Lib Dems must understand why they are hated

Picture of Ed Davey, a middle-aged white man wearing a white-ish shirt, a patterned tie and a dark jacket.As I think I’ve said here in the past, I live in a Lib Dem constituency — specifically, Ed Davey’s constituency, Kingston and Surbiton, a constituency where the only main challenger is a Tory and Lib Dem publicity threatens us that Labour “cannot win here” (a tactic they have been using in their fiefdoms for decades — I recall seeing it while on holiday in Somerset in the mid-90s). I’ve seen quite a few of the standard Lib Dem yellow diamond signs with his name on it around, and nobody else’s that I’ve noticed. A couple of weeks ago Ed Davey (right) came to our house while I was at work and my mother spoke to him at length. He came on his own, without any minders or other help, which Mum said made her respect him a bit more, and she told him that she felt betrayed by his party’s coalition with the Tories (she and my Dad were Labour voters their whole adult lives until we moved to New Malden in 2001), and at the end of the conversation, she told him that she would consider voting for him again but could not guarantee it. Personally, I probably will vote for him as the Labour party have not put much effort in around here and so a vote for them probably is a vote for the Tories, but I can see a lot of his 2010 vote melting away, something the local party should have taken into account in good time for this election.

The attitude of the political classes and the media since the 2010 election has been generally contemptuous of Lib Dem voters. It caricatures us as protest voters, or the far left that did not want to vote Labour because of Tony Blair or the war. The standard line has been that the Lib Dems had to evolve, to grow up, from a “party of protest” to a “party of government” and that their enormous compromises to form the coalition are part of operating in the “real world”. Although the Tories blame the Lib Dems for not being able to do quite all they wanted, such as leave the EU, scrap the Human Rights Act and trample over civil liberties entirely, Tory commentators praise them for ‘robustly’ defending their record against the people who actually voted for them, as in this anecdote from the Daily Telegraph:

One Lib Dem MP recently recounted a story that has become a mini-legend in party circles. At a public meeting, a woman began assailing Clegg with the standard list of betrayals. When she had finished she received warm applause. Clegg’s adviser expected him try to placate her. Instead, he launched into an aggressive defence of his record.

By the end, those sitting either side of Clegg’s accuser were physically edging away. Watching the spectacle was the deputy prime minister’s personal protection officer. Turning to one of Clegg’s aides, the man who earns his living being prepared to take a bullet for other people, whistled, “wow, that was brutal”.

Nick Clegg’s campaign is set to be brutal, ruthless and single-minded. It has to be. His is in a fight to the death.

Some Tories, like Tim Montgomerie, have also expressed concern about the prospect of Nick Clegg losing his seat — you will notice the language of maturity: “hard choices”, rather than straightforward compromises so as to play at being in government:

If Nick Clegg loses — and high-ups in the Tory command fear he will — it’s hard to see the Lib Dems keeping Cameron in office. That would mean goodbye deficit reduction, goodbye welfare reform, goodbye schools reform. Clegg’s re-election might be the only thing between this country enjoying stable government and the Lib Dems entering a disastrous period of self-obsession in which they opted out from the hard choice they’ve so valiantly made since 2010.

(However, the Tories are still fielding a candidate in his constituency.)

This time, Clegg has said he would prefer a coalition with the Tories to one involving Labour and the SNP, and has called such a deal a “coalition of the losers” as if coming third was a greater victory than coming second, and as if coming first without a majority in Parliament constitutes winning (it does not). The Lib Dems are fond of explaining to people what they achieved in the Coalition, in terms of preventing an EU exit referendum and preserving the Human Rights Act. However, for this election, they refuse to rule the EU referendum out, and in a debate tonight (Monday) in Tottenham, north London, the host Eddie Nestor asked Tom Brake, a south London Lib Dem MP who is deputy leader of the Commons, what “red lines” the Lib Dems had for any coalition after this election, and the MP refused to name any. In other words, a Lib Dem coalition this time will not restrain the Tories from dragging us into isolation and destroying ordinary people’s rights before the State — so, what is the point of voting for them? When asked why they backed down over student tuition fees, they reply that this was one concession they could not wring out of the Tories, despite it having been a “red line” in their last Manifesto. However, what would the Tories have done to get the increase through the Commons had they not received Lib Dem support?

The Lib Dems, and all their cheerleaders in the media, remain convinced that the climbdown on university tuition fees is the sole, or at least biggest, thing that made voters feel betrayed and put them off, rather than all the other things they have enabled the Tories to do: the Bedroom Tax, the Legal Aid reforms, the disability benefit reforms, Universal Credit, the housing benefit caps which price poor people out of London, the local authority funding cuts — all things that could only have been motivated by upper-class spite and contempt on the Tories’ part, and which betray the fact that they do not care for justice or equality, even equality before the law. And perhaps this shared background explains Clegg’s preferred choice of coalition partner. I often can’t tell apart senior Lib Dems from senior Tories, having as they do the same accents, and much the same can be said for most BBC presenters, including the ones recently criticised for interrupting and talking over politicians on programmes like Today. It sounds like they all regard real-life politics as an extension of the Oxford or Cambridge debating society, whether it’s on Radio 4, where loaded political jargon like “wealth creators” is used unchallenged, or in the Commons, where Iain Duncan Smith responds to Labour pledging to end the Bedroom Tax by simply informing him, “that is a spending commitment”, and sniggers when a local MP tells of the suffering and hardship caused by the government’s policies.

Many of us do not believe for a moment that any of these things were necessary compromises. Many of us believe that the Lib Dems were eager to sit at the top table and were tempted by ministerial salaries and privileges, which they received in far greater proportion to Conservative MPs. There is no other reason why they would throw away decades of hard work building up their support base around the country, cultivating an image as a principled party which supported civil liberties and opposed pointless wars, of MPs that were well-liked locally and served their constituents, to support policies that nobody had voted for that principally target poor and vulnerable people, from a party that people had voted against when voting for them and which needed a coalition partner precisely because they didn’t win the election. They sold the trust of their voters for a miserable price, they have had their fun for five years, and they now deserve to lose this election comprehensively.

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  • M Risbrook

    What is the real point of the Lib-Dems nowadays? The 1950s was decade when the Liberal Party was at its lowest point in history with so few MPs they could all fit in one car. It was also the decade when Britain was the closest to a two party political system where fewer than half of all constituencies had a Liberal candidate in general elections. Nevertheless, the Liberal Party was still the third largest party in England and the only other national party of any size was the Communist Party. It’s this ‘third alternative’ that has kept the Liberal Party, and its successor the Lib-Dems, going so long. The Liberals used to be the radicals but since Paddy Ashdown took over it has been anything but radical. The modern day Lib-Dems are as dull as ditchwater and predominantly focused on public services.

    In 1994 I predicted that the Lib-Dems would get squeezed in the Euro elections as they would be down to their core vote as ‘third alternative’ does not apply under PR like it does under FPTP. They got squeezed then became very quiet about PR. The problem the Lib-Dems face nowadays is that they are competing in a crowded political field. We have / had UKIP, Greens, BNP, English Democrats, Respect, and the doctor in Wyre Forest, plus a rise in SNP support in Scotland. Where is the Lib-Dem’s unique selling point? If you want radical centre-left then we have the Greens who now have more members than the Lib-Dems. If you want a ‘third alternative’ then we have UKIP. I strongly suspect that if the Lib-Dems go into meltdown at the general election then they may never recover as a serious force in politics because so many other choices are available. This general election could signal the end of the two and a half party system that has existed since 1945 and herald in a two plus two party system.

  • M Risbrook

    With just 8 MPs it’s worse than I thought it would be. I was expecting around 15MPs, with 10 at the very least. As predicted, Clegg has resigned and the future of the Lib-Dems is an uncertain one.

    The Greens underperformed a bit in terms of the national vote but they are triumphant at re-electing Caroline Lucas and they have achieved some impressive results here and there including a few second places. I expect that they will displace the Lib-Dems as the ‘progressive’ centre-left party.

    The Lib-Dems can only succeed as a serious force if they attract enough third alternative votes. I suspect that in the constituencies where they aren’t serious players, and end up on around 2% of the vote, they are down to their core vote. The ideology of liberalism just isn’t a popular one with the masses, but for nearly 25 years the Lib-Dems managed to dupe millions of people who don’t really believe in liberalism to jump on their bandwagon.

  • Jack walmsley

    Jack Walmsley. Thee mangna cater whot we want for me misses