The Lib Dems: A sorry excuse for a party
In power, the Lib Dems have proved themselves as shallow and opportunist as the rest of the political class.
The Liberal Democrats’ conference in Brighton this week voted to affirm the party’s support for the legalisation of assisted dying. Perhaps that was a reflection of the mood at the conference. After all, the party committed political suicide in May 2010 when it joined a coalition government with the Conservatives.
The Lib Dems didn’t meet their makers, popularity-wise, because they had betrayed their principles, as some suggest. The fact is that anyone who believed that Nick Clegg & Co. represented a breath of fresh air in British politics is clearly a bit gullible. It has long been clear that the Lib Dems are as shallow and uninspiring as Labour and the Conservatives. David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Clegg are practically peas in a pod.
No, the reason that joining the coalition was a suicidal decision was that the Lib Dems immediately lost their reason to exist: as the Protest Party, as Not the Other Two, as the Only Alternative. For years, the Lib Dems picked up a sizeable chunk of support from many of those tired of the two big parties, the Conservatives and Labour. In particular, the Iraq War in 2003 provided a handy boost for the Lib Dems as they convinced many people that they were anti-war, when in reality they merely wanted a permission note from the UN before bombing the hell out of Iraq. More recently, in the run-up to the 2010 General Election, Clegg’s appearances at the party leaders’ televised debates set off a spell of ‘Cleggmania’ in the media. That less because of any inspiring comments from Clegg himself, than it was what Clegg, hitherto largely unknown, was not – neither the socially awkward Gordon Brown nor the glorified PR man David Cameron.
Clegg also made much of his opposition to tuition fees during the 2010 General Election campaign and posed with a banner declaring: ‘I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative.’ Now, one of Clegg’s supporters and predecessors, Paddy Ashdown, has admitted that even this relatively modest pledge was ‘opportunistic’ – neatly summing up the Lib Dems in the process.
Having no obvious constituency of their own, the Lib Dems were in the comfortable position of being able to make any promise they liked, assuming they would never be held to account for it. Their limited success was parasitical, driven by people’s disillusion with the main parties, not by any ideas of their own. But that unique selling point was ruined by actually having to govern. (One Twitter commentator, observing the Lib Dem conference this week, noted the surreal, inverted outlook of the delegates: ‘Odd thing Lib Dem conference. It’s about discussing all the policies they would pursue if only they didn’t have power.’)
Having lost their raison d’être, the Lib Dems have nose-dived in the opinion polls. At the 2010 General Election, they polled just over 22 per cent of the vote, winning 57 seats in the process. In early opinion polls after that election, they managed to hold on to that support. But within a year, their poll ratings were down to just 10 per cent. Last weekend, a YouGov poll for the Sun put the Lib Dems in fourth place behind the UK Independence Party (UKIP). Oh, how the not-so-mighty have fallen.
UK opinion poll ratings, 2010-12. source: UK Polling Report
The Lib Dems justified their presence in the coalition by being able to influence policy. But that influence has been marginal. They negotiated some changes to the original plan for tuition fees. They got their referendum on changing the General Election voting system, only to have the idea overwhelmingly thrown out by the electorate. Their latest pet project is House of Lords reform, the proposals for which manage, if anything, to be even worse for democracy than the current mix of hereditary peers, appointed ‘life peers’ and bishops is. But generally, the Lib Dems have been reduced to making marginal policy announcements, like the so-called ‘business bank’ launched by their business secretary Vince Cable, which is essentially a retread of government policies already announced.
The Lib Dems’ apparent lack of influence has mainly been because they had little principled difference with the Tories. On all the main issues of the day, particularly the government deficit, Clegg and Cable have been singing from the same hymn sheet as Cameron and his Tory chancellor, George Osborne. Even a policy like allowing same-sex marriage, which would once have been the right-on preserve of the Lib Dems, suits the current Tory leadership, which is desperate to be seen as ever-so modern.
So, the Lib Dems are serving no great purpose in government and are getting a hammering in the opinion polls. This means the party’s leaders are desperate to differentiate themselves from their coalition partners and are keen to kiss and make up with erstwhile Lib Dem voters in the faint hope that Nick, Vince and the rest might still have a seat in parliament after the next election.
Which all helps explain Clegg’s bizarre party-political broadcast last week, in which he apologised for promising to vote against increases in tuition fees. He wasn’t apologising for actually voting to increase fees, only for promising to vote against. Even for those voters for whom tuition fees are a big issue – and that is a small section of the electorate, frankly – this was a weird non-apology apology. In reality, Clegg’s statement, delivered with as much media-training sincerity as he could muster, was for the benefit of his own party and the media more than anyone else. Clegg actually got more brownie points for allowing an auto-tuned musical version of his broadcast to be released as a charity single than he did for the apology itself. (It’s certainly more memorable.)
What this means for the country is another two-and-a-half years of increasingly nasty back-stabbing in the corridors of power as Tories and Lib Dems blame each other for the UK’s problems and try to find ways to distance themselves from each other in the eyes of the electorate. The state of British politics promises to remain every bit as sorry as Nick.
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