I have been chastised by many a Liberal Democrat on social media platforms for writing about the race to be Labour leader so much. Why don’t I talk about the Lib Dem contest half as much?
First, why I enjoy writing about the quest for the Labour top job: from an objective political viewpoint, it’s fun to watch. Also, as a non-Labourite, it’s one of the few epic battles raging within British politics the result of which isn’t life or death for me. Whomever Labour choose as their next leader, as a for instance, my European citizenship is in no way threatened.
Fine, so why don’t I have anything to say about the Lib Dem leadership contest then? I think either Norman or Tim would be a decent enough leader (they are certainly the pick of the remaining parliamentary party). But nothing that’s being said by either is all that exciting, and I think the reason for that is down to where the Lib Dems as a party lie at present.
Nick Clegg had an idea for what the party could be about. Gain enough seats to have a hung parliament, go into coalition government, show the British electorate that such an arrangement was functional and thus not to be feared and from there, wedge the party into government for a generation. The hopeful next stage of the plan might have been to catch defectors from either of the two big parties and with that, a grand realignment of UK politics.
Only problem was, it was simply too ambitious – the country wouldn’t come with us. The Clegg plan didn’t work in the end.
So what now for the Liberal Democrats? My fear is that by default the party returns to the 1970s: a protest movement with a small parliamentary wing. Like I said, the Clegg plan turned out to be too ambitious, but surely the party can aim higher than a 21st century rerun of the David Steel era?
I don’t know what that alternative plan for the party could or should look like myself. So I can hardly blame Tim and Norman for still being in the process of working it all out – neither of them would have seen May 7th coming any more than the rest of us. But at some point we have to answer the question: what is the point of the Lib Dems? I don’t mean it to sound pointed; every single political party should be able to both ask and answer that question if posed about itself.
After the 1979 general election, when Steel’s Liberals lost two seats to be left with 11, it took until 2010 for the party to get into government from there. 31 years – and that’s with the Labour Party split in ’81, the Tories falling to pieces in the mid-90s, and the TV debate fortune in 2010 as incredibly lucky boosts. And the Liberals hadn’t been in government, outside of Churchill’s wartime coalition of the whole House, since 1922. That’s an 88 year gap.
As Lib Dems, we need to ask ourselves this: what are we going to do to ensure that this gap we’ve just begun between liberals being in government is considerably less than 88 years. Because ultimately, that’s the most important thing from the party’s perspective.