At time of writing the Liberal Democrats are gathering in Glasgow for their last conference before the 2015 election. Conventional wisdom amongst the political commentators and pollsters is that they are looking at an election where they are likely to lose about half their seats. Even that isn’t as bad as it could have been. Had the proportional representation measure they proposed early in the parliament gone through they would have struggled to get anyone back to Westminster.
Was this the inevitable result of what happens to the junior coalition partner in government? If so, then anyone wanting to radically change British politics must despair. How can the two big parties ever lose if as soon as you get big enough to matter you hit a new ‘junior party’ roadblock. But I don’t think it is the case. I think the Liberal Democrats problem stems not from the system but from themselves. And a very specific group of them who consciously choose a particular approach.
It doesn’t get talked about much, but much of the leadership of the Lib Dems is drawn from people who contributed to a book called Reclaiming Liberalism, universally known by its cover colour as the Orange book. (Yes it is orange.) The book is full of the kind of jargon that bores in general and politicians in particular love, but its general theme is a simple one. To get on the Lib Dems need to move to the right. They should embrace neoliberalism and its reliance on the free market.
Reading through the verbiage it isn’t hard to see what was really going on. The Lib Dems were riding pretty high, certainly by their standards. They had established a fairly solid vote distributed in the right kind of geographical way. They could now consider themselves as a fixture on the Westminster map. Where to next? If you remember back to the last decade, Labour were doing rather well and the Conservatives rather badly. Wouldn’t it make sense to try and make inroads into the Conservative vote? The problem was that they were perceived as, and often proclaimed themselves to be, a party of the left.
So why not move to the right? Would it alienate existing supporters? Well Tony Blair had managed to shift Labour distinctly to the right without losing too much of Labour’s traditional support. In fact he had even gone out of his way to pick a fight with the left of his party over Clause 4. So why shouldn’t the Lib Dems do the same? It wasn’t as if their progressive supporters had anywhere else to go. Position themselves as a better version of the Tories and they could start harvesting rich pickings in the South East from people who were basically small c conservatives who just didn’t like the and feel of the big C ones. From a marketing point of view it all made sense.
And then the dream came true in 2010. They could go into coalition with the Conservatives. This gave them a great chance to show just how good they were at being neoliberals. No wonder the negotiations went so well. Both sides were working from the same premises. The Lib Dems were keen to appear ‘tough’ and cheerfully signed up to all sorts of things that would horrify their more socially conscious supporters. But the point was to impress people who weren’t current supporters. Just like Blair confronting the left, they were probably only too happy to have some rumbles to back down as a chance to show just how brilliant the Orange bookers were at making a difference. They might be in a minority in government, but they would be the smashing orangey bit in the middle.
Well as we know it hasn’t exactly worked out like that. It turns out that a party that is like the Conservatives can do very well, but it was purple not orange. It also turns out that left leaning Lib Dem supporters not only could find other places for their vote, but that they did. It doesn’t necessarily make logical sense to switch from the Lib Dems to Labour if you are looking for more social progress, but plenty of people have done exactly that.
And the Greens have finally started to make an impact on the political scene, and make a perfect home for many Lib Dems who actually care about things like policies and so on. This may not amount to huge numbers of actual votes right now, but my guess is that it is having a much bigger impact on recruitment. I wouldn’t be surprised if we start seeing rather more green rosettes on the doorsteps than we are used to. If this weakens the Lib Dem organisation, that could make a big difference in 2020.
I wouldn’t right off the Lib Dems just yet. Politics is becoming more fluid and party allegiances less solid. They have individual MPs who have a personal following who might be able to keep the show on the road despite the dismal national picture. And don’t underestimate the power of having an organisation – it has saved the Labour party a couple of times.
But it does show just how rubbish politics is if you don’t work from any actual principles. If you take the Orange bookers approach of trying to position your party to reap the maximum electoral benefit, it might well not work out at all how you expect. Just because it worked for Blair doesn’t mean it will work for you. And even if it does, what really is the point?