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Whither the Lib Dems? Withering!

The Liberal Democrats took a knocking at last week's Mayoral and local elections, in the latest sign that the once third party in British politics now faces oblivion. A Lib Dem Peer gives his party a wake-up call and prescribes some much-needed remedies.

Trevor Smith
7 May 2012

In the 1950s/60s it was a media cliché that the Liberal Party was consigned to the Celtic Fringe. The latest council election results show the Lib Dems have been consigned by the Celtic Fringe. A virtual wipe out as they were seen as proxy Tories. This outcome was all too predictable once they had joined in the Coalition that inevitably meant a distinctive Lib Dem party identity could not be maintained.

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’Prof Pongoo’ beat a Lib Dem candidate in Edinburgh

Commenting on the results, the Lib Dem peer Matthew Oakeshott questioned “…whether we can fight the next election as a nationwide, powerful, independent force. If we have another year like this we will not be able to.” His analysis is correct, though I doubt the Lib Dems have the luxury of a year before taking the necessary remedial action both to manage the damage limitation involved and attempt to create a credible and distinctive identity.

The Lib Dems face the prospect of political oblivion. Unless this is accepted as a starting point the situation is hopeless.

There is no evidence that the Leadership have comprehended this. That should not be surprising for Clegg and Cameron are inextricably bonded together in their ‘rose garden’ betrothal of convenience. That was an appropriate response to the outcome of the 2010 General Election but it cannot be sustained for much longer. Both party leaders are clearly going to try and re-invigorate it, as their post-election, almost identical statements make clear. They unite to argue they have no option but to maintain the Coalition because of the imperative duty to “solve” the UK’s economic crisis inherited from Labour.  The difficulty with this ploy is that, despite Osborne’s efforts, there has been precious little improvement in the economy and there may be worse to come. Furthermore, the possibility of maintaining the Coalition till 2015, was fatally undermined by the contrived failure of Oliver Letwin and Danny Alexander to devise the Coalition Agreement Mark II defining the Government’s programme 2012/2014 as had been pledged. Mark II’s failure to materialise may well have reflected Cameron’s expectation that he could not deliver his side to endorse a set of specific proposals, while Clegg concurred precisely because he would not have to seek the formal agreement of the Lib Dems as would have been required under party rules. It would have given the Lib Dems the opportunity they needed to rekindle a distinctive stance. That’s now all water under the bridge and the pledge cannot be re-invoked.   

Lib Dems should take no satisfaction from the intra-party turmoil that has broken out among the Tories in the wake of the Council elections. The re-assertion of their Rightwing to restore the Conservative’s “Nasty Party” reputation will only help the Lib Dems if they distance themselves unequivocally from their Coalition partners.  The problem is that no attention has been given to this. When asked immediately after the 2010 Election what his exit policy would be in the run-up to 2015, he replied he had appointed a committee to look at the question; there is no evidence of the existence of any such committee.

The Lib Dems must now prepare such an exit strategy as a matter of urgency. New policies must be promulgated in order to try and re-establish a strong and distinctive profile. Writing in Our Kingdom last January, I suggested these should include addressing the gross inequalities of income distribution, gender and ethnic imbalances and the ever-growing North/South divide. We need to revise our European policy that reaffirms a strong commitment to participating fully in the activities of the EU (interestingly, Peter Mandelson recently raised the possibility of the UK joining the Eurozone). Equally, Lib Dems should emphasise the increasing validity for rejecting a defence policy based on a Trident nuclear capacity; it’s outdated and ludicrously expensive. Also, there must be proposals forthcoming to promote the principle of mutuality and common-ownership in both corporate and communal life. Doubtless, there are other issues that may be suggested, but the main point is that Lib Dems need to reclaim the vanguard position as a progressive force or risk being overwhelmed by the rise of the upsurge of “anti-politics” manifested by George Galloway and others.

As I also wrote, Lib Dems must fully accept the enormous blunder they made when reneging on university tuition fees. As a result, restoring public trust and confidence in anything we say may prove impossible in the medium term – a period we haven’t  got. There must be an unconditional mea culpa and a copper-bottomed undertaking to reduce fee levels. The issue cannot be ignored, hoping time will fade the public memory: it will not.

Whether or not the Coalition founders as a consequence of intensive in-fighting over the ideological soul of the Tory party, the Lib Dems must position themselves to withdraw in an orderly and timely manner. They should leave the Tories to govern alone on a confidence and supply basis for as long as may be. If this is not done, the importunities of circumstance will dictate the course of events in determining the future pattern of UK politics. The opportunity costs of not devising an exit strategy are far higher than trying to maintain the Coalition.

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