My Total Politics column: The Lib Dems are still alive… Just about.

by Stephen Tall on September 9, 2014

We few, we happy few, we band of Lib Dems will shortly gather in Glasgow: our final rally before the election battle to come. The setting will once again be the city’s confusingly cavernous SECC conference centre. Last year it was quite common to see disorientated party members wandering around this real-life Escher puzzle, sure they had been on their way up to their intended destination only to discover they had been deposited back down at the exit. The best metaphors write themselves.

Just a few months ago, last March, the party met in York at its Spring conference. The sun was shining, the mood was chipper. Nick Clegg had challenged Nigel Farage to a TV duel and the party was united behind his call to take the fight directly to Ukip at the European elections. We were ‘The Party of IN’ according to the vacuous slogan no-one now admits to having coined. In it up to our necks, it turned out. Trounced by Ukip, even trailing the Greens in fifth place, Clegg tottered – but he didn’t fall and he wasn’t pushed. Party members have, stoically and by no means unanimously, accepted he will lead us into the general election next May.

The leader may not have resigned, but resignation hangs heavy in the air. Only the wildest optimists think the Lib Dems can emerge from the next election unscathed. Right now, saving anything above 40 MPs would be regarded as a blazing triumph even though it would leave a third of our current seats gutted.

As anticipation of a revival has ebbed so too has talk of a second term in government. In a sense this is odd. Another hung parliament, most pollsters agree, is the most likely outcome in May 2015. This should be our dream: our Eden, Utopia and Promised Land in one. But the cliché was right: be careful what you wish for. Gone is the wide-eyed enthusiasm for government, replaced instead by a grim, taut wariness.

The last four years have cost the Lib Dems dear. Not just in lost votes and members and councillors – though those losses have cut deep – but also in lost hope. The party knows it has notched up some big policy achievements – tax-cuts for low-earners, the Pupil Premium, the Green Investment Bank – but they seem scant compensation for the possible forfeit of two decades’ hard won advance. How much closer are we to creating a liberal society?, the party asks itself. Not nearly as close as we hoped, comes the honest reply.

Once the party could kid itself it would leap-frog straight into Official Opposition and then seamlessly seek an audience with HM The Queen. And even if that seemed far-fetched, then it was sure it could at least wrangle electoral reform on the way, putting liberalism on a secure footing in parliament.

The reality? The AV referendum was lost, an elected House of Lords defeated. The Lib Dems are once again reliant on the Stakhanovite local fetishism of its incumbent MPs and shadowy party patronage to appoint its peers to the red benches.

And so the prospect of another five years’ coalition appears to be more threat than promise, especially as the Lib Dems will be in a weaker position next time. In 2010, the party had won an additional million votes on the back of ‘Cleggmania’ and David Cameron was desperate to clinch a deal which would make him Prime Minister.
A second Lib-Con alliance? Neither party is likely to wear it. A Lib-Lab pact? Possible (there’s plenty of policy overlap) but Labour’s visceral loathing of my party means it wouldn’t exactly be a bed of red roses. And it would put at serious risk those Tory-facing seats the Lib Dems are most likely to retain next May.

My hunch is the party will opt instead for the safer harbour of ‘confidence and supply’, offering to prop up a minority government in return for key concessions, then vote on a case-by-case basis. A bit of power in exchange for a bit of responsibility: it’s an eminently Lib Dem approach. Go back to your constituencies and prepare to be both in government and in opposition.

Survive and rebuild: these are the watchwords. On a good day, one senior Lib Dem MP reckons, “we might only lose four or five seats”. Surprise gains cannot be ruled out (Maidstone and Oxford West & Abingdon are oft-cited). But attention is turning to the ‘black spots’, the swathes of seats from which the party has been driven out. In 2010, it finished first or second in almost 300 constituencies. I’d be surprised if we made three-figures next time.

We’ve been here before, of course (whether Lib Dems find that fact is comforting or depressing will depend on their disposition). And yet, 80 years on from George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England – 25 years on from the bad-tempered merger which almost saw the Lib Dems strangled at birth – we’re still alive, still kicking. Don’t read us the last rites just yet.