Problems in political life? Blame the Lib Dems!

Tories and Labour are bashing Nick Clegg’s pathetic party to try to hide the fact that they are all like the politics-lite Liberal Democrats now.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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Topics Politics

Who needs the Liberal Democrats? After a year in coalition government with the Conservatives, it seems not many voters do. On the eve of the party’s conference this week, an opinion poll revealed that, in the words of one tabloid report, ‘a devastating 63 per cent of Brits say they do not see the point of the Liberal Democrats’. Those ‘devastating’ statistics are unlikely to have been much improved by the spectacle of the Lib Dems thrashing around for something to be seen to believe in at their annual get-together.

Yet the responses from politicians and pundits outside the conference hall suggest that, unwittingly, Nick Clegg’s pointless party might have discovered a new role in political life. The Lib Dems are now emerging as the UK’s all-purpose political scapegoats, which both Labour and Tory supporters can blame for the dire state of British politics.

One side claims that the Liberal Democrats are ‘Tory poodles’ in the coalition government, responsible for allowing the Conservatives to sneak through a ‘Thatcherite’ agenda of cuts. The other side counters that the Lib Dems are really leftie wolves in sheep’s clothing, who have prevented the prime minister, David Cameron, from pursuing proper Conservative policies.

In other words, a Conservative Party that could not win an election and cannot put forward a coherent policy in government, and a Labour opposition which lost an election and cannot come up with a convincing alternative, are now projecting their problems on to the pathetic Liberal Democrats. So, who needs the Lib Dems? Not the public, it seems. But inside the political class, it seems they all do right now.

It is hardly surprising that so many voters see no point to the Lib Dems today. This, after all, was the anti-political party that picked up support for what it wasn’t – that is, Labour or the Tories – and acted as an empty vessel into which anybody could pour their disgruntlement with the old political establishment. Then overnight, they gave all that up, formed a coalition government with the Tories, abandoned whatever few principles they might have claimed to have and became part of the new establishment. The coalition agreement was effectively a suicide note for the pre-election Lib Dems.

This week, we have been treated to the sight of a leading Lib Dem on the news boasting about how they have implemented 75 per cent of their election manifesto promises despite having less than 10 per cent of Westminster MPs. Any voter can see that is nonsense – and if it were true, many might feel it was a disgrace to democracy.

The Liberal Democrats have become a case study of a modern party without politics. The resulting identity crisis has been evident at the conference. One moment a leading Lib Dem is claiming credit for all of the allegedly good things they reckon the coalition government has done. The next, another top party member is warning that they must take a stand against the tax- and services-cutting ‘Tea Party Tories’ to defend the poor. They want to be seen as part of the regime and the rebel army at the same time. Meanwhile, as discussed elsewhere on spiked, they have been grasping for any passing pisspoor idea that they hope might give them some sort of popular profile, from encouraging more police action against journalists to attacking Page 3 girls. The Lib Dems are neither liberal nor democratically minded.

All of which might normally invoke ridicule, or at best pity, for the incredible shrinking party. Instead, the Lib Dems seem to be taken more seriously than ever by pundits of every stripe. Of course, the accident of ending up as junior partners in a non-elected government dictates that there would be more attention on their conference than in the past. But this goes way beyond that. Critics are talking about the Liberal Democrats as if they were now genuine political heavyweights with almost mystical powers to shape the national agenda and thwart the plans and policies of other parties.

On one side, liberal (with a lower case ‘l’) commentators and Labour politicians are denouncing the malign influence of Clegg in acting as human shields for the ‘new age of Thatcherism’ that Cameron and his Conservatives are supposedly imposing on British society. In this version of events, Lib Dem business secretary Vince Cable’s avuncular miserabilism on the economy is depicted as making Tory cuts more palatable to the public. Their message seems to be that the Lib Dems are really to blame for the failure to mount any meaningful opposition to government austerity.

On the other side, right-wing Tories are complaining that the sort of Tory-bashing tax-the-rich posturing seen in Birmingham this week shows the true face of the Lib Dems, and that this is all that has stopped Cameron pursuing a proper principled Conservative policy on issues such as health and education reforms. As a Scooby Doo villain might say, he would have gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for those pesky Lib Dem kids.

Some other, more-radical voices have tried to put a positive spin on the same point, depicting the Lib Dems as the last hope for wrecking the Tory wreckers’ plans for ‘neoliberal’ slash-and-burn economics. This amounts to swallowing the self-flattering anti-Tory message that the Lib Dems themselves have sought to project at their conference. They would have us believe that they are not just meekly following the Tories into war in Libya and Afghanistan, but at the same time fighting a fierce war against the Conservatives in the Cabinet Room and the country back home.

All of these players are arguing over a fantasy version of the Lib Dems. Their claims reveal more about their own state of mind than anything the party is doing in the real world. In effect, all sides are displacing and projecting their own problems on to the Liberal Democrats.

So, why can’t the Labour Party oppose the government effectively or fight for its alleged alternative? Blame the Lib Dem menace. Why can’t the Tories implement their supposedly radical agenda for social regeneration? Blame the immovable Lib Dem stumbling block. It is a sign of their own political weakness that they imagine such malign power and influence rests with such an empty, laughing stock of a party. Equally, it is a sign of radical exhaustion that others should pin their hopes on the Lib Dems battling the Tories and look to the dullard accountant Cable to defeat the evil bankers.

The reality behind this phoney war over the fantasy Lib Dems is very different. The Tories have no radical ‘Thatcherite’ vision of social change, the Labour Party has no substantial alternative, and the Liberal Democrats have no real political principles for better or worse. The emptiness of the debate between them today is reflected in the little bunfight over the 50p tax rate for the wealthy, which does nothing to address the deep-seated problems of UK capitalism either way.

Look beyond the phoney war and it is possible to see that they are all Lib Dems now. The conference this week has set the model for the Labour and Tory meets to follow: a gathering of a few managerial elitists with no real roots in society, a pale shadow of the party-political conferences of the past, with little to offer in terms of politics other than different shades of austerity and some illiberal posturing. All of these shells of parties are part of the same isolated, insecure, politics-lite political class. They might all need the Lib Dems to shift the blame and create the illusion of political conflict. But so far as the rest of us are concerned, who really needs any of them anymore?

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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