a firm grasp of what they actually stand for, other than being in favour of what is popular and against what isn’t. Although provocative I wouldn’t consider it inappropriate to describe them as political prostitutes, and contend that the 2015 general election campaign proves my point.
Until soon after the First World War the country was governed by the Conservatives or Liberals, both of which broadly accepted the prevailing economic settlement, although with the latter to the left of the former. The formation of the Labour Party and adoption of Clause IV in its 1918 constitution provided an alterative economic model and by 1922, following enlargement of the franchise, the Liberals had declined to become the third party. In 1945 they had twelve MPs, and had fallen to to five by 1957.
Revival from the 1960s onwards resulted in modest growth, and the party elected twenty three MPs in alliance with the SDP in 1983. A slight decline meant that the newly-merged Liberal Democrats returned twenty MPs in 1992, subsequently increasing to forty six in 1997, fifty two in 2001 and sixty two in 2005, peaking at sixty three by the 2010 election.
However, this progression was based – as many know from long and bitter experience – on somewhat unsavoury foundations, as exemplified by the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors’ (in)famous “Effective Opposition” handbook which, amongst other things, exhorted them to “be wicked, act shamelessly, stir endlessly”.
It also advised that “Positive campaigning will NOT be enough to win control of the council.” and that “you can secure support from voters who normally vote Tory by being effectively anti-Labour and similarly in a Tory area secure Labour votes by being anti-Tory.”
Contrary to the impression carefully presented by senior Liberal Democrats, my experience is that many activists are somewhat low forms of life who find truth a difficult concept.
The protest vote has always been fertile ground as, in a small crowded island, many find it easier to articulate what they don’t want rather than what they do. Virtually everybody accepts the need for more housing – as long as it’s not near them.
In essence their electoral philosophy had two pillars; unabashed populism coupled with the protest vote, which is a good manifesto for opposition and getting elected but potentially difficult afterwards.
In local government excuses are easy: if you’re in opposition you blame the administration, if you’re in administration you blame the government. This is, of course, predicated on not being in government.
Pledging not to increase tuition fees before the 2010 election is an excellent example. This was extremely populist, particularly when the party leader represented a seat with a large student population. However if you, unexpectedly, end up in government and find that there is no money. you’re in trouble.
To be fair, the Liberal Democrats stepped up to the plate between 2010 and 2015 and history should judge them kindly for that, but the tuition fees pledge was typical of the philosophy that got them elected and into coalition.
After the 2010 election I was an advocate for a coalition, as I believed that it would quickly wipe them out locally and I was proven right; in Rushmoor they had gone by 2012 with the protest vote picked up by the Greens and UKIP. The Greens largely came from an unsuccessful campaign to prevent a long closed pub becoming a McDonald’s, something that would have previously been a happy hunting ground for the Liberal Democrats.
Without the protest vote the Liberal Democrats swapped their position in the national opinion polls with UKIP, and by 2015 Nick Clegg was only able to offer to talk to the largest party after the election. This was pure political prostitution, he was happy to get into bed with either David Cameron or Ed Miliband – but didn’t mind which, as long as he got into bed with someone!
It was hardly surprising that few found this attractive, as voters floating in one direction were more likely to go for the real thing than a party that made it clear it was happy to go either way.
The Liberal Democrats had prospered as the anti-politics party, building from the bottom upwards on the protest vote, being all things to all men (and women), and having an electoral “machine” that was adept at making silk purses out of sow’s ears; electing borough and district councillors led to county councillors, MPs and MEPs.
Now that Miliband has painfully re-learned Michael Foot’s lesson that power can only be won from the centre, we may see the two main parties converge once again on a broad economic consensus, which would leave more space for the politics of protest. I always considered it somewhat surprising that supporters of the pro-immigration, Europhile Liberal Democrats could switch to UKIP. But the attraction wasn’t what they stood for, but what they weren’t.
So, where does this leave the Liberal Democrats? Between 2010 and 2015 they lost the protest vote, over 90 per cent of their MEPs, over 85 per cent of their MPs and a very large number of councillors. Predictions of their demise are certainly, and unfortunately, premature but unless they can recapture the protest vote it is difficult to see an easy path back to even the position they have enjoyed in recent decades, let alone power.