Despite their demolition in the polls, the party of liberty and democracy has every chance to regroup over the next parliament.
Nobody would deny that the last five years have been game-changing for the Liberal Democrats. The partnership between, as the New Statesman has it in this week’s leader, “Gladstonian classical liberals and social democrats”, has been battered by the sorts of adverse publicity reserved for a party of government, and Nick Clegg’s cohort does not look the better for it.
The odds for a yellow return to high office this May look precarious, such is the collapse of Lib Dem support across Britain, particularly in the West Country and Scotland. That Clegg’s seat is also facing a Labour surge that could turf him out of the Commons is indicative of a serious backlash against his party for choosing to fall into bed with the Conservatives.
It is true that the Lib Dems enabled much of the austerity package that many left-wingers were opposing when they cast their ballots in May of 2010. Those who saw them as a viable alternative to Labour may now have fled back to the party of Ed Miliband, or migrated further left to join the Greens, whose profile has risen sharply even if they are unlikely to turn this into many new seats in the Commons.
That the Lib Dems, so long a vehicle of protest for those alienated by Labour and the Tories, should have presided over a parliament that has seen both Left and Right fracture, is a pleasing outcome in some ways for a party that tried to reform the cumbersome first-past-the-post system. (Though note the irony that FPTP will save them from the worst of the public’s ire in May.)
Unlike the Staggers, your columnist cannot share in the disappointment with the Lib Dems, and hopes that they will continue to rebuild whatever the result in May. Whatever their faults, no other party in Westminster has the respect for freedom that the Liberals can boast, protecting against the worst excesses of Theresa May’s Home Office and the market perversions that Ed Miliband would unleash on the country if he were ensconced in Downing Street.
If the rumours are correct Tim Farron, former president of the Lib Dems, will make a worthy successor to Clegg, albeit one who will turn the party away from its liberal wing to a more social democrat bent. The promise of social and economic freedom coupled with protections against the excesses of free markets is one that the Left should more fully embrace, and Farron’s earnest demeanour and distance from the coalition makes him well placed to carry this message to the public.
Their term in government means the Lib Dems can no longer rely on the protest vote, much of which is escaping to the Greens, the Scots Nationalist and the UK Independence Party. If they are to ever recreate the success of the Whigs, whose liberal heritage they have the best claim to of all British parties, Farron must build a platform which can reunite those classical liberals and social democrats.
How easy this will be over the next parliament is difficult to see at present, and the lack of a clear victor as we move through the last month of the coalition has created huge uncertainty for politicians of all stripes. At present the mild swing away from the Tories (who by some reckonings are still ten seats ahead of Labour) shows the public is unconvinced by parties both big and small.
Had the Lib Dems eschewed the coalition deal it’s possible they would have gained much from this fallout. But even with the opprobrium of the last few years they are still better placed than all of the insurgents, with more likely seats than the Greens and the Kippers, and the lack of regional confinement that will limit the SNP.
All in all then, it’s not a bad time to be yellow.
Picture – Chris Ensell