The growing pains of the Liberal Democrats

Hands up if you’re screwed

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things

– I Corinthians 13:11

The Liberal Democrats were always a silly party. They were also a rather dishonest one. The disastrous election results of May 5th were punishment for that.

For a little over two decades the Lib Dems told voters around the United Kingdom whatever they wanted to hear. In the Conservative dominated south the Lib Dems told voters they were a less extreme version of the Conservative party. In the Labour dominated north the Lib Dems told voters they were a less extreme version of the Labour party. This put them in just the right position to become the party of protest. When asked what, exactly, they were protesting against, the Lib Dems could reply, like Marlon Brando in ‘The Wild One’, “Whaddya got?”

In opposition both pitches could be true. They could attack the Conservatives for being soft on the deficit while pledging to abolish university tuition fees, a promise even Labour wouldn’t make. The Lib Dems could play this game because, despite lip service to the contrary, they never expected to form a government.

But a political party with no expectation of power attracts a certain type of member. It attracted people who wanted to flirt with the real world by giving their harebrained environmental schemes and impossible promises of lower taxes and higher government spending a trot round the political paddock. None of it was very serious. It was silly.

Once in government only one of these pitches could be delivered; the Lib Dems would have to disappoint either their right leaning or left leaning voters by siding with either Labour or the Conservatives. The glare of government would expose one set of promises as empty.

This is the choice Nick Clegg faced last May. The Lib Dems had campaigned for years about the benefits of coalition government and the hung parliament bought them the opportunity to build one in the real world. Labour’s desire to get as far upwind as possible of the fiscal stink bomb it had let off meant that the only possible partner was the Conservative Party. Clegg could either take the Lib Dems into a governing coalition for the first time in 80 years or he could continue to lead a silly party.

To his credit Clegg chose the former. There would be no more flirting with the real world, instead the Lib Dems would get a full on, Jilly Cooper-esque wedding night ravishing.

They began losing voters almost immediately. The first to go were the people who had voted Lib Dem in order to ensure a Labour government. These were the sort of voters too silly even for the Lib Dems at their silliest.

As the enormity of dealing with a £150 billion deficit in the real world and not just talking about it on the doorstep began to sink in more voters left the Lib Dem fold. The party’s poll ratings halved from over 20% to less than 10%. In by elections the Lib Dem vote either held up with the help of voters on loan from the Conservatives, as in Oldham, or collapsed completely, as in Barnsley.

May 5th was a new low point in this trend. The Lib Dems lost over 800 councillors and control of major cities across the north of England and took a battering in Welsh and Scottish assembly elections. Voters realised that the Lib Dems could only keep one of the two sets of promises they had made and their left leaning voters realised it wasn’t the set of promises made to them. They switched to Labour.

How the Lib Dems react to this is crucial to the survival of the coalition and their survival as a party. The only way those voters lost on May 5th could conceivably come back is if the Lib Dems could convince them they are a little bit like the Labour party which has nothing resembling an economic policy. But how can they do that while staying in a deficit cutting government with the Conservatives?

Back in April Nick Clegg said “I don’t even pretend we can occupy the Lib Dem holier-than-thou, hands-entirely-clean-and-entirely-empty-type stance”. He must hope that Lib Dem party members are similarly aware that the party is growing up and that growing pains are, well, painful. Many of their erstwhile voters have fled the party for the cloud cuckoo land offered by Labour but the Lib Dems must continue to put away childish things.

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