In Sunday's Observer, Charles Kennedy lays out his reasons for abstaining on the vote to ratify the Coalition agreement. It got me reflecting, as I have in the past, on the nature of the Liberal Democrat party and membership, and its ramifications on the current position of the party and its future. The present agonies that sections the party and its supporters are undergoing can be traced several overlapping factors, which I will look at here. These are: the Conservative appropriation of abandoned Liberal political territory; the conflict of identity following the merger and clash of traditions; and the soap-bubble like character of support a perennial third party was always likely to attract.
1) The Encroaching Blues: Divisions within the Liberal Democrats are hardly new. In his article, Kennedy refers to two groups who split from the former Liberal Party: Sir John Simon's National Liberals (presumably he included the latter group too) and Joseph Chamberlain's Liberal Unionists. Liberal Conservatives often have a lot of sympathy with these groups - indeed if this blog had household gods, Joseph Chamberlain would undoubtedly be one of them. It may be significant that the eventual fate of all of these groups has been to align with the Conservatives. Liberal defections to Labour have happened, but never in a big, bulk manner.
This is evidence of what I think has been a long-running issue for the Liberal Democrats and their predecessor party: continual encroachment upon their territory by the Conservative Party. When Margaret Thatcher won her landslides in the Eighties, it was because her brand of economically liberal Conservatism reach out to the apirational lower and middle classes - who might one have been Liberal voters. It was the Conservative appropriation of economic Liberalism that allowed her to pull that off.
It is perhaps a touch ironic that, if the aim of the post-Grimond Liberal leaders has been the eclipse of the Conservatives by a progressive alliance, it has been their adoption of that position that has done so much to sustain the blue foe. By moving leftward, the various leaders of the Liberal Party have abandoned more and more territory to the Conservative Party. Unlike the left, in Britain the Conservatives continue to hold a near-hegemony over right-of-centre representation. With the exception of UKIP in European elections, the Conservative right has nowhere to go. The more ground ceded to the Conservative Party, the broader a church it becomes and the wider its appeal grows. The way to sideline the Cornerstone-style tories would have been to create a viable centre-right Liberal alternative, rather than shifting left and abandoning fertile political territory to the Conservatives.
Kennedy references the leadership of Jo Grimond as the leftward turning point. This was not entirely fair: according to Roy Douglas, in his book Liberals, Grimond desired:
"a great remodelling of politics, in which the Liberal Party, the non-Socialist element of the Labour party, and many 'Liberal-at-heart' Conservatives would come together in a great new radical movement."
- in essence, a distinctive Liberal political position, rooted in but not defined by the centre ground. Whilst this may have been a touch to the left of the Liberal position in the 1950's, it is well to the right of many - including, I think, Mr Kennedy - now. In moving leftwards, the Liberals and Liberal Democrats simply risked moving into crowded electoral territory, shedding votes to the Conservatives and splitting the very 'progressive' vote whose hegemony it seeks to secure. However, this attitude is not consistent across the entire party, which brings us to:
2) Identity Conflict: The Liberal Democrat Party is a product of electoral necessity; a fusion of the old Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party (which brought in, amongst others, Charles Kennedy). However, this merger only exacerbated a dilemma that was present even within the pre-merger Liberals: between what we today call 'Orange Bookers' - or classical liberals (ish) - and their 'weirdie-beardie' bedmates. Although many who would have been natural Liberal recruits in decades past had become the soft wing of the Conservative Party, there remained a body of centre-right Liberals in the party alongside the U.N.D., beard-and-sandles types. Even after the infusion of Social Democrats during the merger, this group survived. Indeed, it is the survival of this group that has allowed the Liberal Democrats to continue pitching to Conservative voters (and they do) and credibly claim to be a party of the centre.
This division was not particularly problematic until the party was confronted with power - and worse, at least the illusion of a choice as to who it shared power with. While the instincts of the majority of the party lie with Labour, there is a substantial minority whose instincts lean the other way - including the leader. Nor can its electorate be claimed clearly for the 'progressive' camp either, although many have undoubtably tried to do just that. In LD/Labour marginals, the Liberal is likely to have come through on the back of Conservative votes, and in the shires too the Liberal Democrat will need to have successfully wooed Tory support.
The identity conflict emerges because this wing is closer to the pre-Grimond heritage of the Liberal Party. When Charles Kennedy writes that last week's events:
"drive a strategic coach and horses through the long-nurtured "realignment of the centre-left" to which leaders in the Liberal tradition, this one included, have all subscribed since the Jo Grimond era"
he is correct: Clegg is (intentionally or not) reconnecting with an older strain of Liberal Party thought and action. The result is increasing discontent on the left (Kennedy and Ashdown being key figures to watch), and a coming to the fore of a long-postponed reckoning between the two wings of a divided party. How this conflict is resolved could have a major impact on the development of British politics in the coming decades.
3) The Soap Bubble of Discontent: Being in opposition as long as they were, it was almost inevitable that the Liberal Democrats would become the vehicle for all kinds of oppositionalism and protest. This fractious support base was never going to survive any brush with power unscathed. No matter how many times Liberal Democrat figures went on television to say 'we hope to hold the balance of power in a hung parliament', it seems that there were sections of the base that simply either did not or would not understand what this meant. You see them a lot in the comments sections of blogs and newspapers - it normally runs something along the lines of "I voted Liberal Democrat to keep the Tories out but Nick sold us out and now I'm never voting for them again!"
The Liberal Democrats never campaigned as 'Labour Lite' and Nick Clegg was forthright in saying he would offer the party with the mandate in terms of seats and votes a mandate. This was always near-certain to be the Conservatives. The message could not have been much clearer, and anyone who genuinely feels 'sold out' by the Liberal Democrats making a deal with the Conservatives should have a long, hard think about whether or not they really want PR. What this evinces is that sections of Liberal Democrat support were based not on stated party policy but on a belief that the party was 'really' whatever that particular elector wished it to be. Distance from power allowed a Liberal Democrat support base to develop that was broad - stretching from libertarians to people who thought Labour were 'too right wing' - but fragile, sustainable only in the fantasy-friendly world of third place. Once the party had to make decisions, this bubble was always going to burst.
The Liberal Democrat leadership has probably thought through the ramifications of gaining power enough to take a three-point fall in their stride. After all, the moment they gained power they were always going to disappoint someone. A spell in government will see some sections of support harden, and others disappear. How the party manages this will decide its course for a long time to come: will coachman Clegg continue the drive towards the Liberal party of old, or will the SDP-ers regain the helm? And can both wings remain in one party for much longer?