The Economist is right. Liberalism is winning. Which could be bad news for the Lib Dems in 2020

by Stephen Tall on May 19, 2015

cam clegg

“Mr Clegg lost not because liberalism is under threat but because it has become mainstream.” That’s the striking, counter-intuitive conclusion of this week’s Economist, examining the reasons for the massacre of Lib Dems at the polls:

Another explanation for the Lib Dems’ terrible performance is that they are no longer necessary. In a tearful farewell speech, Mr Clegg lamented the demise of liberalism and the “fear and grievance” evident in the rise of Scottish and English nationalisms. He vowed that he would not allow “decent liberal values” to die.

But they have not. The Tories ate up Lib Dem votes partly because they have swallowed much of the party’s ideology. The Conservative embrace of causes like gay marriage means liberals do not have to vote Liberal Democrat these days. Indeed, although the Tories still have plenty of illiberal edges, David Cameron, the prime minister, has called himself a liberal conservative. Tony Blair had absorbed much liberalism into the Labour Party. Even the SNP, though illiberal in its nationalism, is pro-gay marriage and pro-immigration.

It is true that a significant minority is anti-liberal. UKIP secured 12% of the vote (though only one seat) by kicking back against the globalised, multi-ethnic society that Britain has become. Yet overall, Mr Clegg lost not because liberalism is under threat but because it has become mainstream. Indeed, the metropolitan assumption that liberalism conquers everything is part of what UKIP so dislikes. That will be small consolation for Mr Clegg as he watches the triumphant Mr Cameron trying to balance those competing forces. But it is hopeful for Britain.

Most Lib Dems will harrumph at this, pointing out (not unreasonably) that neither David Cameron’s insular Conservatives nor Tony Blair’s centralising Labour party have been especially liberal.

This is true in a narrow sense, but wrong, I think, in a broader sense. A form of liberalism (albeit not the Lib Dems’ preferred model) won the twentieth century, as even its opponents on the right and left of the political divide have in the past acknowledged: Britain became considerably more socially liberal and economically liberal.

This, I guess, is a triumph for the liberal disapora — what has proved a weakness in building a Liberal Party big enough to win by itself has proved a strength by embedding itself in the Conservative and Labour parties that have governed Britain.

Many Lib Dems have comforted ourselves in the last fortnight by telling ourselves that the British public will miss us now we’re gone. Indeed, the Labour-leaning Guardian and New Statesman have joined in this anticipatory ‘told you so’ lament.

This assumes, though, that the Conservatives will revert to type, that their swivel-eyed, nut-job element will triumph.

This may still happen: David Cameron’s wafer-thin 12-strong majority may force him to tack to the right. His surprise victory smacked of 1992; who can say deja vu won’t strike again?

But it’s not an inevitability. For the past five years, David Cameron has been forced to moderate his policies because of the Lib Dems. Who’s to say he won’t now choose to moderate his policies — indeed, that he won’t find it easier to be himself a moderate because it will now be Tory ministers implementing small-l liberal measures?

The Prime Minister will (almost certainly) lead the pro-EU side of the in/out referendum campaign, and has appointed the ex-SDP-er Greg Clarke to lead devolution to local government, while the Chancellor, George Osborne, is urging forward the ‘northern powerhouses’.

This dose of liberalism may be temporary. It may all end in tears. In which case the Lib Dems may well be able to bounce back sooner than now looks likely, just as Paddy Ashdown was able to do in 1997.

But if Mr Cameron is able to stick to his guns, then 2020 may prove an even tougher fight for my party precisely because liberalism isn’t actually in retreat.

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5 comments

What, exactly, was Liberal about Iain Duncan-Smith’s callous welfare reforms?

It was things like that which caused a great many former Liberal Democrat supporters I know to desert the party om May 7th.

by Tim Hall on May 19, 2015 at 5:04 pm. Reply #

Irrespective of how liberal the policies pursued by this Conservative administration are, there is still a niche for a centrist party that is unambiguously internationalist and pro-immigration. I would guess that quite a few of the people who voted Green at this election liked their immigration and asylum policies – but many more potential voters were repelled by their anti-market stance and their irrationality on nuclear energy and GM crops. Also I have been deeply unimpressed by the anti-immigration posturing of Andy Burnham during the course of the Labour leadership race.

The problem with the Conservatives is how a party that encompasses the cosmopolitanism of a Jo Johnson can maintain coherence with the retrograde world view of a Peter Bone. It is probable that Cameron will win his EU referendum. However the cost maybe the exit of the more socially conservative Conservatives when it becomes apparent how little he can actually deliver.

In this context I do not think that the future of the Liberal Democrats is as bleak as the commentariat seem to think. So long as the Liberal Democrats do not go down the path of protest, can foster common human rights and equalities campaigns with the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, and defend a record of economic competence as part of a coalition government then there is no reason why in 2020 the Liberal Democrats cannot increase both vote share and seats. Sure, the Lib Dems may not reach the heights of 50+ seats but the job will be done if the electorate is aware that there is a centrist liberal view that contrasts sharply with the authoritarian tendencies of red-blue axis

by Debashish Sarma on May 19, 2015 at 8:36 pm. Reply #

The flaw, I would suggest, in the Economist’s analysis is that the points they raise are in the past. During the Coalition and the run-ups to the 2010 and 2015 elections the Tories needed to be more liberal to secure the votes needed to win power. A necessary move made possible by Cameron – but can that last? Would suggest three reasons why that may not be the case.

1) Where are the policies for this parliament that can pick up that liberal mantel of 2010-15? I can’t see any – the reverse seems to be the case. Liberalism does not seem to be on the Tory agenda for the next five years or even in the next election – which will be fought under a new leader.

2) Who will be the next Tory leader and will context will they find themselves? Cameron, after saying he will not serve a full term, will be gone in the next five years and the contest to replace him will be the crucial issue. We hear talk that George Osborne will be next in line to the Tory leadership; a plausible idea if you forgot that we are talking about a political eon in future and we have no real clue what will happen during that time – will we be in the EU? Will the Union survive? Does another Black Wednesday lurk around the corner? Which other leadership candidate will emerge that grabs the Tory party’s heart? Will they err away from the small L liberal Tories of present?

3) Will centre-left voters in LD/Con contests lend their support to a Farron or Lamb led Liberal Democrats? Their figure of hate has stepped down – who is to say, in the way that those stopped voting Labour because of Iraq but returned because of the Coalition, will switch back to supporting a Non-Clegg led party?

We have seen the Liberal Democrat membership rise as people become concerned that the party and its values are under threat, but I think the three areas outlined above demonstrate that when thinking about the future of Liberalism and the Liberal Democrats we need to think uch more about what may be the case in 2019-20 rather than, perhaps, confusing the aftershocks of the Coalition with the reality of what is unfolding.

by ATF on May 19, 2015 at 8:46 pm. Reply #

I am sorry, this is all fanciful nonsense. The Lib Dems (of which I am one) got slaughtered due to four things

1. a decision to come off the fence and appear to move to the centre right, thus abandoning those on the left who either couldn’t stomach Blair or tended to vote tactically

2. an irresistible tide that followed the broken promises over tuition fees making Clegg in particular and the Lib Dem brand toxic

3. A complete lack of narrative of what Liberalism and Liberal Democracy mean’t and instead going for the ludicrous idea that a coalition was inevitable hence the “head” and “heart” presumably focus group tested nonsense

4. Completely being out thought and out fought by in the ground war by the massively funded Tories marshalled by Lynton Crosby.

Of course Nick is right about the wider narrative, the forces of fear are on the rise. The Liberal Democrats need to reassert what they stand for, and articulate how that will make a difference to people’s lives. The Tories, for all “Call me Dave’s” detoxification and move to more metro-sexual social liberalism are still full of illiberal, authoritarian instincts and eventually as the scism between those with more liberal instincts and the hang ’em/flog ’em brigade widens, there is still scope for a centre left party of equality and opportunity to find space. There is little space on the centre right where Clegg and Co took the party – whether be accident or design given the 2010 arithmetic.

by David Bingham on May 25, 2015 at 4:57 pm. Reply #

[…] week a tweet by the estimable Stephen Tall crossed my timeline. The tweet pointed to his blogpost The Economist is right. Liberalism is winning. Which could be bad news for the Lib Dems in 2020. That immediately piqued my interest. After all, it is axiomatic, as all right thinking people […]

by Social liberalism and the Liberal Democrats | Alex's Archives on May 26, 2015 at 7:59 am. Reply #

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