The immutable laws of political physics: The Lib Dem's unavoidable defeat and wide-open future
In the first of a short series of articles looking at fallout from the election, Miranda Green says that constructing a pseudo-scientific theory of why the Lib Dem vote collapsed is easy. But with 12,000 new members having already flocked to save the voice of UK liberalism, the party has an opportunity to rebuild its standing by striking out in a bold new direction.
Politics is an art, subject to human vagaries, not a science. But there seem to be some election methods and results that recur so often, and are so firmly confirmed by experiment, that they are almost as binding as the laws of physics.
One is that the smaller party in a coalition will be punished by the electorate for any shortcomings of the government of which it is a part, and will struggle to get the credit for any successes. The examples of the Free Democrats in Germany and the Progressive Democrats in Ireland were used to warn Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats of the terrible fate that awaited them on 7 May.
Over to the chemistry lab for the second pseudo-scientific law relevant to the depleted state of the Lib Dems: the effect on any other political body that comes into close contact with the Conservative party is highly toxic, and tends to result in atrophy. Doubters should look at Labour in Scotland, and specifically the effect of the cross-party 'Better Together' campaign, for further confirmation.
The great irony is that these associations seem, conversely, to reduce the toxicity of the Conservative brand. In the words of Tory advisors, voting Lib Dem in 2010 turned out to be the 'gateway drug' to voting for David Cameron in 2015.
Findings from Ipsos MORI on how much the electorate dislike the main parties demonstrate the paradox. While the Conservatives were, in March 2015, second only to Ukip in terms of the proportion of the public that did not like them (60 to 64 per cent respectively), they still got elected. Conversely, the more likeable parties of the left find it much harder to convince voters to give them power: in the same poll, the Lib Dems were disliked by only 48 per cent, and the Labour party by only 40 per cent, of respondents, for all the good it did either of them.
These are not arguments against the Lib Dems' decision to work with the Conservatives for the last five years – a leap that was taken not by the leader but by all MPs, and then by the membership through a special conference. But together they provide a theory as to why the Lib Dem vote collapsed as it did. Furthermore, the party's current sorry tally of eight MPS is mirrored elsewhere: since 2010 the party has lost 45 per cent of its councillors; in the last Holyrood elections in 2011 the number of its MSPs was cut by more than 70 per cent; and after last year's European elections only one MEP was left, representing the South East.
Discipline and flourish
Lib Dems' reaction, post-wipeout, as they consider how to rebuild has already been characterised by outpourings against Nick Clegg's 'centre ground' triangulation – much of it from the wing of the party most closely identified with anti-coalition purity, the Social Liberal Forum.
But there has been a reaction, not equal and opposite but larger in scale and volume, from over 12,000 new members joining the Lib Dems, who say that they were inspired by Clegg's internationalist parting speech, and horrified that the liberal voice in British politics might fall silent.
Whoever succeeds in the leadership contest must nip any further factionalism in the bud. Listen to the new members, 80 per cent of whom are not re-joiners: they are mainly young, and will not be mired in the sterile debates of SLD-versus-Orange-Book or, even worse, ex-SDP-versus-ex-Liberal-party.
The leadership race frontrunner Tim Farron has suggested changing the party's name to the Liberals. This would be a mistake. But some do hope for a real debate, long avoided as too risky, on whether the Lib Dems should embrace a full-throated liberalism – a stance that could tap into the socially liberal but fiscally conservative views of younger Britons who would avoid a now-crowded left
But it would mean abandoning the left-of-centre opposition successes of the Ashdown and Kennedy era – a huge wrench for the party and one, perhaps, that is too far away from its self-image and traditional pitch. Those supporting Farron's candidacy certainly seem much happier with the prospect of rebuilding in the tried-and-tested, ground-up method, and on similar territory. To drag the Lib Dems somewhere else might be, in fact, to denature them.
Temptations beckon: there must be no return to the chumocracy and obsession with constitutional reform recommended by David Steel in an extraordinarily bitter article criticising Clegg. And the party's diversity crisis requires swift action: ensuring that the deputy leader is a woman, elected by the membership rather than by MPs, is a Norman Lamb idea that should be adopted by his rival Farron if he is elected.
There may have been no way for the Lib Dems to avoid a heavy cull of MPs at the end of this coalition experiment. And the party's future as a significant force in the Commons mostly depends on whether David Cameron's stated objective to govern as a One Nation Tory succeeds, and whether Labour can tack right under a new leader. In the meantime, there could be a modest electoral reward for the Lib Dems if they make efforts to fashion that elusive entity – a political party that can flourish in communities outside Westminster, and appeal to the more rootless 21st century voter. Oddly, the Lib Dems, because they lack a traditional, class-based core vote, may be the crushed opposition party that is best-placed to do this. But what is required is not science, but alchemy.
Miranda Green is a journalist and former Liberal Democrat advisor.
Other articles in Juncture's post-election series
1. Ipsos Mori (2015) 'March Political Monitor: Topline Results: Fieldwork: 8–11 March 2015'. https://www.ipsos-mori.com/Assets/Docs/Polls/political-monitor-march-2015-topline.pdf ^back
2. Steel D (2015) 'Six ways Nick Clegg steered the Liberal Democrats to disaster', Guardian, 11 May 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/may/11/nick-clegg-liberal-democrats-disaster-coalition ^back