Continuing our series on Britain’s parties of power. Today we reach the centre ground of British politics – the dead centre, in fact.
5. The Lib Dem rank-and-file
If the Lib Dems were a planet in the Solar System, which one would they be? Something small and obscure, you might think. Pluto, perhaps – or maybe an asteroid (anyone who said Uranus should consider themselves a bad person).
Actually, the closest analogy is Jupiter. That’s because the largest of the planets serves as a celestial vacuum cleaner, sucking up the comets that might otherwise reach the inner Solar System and crash into Earth. Similarly, the traditional function of the third party in British politics has been to sweep up the protest vote, thus protecting the established parties from the disruption now being caused by anti-establishment forces like UKIP.
However, by entering into the Conservative orbit, the Lib Dems have surrendered their position as the party of protest. Instead, they’ve become the party that’s protested against. One can only imagine the psychic distress this must cause to the mainly left-leaning activist base. The poor old Lib Dem rank-and-file (or the ‘file’ as Roy Jenkins preferred to call them) signed-up for PR, pacifism and pavement politics, but what they got was Tories, tuition fees and austerity. To make their misery complete, they don’t even run their own party anymore – which is now controlled by an elite group of Orange Bookers (see below).
They only have themselves to blame. Firstly, coalition is the logical conclusion of their own power-sharing rhetoric. Secondly, the reason why they’ve lost control of their party is because the Lib Dems’ centre-left tendency, while preponderant in numbers, is deficient in credibility. Indeed, they can count themselves lucky that their man (C. Huhne) didn’t win the last leadership contest – which says it all really.
In 2011, the Lib Dems lost twelve out of their seventeen seats in the Scottish Parliament. The polls predict another massacre in this year’s Euro elections. As for next year’s general election, the party faces a wipe-out from the Bristol Channel to the Pentland Firth.
Could Clegg cling-on in such circumstances? If he can’t, then rank-and-file favourite Tim Farron could well succeed him as leader. Furthermore, Deputy Prime Minister Farron (yes, really) might find himself in a Labour-led coalition – a more agreeable proposition for the Lib Dem base than the existing arrangement. On the other hand, propping-up a Miliband government would have the same effect on Lib-Con marginals that propping-up the current government is having on Lib-Lab marginals. Thus in the longer-term, it really doesn’t look good for the Lib Dems.
But then that’s the problem with power – it has a habit of finding you out.
Past glories: 3/5
Current position: 2/5
Post 2015: 2/5
Long-term prospects: 1/5
6. The Orange Bookers
When each political party is its own coalition, there’s always a possibility that an unrepresentative faction might capture the leadership.
Given the importance of image in contemporary politics, the danger of the tail wagging the dog has increased. A minor tendency doesn’t need to become a major one in order to take control, they just need to have the most telegenic and persuasive leadership candidate. It happened to the Labour Party with Tony Blair and to the Conservative Party with David Cameron.
It’s also happened to the Lib Dems with Nick Clegg – but not only Nick Clegg. While the membership of the party leans to the left (see above), the talent leans to the right. Vince Cable is an exception, of course, but he’s best thought of as an unlikely survivor from the past – a sort of Lib Dem Bruce Forsyth.
Of the Clegg generation, almost all of them belong to a centre-right faction known as the ‘Orange Bookers’ – named after an influential book of essays published in 2004. It’s significant that the Orange Book was inspired by A Blue Tomorrow – a 2001 essay collection and founding text for Tory modernisers. Indeed, if it wasn’t for their differences over Europe, then these two factions would be much happier together in a party of their own than with their existing colleagues. Then again, if it weren’t for Europe, then there’s no reason why the Orange Bookers wouldn’t be in the Conservative Party anyway – occupying the niche vacated by the nearly extinct Tory wets.
It may yet come to that. If the Lib Dems do as badly at the next general election as the polls suggest, then the rank-and-file might finally revolt, driving the Orange Bookers out of power – or out of the party altogether.
One might think the beard-and-sandals brigade incapable of such an act, but then that would be to assume that all Lib Dems are nice.
Past glories: 1/5
Current position: 4/5
Post 2015: 2/5
Long-term prospects: 1/5