Are we witnessing the end of the Liberal Democrats? There is a real chance their Faustian pact with the Conservatives could see the party splinter as the realities of power expose fissures in a party built on the easy opportunism of opposition rather than the realities of taking and defending decisions.
Commentators like James Ruddick have pointed to the history of splits in the Liberal Democrats and their predecessors over the past century. In every case, the splits happened soon after going into government with other parties. The reason for this is that the Liberal Democrats are not really a party of power. They like to be all things to all people, and while you can get away with that in opposition, in government you can’t. As soon as you start to take decisions people can see what you really stand for, and many people who voted Lib Dem at the election are dismayed that votes for what they believed to be a progressive party have been used to prop up a Tory Government hell-bent on ideologically driven public spending cuts.
Here in Lambeth the Lib Dems ran the council with the Tories in a formal coalition for four years until 2006 when the voters threw them out. In that election they tried to play the voters for fools by pretending they hadn’t been in charge at all. They thought people would be too disengaged from local politics to have noticed who was running their council. Voters are not that gullible and the Lib Dems lost badly. That’s not a trick the Lib Dems can even attempt nationally with the media broadcasting daily pictures of Nick Clegg nodding like a poodle while David Cameron announces ever more savage cuts in public spending. But the fact the Lib Dems even tried to pull that stunt shows they know they are not really a party equipped for power. They know their coalition of voters is based on what they’re against, not what they’re for, and they know a coalition like that shatters easily when they are forced to take and then defend decisions they know many of their voters won’t like.
Alongside that deep-seated oppositionalism there sits a depth of political cynicism that is as astonishing as it is brazen. While they deny decisions for which they are responsible, the Lib Dems take the credit for other people’s achievements. On an estate in Lambeth the Lib Dems caused uproar after they put out leaflets praising themselves for securing improvements to local roads. The fury was because the improvements had been won by a campaign led by local residents in which the Lib Dems played no part at all. Dumbarton Court, an estate in the ward I represent, has long needed funding to pay for new windows. After years of campaigning by local people and Labour ward councillors we finally got a commitment to the money. Almost immediately the Lib Dems put out letters taking the credit despite the fact no Lib Dem had ever been involved in the campaign. In both these cases the tactic backfired badly because people knew the truth. But it shows the Lib Dems up for what they really are: political zombies who try to inhabit other people’s bodies.
Another well known Lib Dem tactic is to set up a fake campaign – against closing something that’s not really under threat, or in favour of doing something that’s already been planned – and then take the credit for the outcome. In Lambeth the Lib Dems campaigned against closing police stations that were never under threat then presented themselves as their saviours, and they routinely run campaigns to resurface roads they know are going to be resurfaced anyway then pretend it’s proof they ‘get things done’. In truth, it’s all one big cynical charade designed to win power for a party that, once they get it, doesn’t really know why they wanted it in the first place.
With oppositionalism and cynicism at their core, Lambeth’s Lib Dems now find themselves in a very uncomfortable place. They are in government nationally. That means unpopular decisions they will find it hard to distance themselves from, but they know they can’t go along with them because it will lose them too much support. So what do they do? The early signs are they will blame the Tories for making them do it, blame Labour for making the decisions unavoidable, or try and distance themselves as ‘local Lib Dems’ from the right-wing antics of the ‘national Lib Dems’ in Parliament.
But those tactics will become increasingly difficult to deploy. As the coalition government rains down cuts of up to 40% on public spending, protests will grow. Protesters will target Lib Dems who hold their seats thanks to votes borrowed from traditional Labour supporters. Voters will turn in fury on Lib Dems who pretended they would never put the Tories in power. Lib Dems will start to haemorrhage council seats and lose control of councils across the country. Lib Dem MPs representing inner city areas will face obliteration. A dwindling band of Lib Dem activists, unused to defending decisions, will grow restless and seek to use their party’s annual assembly to rein in their MPs in government. If the referendum on voting reform is lost the Lib Dems will face the bleak prospect of sharing the blame for Tory cuts with nothing to show their activists in return for the pain.
Clegg will grow increasingly isolated. Cracks will grow into chasms as the party splits apart, its deep internal contradictions exposed by harsh realities of power too overwhelming for a party created for opposition. Left-leaning Lib Dems will see their only hope in getting away from the Government and forming a new or ‘authentic’ Liberal party untainted by association with the Tories. Right-leaning Lib Dems like Nick Clegg and David Laws will increasingly see their future in deathlock with the Conservative Party that is, in any case, their natural ideological home. The Liberal Democrats as a political party will come to a spectacularly bitter end.
In Lambeth, as elsewhere in London, the Lib Dems are already in rapid decline thanks to voters’ long experience of them. In 2002 they won 28 seats on the council. In 2006 that was reduced to 17. In 2010 the number fell to 15, and it would have fallen much further but for some peculiarly local factors. First, in the Streatham constituency covering around a third of Lambeth the Lib Dem parliamentary candidate spent £300,000 of his own personal fortune to fund a campaign that massively out-spent Labour. It wasn’t enough to undo the anti-Lib Dem swing across the capital but it saved them six council seats in Streatham Hill and St Leonards albeit by tiny margins. Elsewhere in the borough the unwary support of left-leaning voters saved one Lib Dem seat in each of Oval, Clapham Common and Vassall wards, and three in Bishops. With the loss of that left-leaning support and the unpopularity of the coalition government as the pain of their cuts becomes more apparent you can see the Lib Dems facing annihilation in Lambeth even assuming their party survives long enough to fight another election.
Locally, Lib Dem councillors seem to fall into three groups. Socially progressive Lib Dems who find Labour’s collectivist traditions insufficiently appreciative of the rights of the individual; right-leaning Lib Dems who yearn for a more compassionate form of conservatism than the Tory Party has offered in recent years; and apolitical community activists who find themselves in the Liberal Democrats only because somebody once asked them if they’d like to be a councillor or who were rejected as candidates by the two main parties. If the party splits there will be a welcome for principled, progressive Liberal Democrats in the Labour Party as we rebuild under a new leader. Many of these Lib Dems will find they are only following a path their voters have already taken.
(Written September 2010)