Martin Kettle: why the Lib Dems matter

by Stephen Tall on March 8, 2008

There is a pretty fair analysis of the last week for the Lib Dems by The Guardian’s Martin Kettle today – you can read it here. On the issue de jour – Europe and the Lisbon Treaty referendum vote:

To witness our one truly pro-European party abstaining and divided at the climax of the most important European vote in British politics for years this week was to witness a parliamentary shambles. No party can ever be satisfied with a shambles. Yet while acknowledging the damage, it is important also not to exaggerate it. The Lib Dems will recover. Nick Clegg’s fledgling leadership is not at risk.

Indeed Wednesday night’s abstention and pro-referendum rebellion was probably the least worst option for the party. The free vote that some of Clegg’s critics advocate on the Lisbon treaty referendum would have seen half of the party in the pro-referendum lobby and the other half, including Clegg himself, in the anti. The derision that would have greeted that damaging spectacle would easily have eclipsed the derision provoked by the abstention. And anyway, Europe isn’t a free-vote issue.

This slightly misses the point. Europe might not be a free vote issue, but a referendum on a treaty has been regarded as a free vote issue by the party in the past – most notably under Paddy Ashdown’s leadership during the Maastricht debates in 1993. This phase of the party’s policy on Europe is omitted by Mr Kettle. Nonetheless, it’s welcome to see a commentator retain a sense of perspective, something that’s been a tad lacking in other media analyses or in the blogosphere.

Of more significance, is Mr Kettle’s conclusion, in which he observes how the old-style duopoly of Labour/Tory has been well and truly smashed:

although both Labour and the Conservatives are keen to mock the Lib Dems, they do so because, in the end, they fear them – and with good reason. This is because the biggest shift in British voting patterns over the past half century has been the continuing erosion of the Labour and Conservative duopoly that claimed 97% of the votes in 1951, but only 67% in 2005, and the steady rise of the Liberal Democrats and the lesser parties which, conversely, have moved from 3% of the total to 33%.

Nothing that happened at Westminster this week seems likely to stem that shift in British electoral politics any time soon. That is why, with the continuing eclipse of New Labour and only a modest resurgence of the Tory party, the most interesting dynamic in British politics remains – in spite of the party’s occasional own best efforts – the Lib Dems. Intelligent observers, sympathetic as well as hostile, in the other two parties long ago understood that the shape of British politics in the next few years rests to a considerable degree on whether Clegg can get the Lib Dems back to the 22% that Kennedy secured three years ago.

Tomorrow in Liverpool Clegg is expected to set out some of the principles that will shape his approach to the other two parties after the next general election. He will revive the language of equidistance and play hardball with Labour and the Tories, telling them his party will never be an add-on to any other party’s government. The speech will be a reminder, at this moment of apparent Lib Dem weakness, of why the Lib Dems could matter very much indeed in the way British politics evolves in the second decade of the 21st century. Clegg’s opponents may have been ringing the bells at his discomfort this week. But as the great Walpole said long ago, it may not be long before he has them wringing their hands instead.

Now that’s a thought that should have the delegates in Liverpool smiling this morning.