Saturday, 9 April 2011

The May Elections Beg the Question: Were the Liberal Democrats ever viable as a concept?

 The Liberal Democrats are often compared to the German Free Democratic Party, both by party supporters and outside observers. On the face of things, it is an attractive comparison. Both are liberal third parties in systems with big, dominant parties of the left and right. Furthermore, the way the FDP operate in Germany's political system is the way that Liberal Democrats have said they want to operate for a long time: a balancing act, working to check the illiberal elements of both major parties and quite capable of cooperating with either of them in government. Indeed, this idea goes back beyond the formation of the Liberal Democrats and can be found in the rhetoric of the Alliance at the 1987 General Election, as this famous PPB demonstrates (jump to about six minutes in).

FDP logo

 However, watching the  latest travails of the Lib Dems I'm not convinced that the parallel is particularly exact. This article by ConHome, in the latter half at least, encapsulates quite nicely the role that the FDP play in German politics. It is a centrist, genuinely liberal party that stands up for social justice in right-wing governments and market-economics in left-wing ones. A contributing factor to its current woes is that it hasn't managed to persuade Chancellor Merkel to make the tax cuts, as Tim Montgomerie writes:
"Part of the reason for the decline of the FDP has been Westervelle's failure to convince Merkel to prioritise supply-side tax cuts over and above her cautious fiscal conservatism. Lower taxes had been such a defining selling point for the FDP that a failure to deliver them has hurt Westervelle's partly very badly."
This does not sound much like the Liberal Democrats to me. Set aside some of the hugely capable right-of-centre liberals amongst the leadership, and the story of the first year of coalition has been just how uncomfortable the bulk of the party, including an overwhelming majority of the grassroots membership, is when working with the Conservatives. Every Liberal and Liberal Democrat leader alive today (save the one they presently have) admits that their hearts lie with Labour, that they viewed Labour as their natural partner, and that they viewed a 'realignment of the centre left' as one of the main goals of their party. One Liberal Democrat councillor rather tellingly recounted that they were a party "largely of social liberals, led by largely economic liberals." That division is significant.

 Personally, I define as an economic and social liberal. By that I mean I'm liberal on economic issues (low taxation, strong private sector) and largely liberal on social issues (same-sex marriage, permissive society etc.). But the definition of Social Liberalism provided by the Social Liberal Forum is rather different. Their article explicitly divides the social strain of liberalism from the economic. You can't be both, and the majority of the membership are certainly the former.
 This begs the obvious question: can the Liberal Democrats operate in the 'balancing' way they claim they want to, and could they ever? I've mooted before that the two wings of the Liberal Democrats would serve their respective causes much better from within the two main parties. However, while I argued that the separate, faux-third position party was far from the most effective means by which its various components could enact their policy agendas, I did not go so far as to argue that the party might actually be an unworkable concept. Now, I'm beginning to think that may be the case.

 Since their foundation and before, all the way back to the Alliance, the Liberal Democrats have been a 'nice idea'. Good, decent, ordinary people, as uncorrupted by power as they were remote from it, who would promise you a utopian tomorrow if ever they got into power at Westminster whilst getting on with fixing your potholes or saving your library. They attracted a diverse spectrum of support and, much like a multi-faceted mirror, to some extent reflected back the political ideals and aspirations of any given supporter, allowing them to appeal to people from classical liberals to very left-wing non-authoritarian socialist types. As a protest party model, it was strong, and they managed to rebuild from six seats to nearly sixty over the course of half a century. Unlike governments, they didn't need to alienate anybody by taking actual decisions. I address this more fully in point three here.

 Government, the ultimate stress-test of any political product, has opened up some glaring weaknesses. Key to these is the fact that the party lacks a distinctive third position, and its disparate elements don't balance each other out to create one. In short, the social liberals are far too strong amongst the wider party, and this lies behind the key problems the party faces now. 

 The overwhelmingly left-wing make up of their pre-election support presents them with a problem on two fronts. The first is with the right. They can't really go into coalition with the Conservatives without alienating much of this support, not to mention a lot of existential angst amidst even the upper echelons of the party hierarchy. As a result, the Liberal Democrats look to be facing serious defeats in both England and the Celtic nations. Their party lacks the experience of being unpopular, and appears increasingly to lack the discipline to cope with this new sensation.

 If the Liberal Democrats can't cooperate with the right, then that opens up a second, even more fundamental problem: why do they exist at all? If their sole ambition is a 're-alignment of the centre left' and permanent coalition with Labour, then why not just be Labour? Is the party really nothing more than a clever left-wing branding exercise designed to win southern seats? Does it aspire simply to be a federal constituent of a united parliamentary left, in the same way that the Conservatives once sat with National Liberals and Scottish and Ulster Unionists up until the mid-sixties? As the fate of those parties has demonstrated, at the end of that road lies absorption. 

 Nick Clegg has an interesting few years ahead of him. He'll have to try to maintain the leadership and hold the party on course as the rigours of government wash away those Liberal Democrat gains that have, over the years, been built on the soft sand of permanent opposition. His challenge is not just to survive, but to demonstrate that the party is capable of behaving credibly in coalition with the Conservatives, and to ensure that it remains a place where he, Liberal Vision and other Orange Bookers can organise and effect change on the nation. If he loses, if Chris Huhne seizes his job and the party pulls out of coalition in a fit of left-wing petulance, it will discredit the Liberal Democrats not only as a party of government, but as a concept.

Orange Book.jpg
Manifesto, or memorial?


  1. "Is the party really nothing more than a clever left-wing branding exercise designed to win southern seats?"

    Why specifically southern seats? Going on demographics alone it would make sense that 'left-wing branding', civil liberties, Iraq, tuition etc. goes down better in northern seats like Withington or Leeds North West than in Southern seats such as Yeovil or Richmond Park.

    Also, I think you're mis-characterising Chris Huhne, I don't think there is much to suggest that, policy-wise, he's that different from Clegg. He was willing to put his name to The Orange Book.

  2. I specify southern seats for one main reason: within the context of a 're-alignment of the centre-left', taking seats from Labour is actually irrelevant. Also, as I looked at in the post linked below, the Liberal Democrats have proved far more adept at taking Tory-leaning seats in the south and south-west than Labour-leaning ones.

  3. As for Huhne, you're right in that he put his name to the Orange Book (as did Cable, whatever that tells us), but he's currently posturing to the party left amidst rumours of a leadership challenge. He might simply be going for whatever wins, but I always got the impression he was of the left.