The Decline and Stagnation of the Liberal Democrats

June 2010 – and after a mix of traditional left-wing voters being fed up with New Labour, a continued lack of trust with the Tories and an impressive performance in a the first election television debate in Britain’s history, Cleggmania has swept the country. The Liberal Democrats had hit a high of 34% in the polls and it is conceivable that from growing slowly out of the ashes of the old Liberal and Social Democrat parties the perennial 3rd party of British Politics could suddenly be a government in waiting. Forward seven and a half years later, and the party finds itself stuck in single figures in the polls making no impact on the two leading parties, a leader older than time itself, an ex leader banging on about an opinion on abortion the rest of the party intensely disagrees with, and little over a dozen seats in parliament. This blog will show, from the highs and the breakthroughs of the 00s, how, through coalitions, poor leadership choices,  its position in relation to Labour, and to a degree victims of circumstance, the party I am a member of got into the mess it is in and remains in that mess.

The dizzy heights of the party, of course, under the leadership of Charles Kennedy and Nick Clegg, were spurred on by a coalition of views within the party. First, in the 1990s, The Lib Dems more than doubled their seats from 20 to 46 through a partial alliance with Labour and the fall of the Major Government. When Kennedy was elected leader in 1999, he ended the partial pact with Labour. Not only this, but Kennedy moved the Liberal Democrats ideological positioning to left of Blair’s New Labour government, spotting a gap in the political market of those on the left who had felt taken for granted by Blair’s government. The Lib Dems also continued to be on a stronger footing field compared to the Conservatives, who spent the Blair years retreating into their ideological shell up until the leadership of David Cameron. The Lib Dem support from the more conservative voter with also boosted by the Orange Book, featuring an embrace of Classical Liberalism and including contributions from the next generation of leaders like Nick Clegg, David Laws, Danny Alexander and ironically due to his age, Vince Cable. Electoral success followed, and by the 2005 General Election, the party had achieved 22% of the vote (around 6 million people) and 62 seats. The initial Clegg leadership made the party young and dynamic, Clegg was likeable, the policies his party put forward were crowd pleasing for many on the left (abolition of tuition fees brought in by New Labour, scrapping Trident, cut tax for the lowest incomes, introduction of mansion tax) and even for the right (immigration strangely) as well as sticking to the parties core with electoral reform and Europe and the heart of it. The Lib Dems were also less tarnished than the parties by the 2008 financial crisis or the expenses scandal, and the declining support of New Labour and the surprising lack of surge into a clear enough lead for the Conservatives meant that very early on before the 2010 election the Lib Dems knew they were to have a say in who governs. Although the 2010 result saw the party lose 5 seats, the party gained nearly 7 million votes, and 23% of total votes.


The Height of Cleggmania

Now, all readers probably know the short story of what happened next, in that no party won a majority, The Lib Dems became power brokers, and then went into power with the Tories. However, the reason this led to their downfall is more complicated than first glance. Although the manifesto followed the Kennedy era in being more left wing than either Labour or Conservative, those in power of the party, Clegg, Cable, Laws et al, were Orange Bookers, and economically backed free market economics rather than progressive liberal economics, meaning they were far more in agreement with the socially-liberal leadership of the Conservative Party than they were from the dying star that were the Brownites in the Labour Party. The issue for the leadership was that, because of the recent manifestos, and the alienation from New Labour, the party membership, and indeed the wider voters, tended to be more left wing, meaning they all favoured a Labour led coalition. As many know, the Labour – Liberal numbers did not add up, and it would have actually been near impossible to work a functioning government, so for the country, which was still grappling with the biggest financial crisis in 70 years, a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition was really the only real government there could be. The biggest mistake Clegg et al made however was to underestimate the strength of its negotiating position, something the Democratic Unionists wouldn’t do seven years later, and in appearance to be too eager to grasp the reins of power. This meant that for jumping into bed with the Tories, which for many was a betrayal in itself, the Lib Dems undersold its manifesto into the coalition agreement, and were now in the unenviable position of facing a choice of helping a government put through an austerity regime which would ultimately hurt a lot of their own voters the most, or wipe their hands on the situation and leave the UK governmentless in the middle of a national emergency.

Instantly, the party took a hit in the polls, as many headed back towards the Labour Party which promised to be more left leaning under Ed Miliband, but it was the tuition fees fiasco that would hit the ultimate blow for the party. Now there have been many, many theories and accusations published that George Osborne ultimately tricked Nick Clegg into believing he had to tell his party to vote for the raise of tuition fees, when actually there was enough support on the Labour benches to get it through, however this is irrelevant to its effect. As known, the party promised and widely promoted the promise to scrap tuition fees. In not just going against this, but actually voting to raise them, the Lib Dems lost the student vote, and, arguably more importantly, lost its credibility and clean image it had before the coalition, and became seen as “just like the rest of them”. Although the coalition government has turned out to be far more functional and competent than the governments that have followed it, and there has been much evidence to suggest the Clegg leadership battered away many harsher forms of austerity, the damage had already been done. To make things worse, any good thing which the Lib Dems did in government, for example taking the worst off out of tax, legalising gay marriage or the plastic bag tax for example, were claimed as successes from the Tories, and the former was an example of a Liberal Democrat policy which the Conservatives then nicked for the 2015 manifesto. Although the fall was not to be expected to be quite as bad as it actually was, it is easy to see how the Lib Dems lost 4.4 million votes and ended up with just 8 seats. What is more surprising however, given the events, is the lack of any real fightback.


Tuition fees ultimately lost the public’s trust (Picture: BBC News)

After Clegg resigned as leader following the election, and also Ed Miliband from Labour, there were a number of assumptions by both the Lib Dem hierarchy. Firstly, that the party needed a clean break from the coalition years, as it realised how much its credibility had been hurt and the public’s opinion of its time in government needed an antidote, and secondly, that Labour, its sister party on the left, would move back to a Blairite leader of either Liz Kendall, Chuka Umanna or Yvette Cooper as a backlash over its loss of seats under Miliband, meaning that is must hoover up the left wing voters again rather than the Green Party. Sure enough, Tim Farron, a man known to be on the left of the party and who decided to stay out of the coalition, put his name in the hat for leadership. With a regional charm that would presumably get him noticed he looked like a good choice of the time, however, his position on gay marriage, which may have been forgiven in other political parties, simply did not add up an acceptable position for the party which should stand for socially liberal ideas like gay marriage the most, especially when the leader of the Conservatives unequivocally backed gay marriage at the time. To make the decision more complicated, when a better candidate in the form of Norman Lamb had put his hat in the ring, who although had the seen negatives of the time of having an understated style and having served as a minister in the coalition government, had done a lot for mental health in government, was in the centre of the party and could unite the wings, had the majority of the popular policy ideas which the party would push going forward and came across as thoroughly decent as a man. In hindsight coalition involvement was probably less of a voter loser than thinking gay marriage was a sin. At this point I actually joined the party to vote Lamb in, believing that his work previous would make for a far better leader than Farron. Although the vote was closer than originally expected (56.5-43.5), Farron was elected.

To be fair to Farron his leadership from the get go was a victim of circumstance. As mentioned before the party expected Labour to go back to the centre allow it to re-establish itself on the left of British politics. Of course, the election on Jeremy Corbyn scuppered this plan completely, and left the left-leaning leader having to fight the cause for dogged centrism, which ultimately just refreshed the image of the party in the coalition era. Despite the chaos of Labour’s position prior to the EU referendum, the Lib Dems failed to make much impression in the polls, and instead the Conservatives and UKIP continued to gain the waning support instead. It wasn’t until the aftermath of the EU Referendum where there looked to be an opportunity for the Lib Dems to re-establish themselves.

After the EU Referendum, The Lib Dems immediately, as the most pro-Europe party, declared its position of being anti Brexit, backing a 2nd referendum. With both the major two parties not only backing Brexit but the leadership of both parties backing leaving the single market and customs union, the Liberal position began to become more appealing for many remain voters who still wished to remain. In March 2017 the Lib Dems had recovered to 14 points in the polls and had performed strongly in a number of local elections and by-elections, in particular Richmond Park and I wrote a blog on its revival. By the time the election was called, Lyndon Crosby warned the Conservatives that they could be under threat to up to 30 seats from the Lib Dems, let alone the amount Labour must have feared they could lose at the beginning of that campaign. The Lib Dems too were due to gain ground as union voters became more tactically astute in Scotland. Another perceived advantage that the Lib Dems had to was popular policies. The idea of paying an extra penny on tax to fund the NHS and Social Care properly was universally popular, while other policies on drug reform and criminal justice for example, made the Lib Dems appear that they were willing to become a party which listens to evidence, something which in theory would have attracted voters who were fed up with Labours left-wing direction and the downright bizarreness of the Conservative manifesto. The mooted progressive alliance too, was thought to work in the Lib Dems advantage.

However, this predicted surge was derailed nearly as soon as it started as the media focussed questions to Tim Farron immediately on his position on gay marriage. Firstly it was a sin, then it wasn’t a sin, then it was a sin, then it wasn’t a sin again. It is no doubt that this put many prospective Lib Dem voters and even traditional Liberal voters off voting for the party. The public rightly just couldn’t grasp how the leader of the so called Liberal party had such an intolerant position on gay marriage, and Farron simply couldn’t get through to the public that his personal religious views did not affect his political views, and those on the right who realised this point, accused Farron of a lack of sincerity.


Farron’s mixed signals on Gay Marriage alienated many voters (Photo: BBC)

For those alienated by the gay marriage fiasco, who tended to be for remain and in the political centre or left, their other option was Labour and Corbyn. Judging by how Labour gained seats that voted remain that they never would have dreamed of gaining, like Kensington and Canterbury, and lost seats like Stoke South and Middlesbrough South, the voting public, rightly or wrongly, saw Corbyn’s team as either a stealth remain or a soft Brexit party. As well as the left leaning policies which got much of the Lib Dem membership vote, Labours position simply was more attractive, and maintained the left-wing support which the Lib Dems relied on in the 00s and lost in 2015. On the other side, Lib Dems Brexit position alienated some traditional supporters, as many of the 30% of Lib Dem voters in 2015 who also voted for Brexit and felt like the party was disrespecting them, while others saw the position as undemocratic. Farron said that he ‘bet the farm’ on Brexit, and seemingly it did not pay off. Although the Lib Dems saw a modest gain in seats (which a Lib Dem councillor has said to me was in spite of Farron); gaining around the same votes as last election in an election that saw a higher turnout was barely a success, and the lack of progress meant that Farron had to go.

Farron went in a coup as Brian Paddick, a senior member of the party and a man who took advantage of gay marriage laws in Norway to marry his own partner, broke ranks following the election to resign in protest of Farron’s position. Since resigning, Farron has put out mumblings about Liberalism “eating itself” as the reason for his demise, claiming that it was intolerance to his religion from both the party and the media which led to his fall, which may be fair enough. However his recent interview claiming he was wrong not to call gay marriage a sin helps nobody apart from his standing among Evangelicals.

Come the next leadership round, there were many potential candidates. Norman Lamb was again a contender, the dull of dishwater Ed Davey was also in the running as well as Jo Swinson, a candidate who had been a junior minister in the coalition years but had come back from it stronger and was known as a very strong local MP, and with her age could have revitalised the party. However, none of these actually threw their name in the hat, and Vince Cable, at the grand age of 74 250, ran unopposed, and as of yet, although with a good couple of policies thrown in the ring, has made little to no impact on the parties predicament.

Will the party I am a member of recover? Europe could be the answer, but it’s failed to revive the fortunes once, and as the mistrust from the coalition years and missteps in leadership linger on, moaning about this political party’s lack of result reminds me of supporting another team which plays in yellow.