I beg your pardon, you made promises in the rose garden... Leader of the Liberal Democrats and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Prime Minister David Cameron in the 10 Downing Street garden in happier times following the signing of the Coalition Agreement in May, 2010.
ANDY FLEMING argues that Nick Clegg may not be the only electoral liability for the Liberal Democrat party. The seeds of their current malaise may stem right back to 1981 and the formation of the Social Democratic Party. In effect their history and eccentric mix of philosophies may be their main undoing.
As a fellow human being you’ve got to feel some sympathy towards Nick Clegg. Over two years as the Coalition government’s Deputy Prime Minister, his fortunes have nosedived from being a political Adonis to being the Devil incarnate. He’s been blamed for most of the political misfortunes that have befallen his party, culminating in the Liberal Democrat rout in the local authority elections last May, in addition to the debacle of the result of the Alternative Vote referendum in May 2011. That referendum was simultaneous to their first electoral rout at the local elections that year. Although Clegg and his cheery band seemed happy and united at their party conference in September, truth be told they are staring political oblivion in the face. Every vote they make in the lobbies with the Tories is another turkey voting for Christmas: their electoral support in the latest UK opinion polls stands at a paltry 9% (UK Polling Report).
In truth, most of his problems are self-inflicted as he adopted the “default position” for politicians of lying to the electorate. Springing to mind straight away is the duplicitous Coalition Agreement entered into with David Cameron’s Conservatives to introduce student higher education tuition fees of up to £9,000 per annum. This was only a couple of weeks after Clegg categorically denied in front of television cameras and student groups prior to the General Election in May, 2010, that any such policy would occur on his watch.
Then of course there was Clegg’s signature on then Tory Minister of Health Andrew Lansley’s half baked plans for the NHS, something that he now states the Liberal Democrats are wishing to withdraw from. The whole fiasco confirms the effectiveness of Cameron and the Tories as smooth and canny political operators, and epitomises Clegg and his Liberal Democrat colleagues as naive, inept, green and out of their depth, having been shafted to such an extent following last year’s Downing Street rose garden love-in. However, their problems although symbolised by the duplicitous Clegg run much deeper than him as leader...
I’m not political commentator, just a common sense member of the electorate, who has in his 33 years of voting career supported all three main political parties. I don’t vote by belief, because my parents voted for such and such a party, I weigh up the pros and cons of each party at each election, and then vote for the party offering the most rational, socially cohesive, economically sound and equitable set of policies. In this, I’m probably the archetypal ‘floating voter’. Like most of the great British public I cannot tolerate politicians who lie, cheat and milk the system, and engage in acts of blatant self-advancement and nepotism... all qualities in which both Labour and the Conservatives have excelled in recent years. However, the shiny Liberal Democrats have turned these dubious qualities into art forms.
Marketed as the whiter than white party and above the political fray ever since the Social Democratic Party (SDP)/Liberal Alliance of the 1980s and with a distaste for political tribalism, they have just undone thirty years of hard work, showing themselves up as bad, or even worse than the two main parties they say they despise. Their duplicity with the electorate has been rewarded with their worst share of the vote since the formation of the SDP in 1981.
In retrospect, however, the Liberal Democrats have always contained the seeds of their own destruction... or rather the “Democrat” part has. This is no way a reflection on the honourable and principled true Liberal component of the party, people such as David Steel, Charles Kennedy and Menzies Campbell, with an ancestry dating back to the Whigs of the nineteenth century. It’s the Social Democratic opportunists with a history going back no further than the Limehouse Agreement of 1981 that represent the bomb that has just blown up in the party’s face.
The so-called 'Gang of Four' after the signing of the Limehouse Declaration that led to the formation of the SDP in 1981. Left to right Bill Rodgers, David Owen, Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams.
Recall that this declaration was a statement issued on 25 January 1981 by four senior Labour politicians, all MPs or former MPs and Cabinet Ministers: Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams (it was so called after David Owen's London home in Limehouse).
The 'Gang of Four', as they became known signalled their intent to leave the Labour Party (itself a broad church of socialists and social democrats) which had moved decisively leftwards, and form the British Social Democratic Party (SDP). Their intention was to ‘break the mould of British politics” by destroying the two party system, and espousing proportional representation. Looking back, it could all be seen as bad losers doing what bad losers do best: leaving the party and taking their ball home, and by splitting the left of centre vote, setting the UK on course for 18 years of unbroken Tory rule.
They demonstrably failed to break the two party system in the 1983 General Election, Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government increasing its majority over Michael Foot’s Labour Party (remember the latter’s manifesto... the longest suicide note written, complete with Foot’s duffel coat!). By 1987 they had joined forces and almost usurped David Steel’s Liberal Party, to form the SDP/Liberal Alliance. Their reasonable share of the national vote equated to only a paltry handful of MPs and once again there was a large Tory majority in the House of Commons with a split left of centre vote.
By the 1992 General Election, the two parties had merged to form the Liberal Democrats, led by Paddy Ashdown and throughout the decade they had some spectacular by-election victories. And there in lies the roots of their current malaise. In by elections in Labour-held seats in northern inner cities they canvassed on a Conservative platform appealing to Tory voters to vote tactically for the Liberal Democrats where the Tories had a negligible chance of winning... thus “keeping the Labour candidate out”. In Tory-held southern and rural seats the converse was true, Labour voters were encouraged to vote tactically for the Liberal Democrats to keep the Conservatives out. As duplicitous and disingenuous as this policy was, it continued right up to the 2010 General Election. Tory voters were duped into believing they had voted for a right of centre alternative, the converse being true for Labour-inclining Liberal Democrat voters.
Touted for the last decade nationally as a real left of centre alternative to the self-advancement , slights of hand and dubious foreign policy of members of the Blairite New Labour Party, it was a huge surprise to many when they formed a Coalition Agreement following the 2010 vote, not with what one would assume would be their natural bedfellows the Labour Party, but with David Cameron’s Tories. Was it really a surprise though?
Electoral mathematics and the fact any pact with Labour would have led to a minority coalition government, most of the intake of Liberal Democrats were elected by doublethink tactical voting by Tory voters in the south. Those with true left of centre Liberal ancestry such as Simon Hughes, Menzies Campbell or Charles Kennedy are the ones kicking up a fuss about being in bed with a right wing Tory administration planning some of the most controversial reforms on health, education, and welfare for decades. They have had the common sense to realise that it is their party carrying the proverbial fig leaves for the Tories; it is their party that will be left as a gutted rump at the next General Election.
For make no mistake, as the savvy former Labour Party Deputy Leader Roy Hattersley stated on local election night, in general it’s not the Tory MPs who will lose their seats at the next election... the Tory voters voted Conservative and knew exactly what the were getting. It was the Liberal Democrat voters who woke up on the morning following the signing of the Coalition Agreement scratching their heads... the duplicitous switch common to all political games had happened, and they weren’t going to get what they thought they had voted for.
It’s hardly surprising then that a resounding “no” vote was recorded in the referendum on the Alternative Vote system. The promise of more duplicitous coalitions that nobody had actually voted for, operating like this one against the will of the majority is not a great attraction for even the most ardent Liberal Democrat supporter of proportional representation. And so the actions of the Liberal Democrats in the coalition ironically led to this nail in their coffin on electoral reform policy. It must be truly dreadful being Nick Clegg the day following elections.
Having had a series of drubbings at the ballot box, they now actually have the audacity to threaten the Tories with renegotiation of the coalition agreement, and Clegg himself has stated that without substantial change, he will not support any NHS reforms (even though he himself signed the document!). Hardly a reality check when their vote has collapsed, and they now have much less power or political clout than they did when the coalition was formed.
There are a few principled politicians in Britain who I still have the utmost time for. The late John Smith springs to mind, as does Tony Benn and Dennis Skinner. Nick Clegg ain’t one of the. I prophesise that Clegg's last great act of betrayal will be to join the Conservative Party when this unholy Coalition finally splits, as it surely must. Following him will be ex-Treasury Minister David Laws and current Treasury Minister Danny Alexander. Others may defect to Labour, leaving a rump of a party that could rename itself as guess what?
Yep... the Liberal Party!