I have a shameful confession to make. I voted for the Liberal Democrats in the 2010 General Election.
I didn’t make any difference as a vote for anyone but Labour in Glasgow Central was a token act of defiance in 2010 (although not in 2015, I suspect…) as the consitutency returned Anas Sarwar as MP with over 50% of the vote and a 10’000 majority over the SNP, never mind the Liberals.
In any case, the point is that I had voted for the first time (a combination of apathy and never having a stable address in my student and post-student years) and done so for a party who’s leader had impressed me, and who’s policies appealed to me particularly regarding tuition fees, electoral reform and civil liberties as well as seeming genuine in their aim to push for social justice (you know, fair benefits, protecting the NHS, free education…) – a claim that Labour could scarcely keep a straight face when making after thirteen years of New Labour rule.
I didn’t think they would win the election, but opinion polls leading up to the election suggested that they may well hold the balance of power, maybe even overtake Labour in second place.
That did end up being the case and all of a sudden, the Liberals had the opportunity they had been waiting for since Labour surpassed them in 1922 – a way to become truly relevant again.
Let us set the stage…
The Liberals (formerly Whigs & Peelites) had been the main opposition to the Conservatives (formerly the Torys) pretty much since the concept of an elected parliament came to be in the early 1800s, providing notable prime minsters such as Palmerston, Gladstone, Asquith and Lloyd George.
The party’s core ideologies centred around free trade, social reform (indeed, it tended to be Liberal governments who were responsible for each time the restrictions on who can vote were lowered, as well as the foundation of the welfare state) and the concept of a government which does not interfere in the lives and decisions of it’s citizens. This varied between Gladstone’s interpretation which prioritized a balanced budget and laissez-faire attitude to citizens, and the later interpretation favored by the likes of Lloyd George where reform and a slight increase in taxes and public spending was deemed necessary to maintain social order.
However, it could be argued that the extension of the franchise led to their downfall as the rise of the Labour party, complete with their more proactive economic agenda and aggressive timetable for change combined with internal divisions reduced the Liberals to the status of a distant ‘third’ party. It is curious to note that the Liberals (or their successors, the Liberal Democrats) have never won an election since universal suffrage was instituted for the elections in 1922.
Squeezed into an uncomfortable middle ground between Conservatives and Labour, the Liberals were an electoral afterthought for decades, gradually coming back to something approaching relevance with the Alliance with the SDP in the 80s and rebirth as the Liberal Democrats in the 90s, but still not considered as a party of government and with their strongholds largely confined to the most rural parts of the UK, such as the South West, central Wales and the Scottish Highlands & Islands.
Increasingly, the party looked for ways to distinguish itself, sticking with social justice and a non-invasive government as linchpins, the party embraced the European parliament more enthusiastically than their opponents and pressed for electoral reform, advocating innovations like proportional representation or the alternative vote to break the iniquities of the First Past The Post system*.
* Of course, you can see this as selfish as the Liberals would be the party most likely to benefit from such a change, habitually achieving around 20% of the popular vote for a return of less than 10% of the seats, a discrepancy that PR is designed to overcome.
Labour’s lurch to the right under Tony Blair allowed the Liberals to come off as a more left wing, anti-authoritarian option and as such the party enjoyed a marked rise in success, doubling their number of MPs in 1997 and gaining more in subsequent elections up to a higher water of 62 MPs in 2005 under Charles Kennedy*
* Although it is worth noting that the electoral turnout for the elections in 2001 and 2005 was quite low at 59.5% and 61% compared to the usual level in the around 70-78%, perhaps due to the perception of Labour having an unassailable majority. The reduced turnout may have positively affected the Liberal results, as the same popular vote of 22% had yielded only 22 seats in the 1987 election which had a 75% turnout.
Following a period of internal turmoil with Kennedy resigning as leader followed by an unpopular run with Menzies Campbell at the helm, the relatively young Nick Clegg was elected as leader and shone in the televised debates leading up to the 2010 general election. Could the party capitalise on their momentum, their leader’s sudden popularity and lackluster campaigns by both main parties?
It really seemed for a second that the Liberal Democrats had become the genuine voice of social justice, defenders of the compassionate welfare state their forebears had helped create
In the end, they lost five seats, despite slightly improving their percentage of the popular vote but the resulting parliament was hung with the Conservatives becoming the largest party but still 19 seats short of a majority. That made the Liberals 57 seats all important, although their position was not as strong as it might have been as they were 11 seats short of making a majority coalition with Labour a possibility.
However, the ball was in their court, with three options on the table.
Firstly, to go into a coalition with the Conservatives and try to tame their excesses from within, push through Liberal laws and gain cabinet positions for the first time since the war.
Secondly, to enter into a ‘progressive coalition’ with Labour, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the SDLP and push for a socially conscious agenda at the risk of a dangerously unstable government.
Thirdly, to refuse all offers of coalition and force the Conservatives into a minority government, thereby holding their votes hostage to gain concessions from the government on an issue by issue basis, while using that leverage to push for electoral reform, free higher education etc.
With the second option unpractical and unpopular amongst MPs and the general public, they made the decision to enter a coalition with the Conservatives, ostensibly to curb their new blue bedmates worst tendencies.
As we all know, that’s not how it worked out.
This lovely graphic from the awesome Another Angry Voice illustrates how it did work out.
Basically, the Liberal Democrats sold out their principles and all that distinguished them from their larger rivals for the sake of some red boxes, ministerial salaries and some government notepaper. They did nothing with it and meekly towed the Conservative-led coalition line, implementing austerity budgets, reducing public services, selling off the NHS and sitting idly by as civil liberties were further eroded in the name of the War on Terror…
They paid the price for this almost immediately, losing 12 seats (leaving them with 5) and half of their vote in the Scottish elections in 2011 and half of their councils in the English local elections the same year.
The intervening three years have seen the Lib Dem MPs continuing to follow the Conservatives lead, especially in their stance on the Scottish Independence referendum, as they were complicit in using deceit and scare tactics to defend a constitutional arrangement and raft of government policies which their own membership and manifesto was explicitly against.
They have been proven to be spineless hypocrites and not for the first time, as they propped up Labour administrations in the first few Scottish parliaments in similar fashion.
Yet despite the thrice proven proof that their principles are for sale for a sniff of power and it’s attendant perks does not stop the Liberals attempting to retake their place as the ‘conscience’ of the big three parties. Their recent party conference showed their various luminaries arguing against Coalition policies they were complicit in implementing – and to a largely empty exhibition hall in Glasgow, illustrating the degree to which their own party members have given up.
Current polls (from http://www.electoralcalculus.co.uk) show the Liberal Democrats heading for around 8% of the vote next year, yielding about 18 MPs (that’s a loss of roughly 2/3) which would be their worst performance as the Liberal Democrats or Liberal-SDLP Alliance. Yeah, that’s at the level where the old Liberal party had to take drastic steps just to survive.
As things stand, the Liberal Democrats look set to be overtaken by the SNP as the third biggest party in Westminster and could be in for a fight with UKIP for fourth place (who are projected to get double the votes, in a more distributed way, splitting the Conservative vote but potentially not returning any MPs.)
In my eyes, it could have been so different if they had taken the harder, less immediately rewarding path and forced the Conservatives into a minority government. Holding the balance of power, they could have forced the austerity budgets to be less biting on the poor, they could have got rid of tuition fees, they could have stopped the privatization of the NHS down south and
Basically, if they’d had the balls to back up their pre-election rhetoric, they could have made Britain a much nicer place to live today, would be viewed as heroes and could well be looking at greater electoral success at the expense of a divided and uninspiring Labour party. Nick Clegg could have been the greatest Liberal leader of modern times, rather than the scapegoat for the party’s woes.
However, they chose perks over principles and will now reap the whirlwind in terms of the near-decimation of their vote, offering a salutary lesson to other parties in this age of instant information and the grinding down of old tribal loyalties.
If you stand on a progressive platform and sell out, the electorate will remember and punish you – the likes of Labour, the SNP and the Greens should all pay heed to this lesson, as the promise of successful elections in 2015 and 2016 looms.
In many ways, the Liberal Democrats are mostly to blame for the current state of British politics, for pushing voters towards the extremes both right and left, increasing the drive for greater devolution or independence in Scotland and Wales and illustrating exactly how corrupt Westminster is and how broken the first past the post system is.
It could be that their craven, greedy betrayal in 2010 turns out to be one of the major catalysts for a rise in popular political engagement, eventually resulting in real democratic reform, just as they always used to campaign for.
Maybe it was a set-up all along?