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What’s happened to the LibDems?


It seems like it’s open season on the Liberal Democrats lately. Even the question that forms the title of this post can be used as an attack, and the main reason seems to be other parties accusing them of being sell-outs. Now, inter-party bunfights are nothing new, but in this case, the attacks seem to be sticking and if the polls are anything to go by, the LibDems are in trouble. With the exception of ICM, who consistently put LibDem support at around 18% (and even that’s 5 percentage points down on the election result), the pollsters have the junior Coalition partner in the low teens, with YouGov’s most recent output showing that the LibDems appear to have shed more than half their support and fallen to 11%.

Now, of course, it’s easy for the LibDems to deflect both of these points: yes, they’ve had to compromise, but that’s a part of Coalitions everywhere; and yes, they’re down in the polls, but LibDem poll ratings are volatile and in any case, the only polls that matter are on election day.

But there’s something more profound going on. Cast your mind back to 1999, and the LibDems’ first Coalition in the Scottish Parliament. The LibDems secured a compromise on tuition fees – well, a review, which proposed the Graduate Endowment: still a fee, but deferred until after graduation at least – and free personal care for the elderly. This was followed up in 2003 by PR for Council elections and the end of tolls on the Skye Bridge.

But those weren’t the LibDems’ only bonuses from Coalition. Despite a shaky start (which saw them come sixth in the Hamilton South By-Election, behind the SSP and the Accies at Home, Watson Away Party), being in Government (well, the Executive) gave the LibDems a new relevance.

It helps as well that they were rather adept at Coalition politics: it wasn’t just a case of being in opposition at Westminster and in government at Holyrood but they even managed to evade the less pleasant aspects of the Coalition’s decision making. Firstly, the LibDems managed to brush off opposition attacks on them as “Labour’s Little Helpers”. Secondly, Labour took the hit when A&E departments were closed, for example, where as the LibDems were nowhere to be found, much to the chagrin of their partners. The epitome of this approach came in the Dunfermline & West Fife By-Election, where the contest for a Westminster seat saw three hot-button issues: the local hospital (health – devolved); the closure of Kyocera’s plant and the job losses entailed (enterprise – devolved and handled by a LibDem minister); and the Forth Road Bridge tolls (transport – devolved and handled by a LibDem minister). The LibDems won: they looked relevant, it seemed like voting LibDem would make a difference.

So LibDems managed, for eight years, to get what they wanted out of a Coalition and acquit themselves well as a part of it.

What’s gone wrong?

The wheels really came off in 2007. The Scottish LibDems, confronted by a result they weren’t expecting – a net loss of seats and a Parliamentary arithmetic which meant that they alone did not hold the balance of power – went into isolation, demanding the SNP shelve its core policy before negotiations even began (in the end, they got their way on that one, but without the Coalition or any actual positive policies to celebrate either), and then ruling out any further accommodation with Labour abruptly on TV. The result: they ended up out in the cold, with the Tories managing to get a raft of concessions out of the SNP during the Budget process, and even the Greens, with just 2 MSPs, acquiring more influence on Parliamentary proceedings than they had when they were a group of seven.

Things weren’t much better in Wales. For ages, it looked like the only options were either Labour, or everyone but Labour. And indeed, that became the LibDems’ choice: shack up with Rhodri Morgan, or form an anti-Labour Coalition with Plaid and the Tories. They ended up oscillating between the two so frantically that time ran out, and they ended up with neither: a minority Labour government continued in office until Morgan could establish a Coalition with Plaid. In both Scotland and Wales, LibDems burnt their bridges.

Flash forward three years. Fine, the LibDems lost seats despite picking up votes, but they got the hung parliament they wanted. It just wasn’t hung the way they wanted it. With Scottish Labour MPs refusing to form any sort of Progressive alliance that involved SNP MPs (and it had to), the only viable choices were a Coalition with the Tories or a minority Tory government. They were bounced into the former. And its basic principle was pretty dire for the LibDems: they wanted PR. They got a referendum on AV (and found themselves voting against an amendment which would have introduced PR) and an understanding that the two parties would work together where they agreed anyway, but the LibDems would simply abstain where they didn’t. Again, fine in principle, except doing so basically gives the Tories a de facto majority in the Commons.

So what did they get? A referendum on a voting system they don’t want at the expense of the system they see as the Holy Grail. Plus which, a referendum being steered through the Commons by Nick Clegg with such cack-handedness that he’s managed to infuriate devolved legislators who don’t appreciate the referendum being timed to clash with their elections, particularly not when Clegg has signed up to 5-year fixed term Parliaments which would see the 2015 General Election clash with the devolved elections scheduled then.

They got Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander sitting behind George Osborne as he announced a VAT hike they opposed.

Then they got Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling roaring in agreement behind Danny Alexander when he defended the policy.

They got Chris Huhne supporting new-build nuclear power stations.

And Vince Cable bounced into a hike in tuition fees.

But worst of all, they’ve got the blame for all this.

And perversely, the man who so skilfully dealt a Coalition, then dealt with its consequences, Jim Wallace, is in the Government – as Advocate General. So you’d think they’d have a source of wisdom to call on but something’s going very, very wrong.

This week, in particular, was a low point. Whereas the Tory Conference was dominated by a dog’s breakfast over child benefit and a hissy fit on the part of Liam Fox, this week could have been about the pupil premium – a LibDem win. Instead, it was overshadowed by the rage over tuition fees – a LibDem fail. The sound you hear as Vince Cable handles the implications of the Browne Review is that of a sacred cow being not so much slain as being sent into the abattoir and ground into Supermarket Own Brand ‘Value’ Burgers.

Indeed, unlike the pupil premium, the tuition fee row has managed to keep going and avoid being drowned out by coverage of the rescue of the Chilean miners.

So how has this been allowed to happen? Clearly, the election result, far form being what they wanted, was the worst thing that could have happened to them. Instead of being able to hold the balance of power, to name their price, to select the PM and perhaps even dictate who should lead the Labour party, the LibDems found themselves bounced into a Coalition with the Tories. But it’s more fundamental than that.

The Scottish LibDems had been working with Labour on the Scottish Constitutional Convention, had worked together in the Referendum campaign and were on the same page on a number of issues, so much so that the then LibDem Leader at the Federal level, Paddy Ashdown, wanted to work more closely with Labour, a feeling initially reciprocated by Tony Blair. Indeed, the two parties seemed like such a natural fit (helped by the arithmetic, of course) that Jim Wallace had to deny that a deal was done before the election. Despite that, the Coalition negotiations were often fraught and tetchy. Indeed, here’s that story I rather like about Donald Dewar, in the middle of one of the sessions, pointing to one line on a policy document and shouting, “Well, we’re not having THAT!”, only to be told that it was a Labour policy. But it was tense, it was thorough, it produced a number of compromises but involved two parties working together but remaining distinct. It even survived the death of Donald Dewar and the resignation of Henry McLeish, and went into a second term. And the LibDems benefited as disaffected Labour supporters could vote LibDem as a kind of guilt-free alternative: registering displeasure, voting against a party they’re unhappy with, but not voting for what you might call an ‘enemy’ – the SNP or Tories.

By contrast, the Tories and LibDems just don’t seem like a natural fit. Save for opposing terror detention, it’s hard to see any of the main issues where the two parties agreed. Despite that, a whirlwind set of negotiations took place, and bore fruit quickly despite the LibDems talking to Labour. A few more rows, and a few more days might have been helpful. There might have been some actual compromises, some give-and-take. Instead, the agreement simply set out a basic structure (fine) but then listed the difficult issues which would be not just parked, but parked in such a way as to give the Tories what they want anyway. It was an awful deal, but it was presented as an offer which the LibDems couldn’t refuse. So there was no co-operation beforehand, and all of the talk until the election result itself was of a deal with Labour. More importantly, there were the voters – still using the LibDems as that guilt-free alternative to Labour. But from 1997 onwards, the LibDems were the party you voted for if you wanted to keep the Tories out. For a lot of voters, the Tories weren’t the ones they wanted to stick two fingers up at from a safe distance, they were the electoral enemy.

And that, I think is the problem: the Scottish deal with Labour worked because the two were looking at things in a similar way to begin with and were backed by voters hwo felt that they could switch effortlessly between them, but still argued, still squabbled and still pissed each other off, but did so within the framework of a clear, detailed agreement set out right from the get-go before any LibDem took office. This is the complete reverse: the LibDems and the Tories had an almost diametrically opposed set of policies during the campaign, but got a quick, vague deal together which was launched at a happy-smiley press conference with David Cameron and Nick Clegg behaving like Morecambe and Wise – not what people who’d been voting LibDem for years to keep the Tories out wanted to see.

That is, I think, why we are where we are: it’s early days yet, but for the LibDems, the 2010-2015 Coalition is turning out to be the exact opposite of the 1999-2007 Coalition. The reason that’s a problem is that save for its shambolic post-electoral end, those eight years were a very successful period for the LibDems. The LibDems do not want this Coalition to be an opposite of that one.


From → Politics

  1. I think the problem is a lot more basic than that. I think that the Lib Dems are split between the old style Lib Dems led by Ashdowne, Kennedy Campbell & Hughes, and the new guard who all seem to be from the “Orange Book” wing of the party.

    It is the Orange Bookers who seem to be more at ease in the coalition – Clegg, Huhne, Alexander & Laws – partially because they are more like the Tories than they realise.

  2. I think you’re right to flag that up, Allan, and that does make things even worse: LibDem progress over the last few years has come from the old guard; as you say, the Orange Book brigade might be at ease with the Coalition, but the voters – and, of course, the membership – aren’t at ease with either…

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