Let’s face it, there is a vindictive streak, pleasure and glee even, on the left about the political disarray and electoral collapse of the Lib Dems. This Schadenfreude is given an additional gloss by the ubiquitous presence on television and YouTube of the Lib Dem election broadcast showing Nick Clegg piously berating his rivals for ratting on election pledges, which rather undermines the piety with which he declares his belief in fair and progressive politics and social mobility.
We are told that the Lib Dems are out of the wood now with the tuition fees row behind them. But this is a very short-sighted view. Worse is to come; dismay about the abolition of educational maintenance allowances continues to fester; local government is taking a devastating hit; the untimely reorganisation of the NHS under an incompetent minister is a ticking time-bomb, while housing benefit changes are set to cause more distress and disruption. Senior Lib Dems have already rebelled over the rises in tuition fees; others are strongly against the housing benefit cuts; and how will the party’s many activists in its local authority heartland react to cuts there?
In other words, can the coalition government survive for another four years? Will the Lib Dems split and lose still more activists to Labour and other parties? Will those who voted for a centre-left party now turn against a party that have, at the top at least, embraced an economic liberal direction that is hard to distinguish from the market fundamentalism of the Tories and the joint coalition project to shrink the state?
We are told that the Lib Dems are out of the wood now with the tuition fees row behind them. But worse is to come
There are many in the Labour party who are exulting in the troubles of a party that, in their view, trespassed on territory that was rightly theirs. They feel that the shaky foundations of the Lib Dem claims to be more democratic and more left have at last been exposed; and they look forward to the party haemorrhaging activists and voters whom Labour can gobble up. They feel betrayed by the Lib Dem rejection of a Lib-Lab coalition after the general election.
It is not however in the interests of progressive politics, or even of Labour, for the Lib Dems to collapse into anarchy or disunity. For the past 50 years or so the Liberals, and now the Lib Dems, have developed a tradition that positions them as more social democrat than Labour in some ways, especially since the merger with the SDP. In recent years they have championed democratic reform, looked for social justice, spoken up for civil liberties and fiercely opposed the invasion of Iraq, giving hundreds of thousands of people in the UK a political voice in Westminster and party politics that they would otherwise have been denied.
In short, we need a Liberal Democratic party that is true to the politics with which it fought the last general election. So does the Labour party. In the pluralist times that will define the politics of the future, Labour has no prospect of gaining power on its own (though many of its members are stuck in uncomprehending denial). A revived Lib Dem party does not only offer the prospect of a substantial partner, it offers another voice arguing for social justice and liberty. Moreover, the Lib Dems can reach parts of the electorate that Labour can never reach, for historical reasons and possibly still because they are seen as the ‘nice guys’ in the middle ground, not as ‘nasty’ as the Tories nor as ‘extreme’ as Labour.
In recent years the LibDems have championed democratic reform, looked for social justice, spoken up for civil liberties and fiercely opposed the invasion of Iraq, giving hundreds of thousands of people in the UK a political voice they would otherwise have been denied
So a great deal hangs on how the Lib Dems emerge from the hazards and dilemmas that confront them. Nick Clegg is the Tony Blair of Lib Dem politics. As with Blair and Labour, the Lib Dems turned to him as a highly presentable politician who offered them a real prospect of advance. As with Blair and Labour, he was up for a coup with an agenda of his own which was not theirs. As with Blair, he is unrepentant about his present position. As Steve Richards has pointed out in the Independent, Clegg has noted several times: ‘It’s worse than you think. I believe in these policies.’
If Clegg remains leader, and especially after possible success in the referendum on AV, then I don’t see how we can rely on the Lib Dems – unless there is a major split. Clegg could as leader then take the party further in the coalition with the Conservatives, and an election under AV would make this course easier. In the meantime, Ed Miliband’s tentative advances towards the Lib Dems seem to be the best direction for Labour to take, especially if he can resist the instinctive labourist view that they are there to be absorbed, and not welcomed as allies. He is right to go for AV in the referendum, even if this is not in Labour’s interests: the symbolic nature of this choice is more important now than the substantial defects of AV.
He is also surely right to rule out working with the Lib Dems if Clegg remains their leader.