Tuesday 12 May 2015

Why the Lib-Dems have got to stop living in denial

In the aftermath of the catastrophic Liberal Democrat wipeout at the 2015 General Election (that everyone saw coming apart from them) I've seen many comments from shell-shocked Lib-Dem supporters and deposed Lib-Dem politicians. There are three recurring themes to these comments, all of which are wrongheaded, and if persisted with, a severe impediment to the recovery of the party that I'm sure that they all want to actually see happen.

In the wake of having the number of Liberal Democrat seats in Westminster reduced from 57 to just 8 out of the 650, the three main themes put forward by Lib-Dems are as follows.

1.  "I'm sticking by what we did. Going into government with the Tories was the right thing to do."
2.  "Just you wait and see. Things are going to get a whole lot worse now, then you'll miss us."
3.  "The 2015 General Election result was a terrible defeat for liberalism in the UK."
I'm going to run through these themes one at a time explaining what is so wrong about them.

"Going into government with the Tories was the right thing to do"

This thought is like a mantra that Lib-Dems keep endlessly repeating to themselves and to each other, even though it's completely obvious to everyone else outside the Lib-Dem bubble that it isn't true at all.

The evisceration of the Liberal Democrats in election after election since they signed their pact with the Tories in 2010 would tend to indicate that the general public think that they were wrong to do it. The fact that they've lost almost two in three of their voters since the last election indicates that even most of the people who are sympathetic to the Liberal Democrats think that they were wrong to do it.

The desertion of support from the party and the absolute hammerings they've taken in various elections indicate that what the Lib-Dems are saying when they repeat their mantra about having been unfairly punished for having done the right thing, is that "we are right and the public are wrong".

I'd suggest that taking a "we are right and the public are wrong" stance is hardly a great strategy for winning back public support, and neither is the playing the victim card when there is still an awful lot of public anger about what you've done.

I'd suggest that a "we're sorry, we made a big mistake and we want to atone for it" might play a lot better with the public than telling the public how wrong they are and playing the victim card. Maybe the next Lib-Dem leader will be smart enough to realise this and try to change the Lib-Dem message, but probably they won't and we'll have to listen to them talk themselves deeper and deeper into their political graves for the next five years.

"Just you wait and see"

One of the problems with this "just you wait and see" stance is that anyone who has actually been watching for the last five years will have seen plenty of Lib-Dem politicians voting for all kinds of rotten legislation (see next section), and is nowhere near as convinced that they did as much to constrain the Tories as the Lib-Dems are themselves.

Another huge problem with this "just you wait and see" stance is that it's very unlikely that the Tories would be in such a powerful position to impose their extremist ideology had the Liberal Democrats not been so strategically inept and enabled the Tories in the first place. I mean, where did all of the extra Tory seats that gave the Tories a majority in 2015 come from? Almost all of them were taken from the Liberal Democrats, that's where.

In order to understand the strategic ineptitude of the Liberal Democrats we have to look back to the situation in 2010. An unpopular Tory party had somehow failed to win a majority, even though they were standing against an unpopular government led by an unpopular man that had been in power during the worst financial sector meltdown in history. The Lib-Dems had done alright in terms of the vote share, and lots of progressive people still had the "I agree with Nick" factor clear in their minds.

The Lib-Dems made the awful mistake of going into the coalition negotiations from a weak debating position (we've got fewer seats than you so we'll agree to most of your terms) instead of taking a strong debating stance (you need us more than we need you) and drawing a number of red lines (some suggestions listed below), without which no coalition agreement would be signed. Some of these red lines should have included:

  1. Right of recall for corrupt MPs (a very popular policy when the expenses scandal was still fresh in people's minds)
  2. A proper referendum on voting reform (a referendum between two new voting systems, not one between a "miserable little compromise" and maintaining the status quo)
  3. Democratisation of the unelected House of Lords (featuring a public consultation on what is wanted instead)
  4. No increases in tuition fees (to do so after making a high profile pledge not to would be political suicide)
  5. Increasing the basic income tax threshold (a very popular policy evidenced by the way the Tories stole it and paraded it about as if it were their own)
  6. Establishment of the infrastructure investment bank detailed in the Lib Dem manifesto (this would have acted as a bulwark against George Osborne's ideological austerity agenda).
Had the Liberal Democrats held out on these red line issues, the Tories would have either have had to agree and we'd be looking at a completely different political landscape right now, or they would have had to refuse and opt to work as a weak minority government (which would also have been good for the Lib-Dems and good for the progressive agenda).

It's obvious that the progressive agenda would have benefited if the red lines had been agreed to, but even if they hadn't and the Tories had opted for minority rule (under some kind of confidence and supply deal with the Lib-Dems), the Lib-Dems could have gleefully shot down every rotten and unpopular piece of Tory legislation (such as Caroline Spelman's attempt to sell off our public forests) until the next election was called.

The Lib-Dem narrative at the next election (
whenever it would have been called) would have been a very strong one indeed, meaning they could conceivably have significantly increased their share of the vote at the next election rather than getting almost completely wiped out as they did in 2015.

Their stance should have been 
"we wanted to form a stable coalition with the Conservatives for the good of the country, but they refused our offer because they want corrupt MPs to remain untouchable, they want the House of Lords to remain undemocratic, and they want to keep the outdated and unrepresentative Westminster voting system because it works so heavily in their own favour ... We wanted to put the interests of the country first but the Tories refused to work with us because they wanted to defend corruption, the old establishment order, undemocratic practices and an apathy inducing voting system that is rigged in their favour" and so on ...

If the Lib-Dems hadn't been so strategically inept, the Tories wouldn't have been able to spend the last five years laying the groundwork for what is to come next, and it's by no means certain that they would even have been in power at all. Imagine if the Lib-Dems and Labour had called a vote of no confidence in the Tory government when the economy was flatlining as a result of harsh ideological austerity in 2012 (around the time George Osborne was being booed at the Paralympics). Anyone who imagines that the Tories would have won a majority government at that point must be living in a fantasy world.

The "just you wait and see" attitude is completely ridiculous because without the Lib-Dems' strategically inept decision to bind themselves into a five year government with the Tories, there's absolutely no guarantee that the Tories would even actually have a majority government now anyway.

"A terrible defeat for liberalism"

As someone with strong liberal principles I find this Lib-Dem attitude especially irksome.The reason being that after five years of propping up a right-wing authoritarian Tory government, I think the Lib-Dems have lost all right to even call themselves liberals, let alone speak as if they represent some kind of unique voice of liberalism in this country.

As a liberally minded person, each time I saw the introduction draconian right-wing authoritarian legislation by the coalition government, with the support of Lib-Dem votes, I saw it as a defeat for liberalism.

  • When Lib-Dem MPs voted in favour of the introduction of the "Gagging Law" (designed to prevent criticism of government policy by charities and voluntary organisations) I saw that as a defeat for liberalism.

The idea that after all of this, the Liberal Democrats are still self-righteously thinking of themselves some kind of unique "voice of liberalism in the UK" makes me absolutely furious. What right have they got to think of themselves as liberals after all of that? What right do they even have to include the word "Liberal" in the name of their party after all of that? No defenders of liberalism would ever have voted in favour of any of that, and to continue to sanctimoniously cast themselves as "the defenders of liberalism" is to spit in the eye of all genuine liberals.


I have established my objections to the delusional, self-pitying and sanctimonious narratives emanating from within the Lib-Dem bubble. I haven't pointed these things out because of a tribalistic hatred of the Lib-Dems. Far from it. I have a great deal of sympathy for the dozens of hard working Lib-Dem MPs, MSPs and MEPs to have paid with their political careers for Nick Clegg's strategic ineptitude, and for the thousands of Lib-Dem councilors up and down the country to have suffered the severe public backlash against it too.

I say these things because I sincerely believe that without a significant change of tone from the Liberal Democrats (to "we're sorry, we made lots of mistakes, we acknowledge them and we want to learn from them and make amends for them"), then they're only ever going to suffer even more severe backlashes from a public sick of being told that they were wrong and the Lib-Dems were right, how the Lib-Dems are actually the innocent victims in all of this, and a load of sanctimonious rubbish about how the Lib-Dems are the only legitimate voice of liberalism in this country.

 Another Angry Voice  is a "Pay As You Feel" website. You can have access to all of my work for free, or you can choose to make a small donation to help me keep writing. The choice is entirely yours.

Austerity is a con
Labour vs the Lib-Dems in the strategic ineptitude stakes
Secret Courts and the very Illiberal Democrats
George Osborne has created more debt than every Labour government in history combined
How Ed Balls' austerity-lite agenda ruined Labour's election chances
The Tory ideological mission
How the Lib-Dems were just as compassionless as the Tories
Margaret Thatcher's toxic neoliberal legacies

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