From Cleggmania to crisis in four months flat

By entering into government, the Lib Dems have lost their USP: being an ‘anti-establishment’ receptacle for disgruntled middle-class votes.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics UK

‘Hold our nerve and we will have changed British politics for good. Hold our nerve and we will have changed Britain for good.’ Nick Clegg’s words to the Lib Dem party faithful were supposed to reassure his audience. But the actual things that might change ‘for good’ as a result of recent developments are the Lib Dems’ unique selling point and political fortunes.

As noted before on spiked, the Liberal Democrats, Britain’s third largest political party, have made progress in recent years as the anti-politics party. With Labour and the Conservatives having ditched any sense of representing particular sections of society, politics in general has become more and more technical and managerial over the past 20 years. With all the mainstream parties now camped in the mushy centre ground, as attractive as a rainy weekend at Glastonbury, the Lib Dems have distinguished themselves by being Not the Other Two. Particularly around the issue of Iraq – when the Lib Dems managed to pull off the con of presenting themselves as anti-war once things on the ground turned into a bloody mess – this strategy paid some dividends.

However, the party has never been able to go beyond that presentation in electoral terms. While the Iraq effect worked for the Lib Dems to a certain extent in 2005, in this year’s election they actually ended up with fewer seats, despite the media fantasy of ‘Cleggmania’. In the dull-as-ditchwater televised election debates, all three party leaders banged on about the need for spending cuts and immigration controls but also the need to be ‘fair’. It’s pretty difficult to present your party as Not the Other Two when you sound – and even look – just like them.

Just when irrelevance beckoned, however, the Lib Dems were given a gift: it’s just not yet clear whether it is a lifeline or a poisoned chalice. With the Conservatives falling short of an overall majority in the May General Election, and with much discussion about how the country needed stable government at a time of crisis, the Lib Dems went from no-marks to coalition partners. Clegg had gone from Westminster lobbyist to provincial MP to third-party leader to deputy prime minister faster than a rat up a drainpipe.

‘Rat’ being the operative word amongst the Lib Dem grassroots, it would seem. Many of them had got into politics on the basis of being anti-Tory, yet they now find their party is propping up a Conservative government talking about massive spending cuts. One of the candidates for the role of president of the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron, joked this week that he had a lot in common with Conservative politicians: ‘Just like some of my Tory colleagues, I joined my party because of Margaret Thatcher.’

Actually, the idea that the Lib Dems are propping up a Thatcherite regime is nonsense. The spending cuts that Cameron, Osborne et al have proposed are much the same as those suggested by former Labour chancellor Alastair Darling when he was in government and by the Lib Dems in the election campaign. The difference is that the cuts will be implemented faster by Cameron. The only significant disagreement on fiscal policy between the coalition parties prior to the election was that the Lib Dems would not have protected any section of government spending – it would all have been subject to cutbacks. Contrary to the Thatcherite-in-sheep’s-clothing view of Cameron, the coalition has actually served Cameron’s purposes well, in that it has allowed him to distance himself from the party’s old guard, including the old Thatcherites, under the guise of having to compromise in the name of coalition-building.

But more than being worried about ditching Lib Dem ‘principles’ (whatever they might have been), party members are really concerned about the electoral consequences of joining the coalition. If the government is a success, the electorate may well reward Cameron by giving the Conservatives an overall majority next time, leaving the Lib Dems out in the cold. If the government is a disaster, the Lib Dems might take as much blame as the Tories. Many commentators have noted this is a no-win situation for the Lib Dems.

In fact, if the opinion polls are anything to go by, things could be even worse than that. Even before spending cuts start to bite, the reaction to the coalition has been to squeeze the Lib Dem vote in favour of the other two parties, leaving Clegg’s party languishing somewhere between 12 and 15 per cent support – a dramatic fall from the 30 per cent ratings at the height of Cleggmania earlier this year. Hence Clegg’s desire to promote the coalition as strictly temporary: ‘This is the right government for right now’, he told the party conference in his speech on Monday.

If the Lib Dems have problems – being an anti-establishment party that now has half of its MPs as government ministers of one type or another – the coalition has problems, too. These are not, as many have suggested, because the government could fall apart at any moment over some major ideological difference. On the contrary, the coalition’s strength is that there are no principled differences between the party leaderships for them to fall out over.

The real problem is the tension within the two parties themselves. For example, the Conservative Party’s controversial deputy chairman, Michael Ashcroft, is standing down and his parting shot is a stinging assessment of the party’s election campaign. Noting the enormous opinion-poll leads that the Conservatives enjoyed as late as 2009, Ashcroft asks: ‘Why did these figures not translate into a thumping majority? The key lies in the gap between the change people wanted and the change people thought we were offering. Going into the election, many voters had little clear idea of what we stood for or what we intended to do in government.’ He added: ‘Nick Clegg was only able to appropriate the territory of “real change” because we did not dominate it ourselves.’

Ashcroft only illustrates one aspect of Conservative dissatisfaction: the fact that in the election the party faced ‘a shambolic government, an unpopular prime minister, a recession, a huge budget deficit and an overwhelming national desire for change’ and still failed to win decisively. Simply getting into bed with the Liberal Democrats and being forced to vote for a referendum on electoral reform that the Conservatives vehemently oppose is causing considerable disquiet for Tory MPs and activists.

Which raises the question: what happens if there is a really serious policy dispute? For example, Lib Dems are opposed to renewing the UK’s Trident nuclear missile system. It is always possible that the party leaderships can cobble together some kind of compromise on the matter, but could they sell it to the people who will have to go out and campaign for them at the next election? No wonder both parties are keen to kick any such decisions into the long grass if possible – which doesn’t bode well for the idea of decisive government.

While any differences in Whitehall may have more to do with personalities than politics, the awkward business of persuading what remains of the respective party organisations to go along with ever-greater compromises could be tricky for both parties – particularly the Liberal Democrats. How Cameron and Clegg must wish they could truly be the heads of amorphous electoral brands, totally unanswerable to anyone but their own personal cliques.

British politics today is anodyne, largely disconnected from the people that it is supposed to serve, and has been reduced to petty managerialism. But our cash-strapped political parties still depend for power on persuading people to vote for them – we should be thankful for such small mercies – and that means in turn persuading supporters to go out and canvas for them. So while the political elite has fewer principles and more ‘wiggle room’ on policy than ever before, the need to keep their own party members happy creates a potential for tension and instability.

These problems are awkward for David Cameron. But he, at least, is in a fairly strong position in parliament (in terms of numbers at least) and will be able to determine the bulk of the coalition’s programme. For Nick Clegg, the situation is much more problematic – and likely to get a whole lot messier.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked and blogs at Panic on a Plate.

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Topics Politics UK


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