Alan McGauley: Decades of work thrown away as Lib Dems face a political abyss

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WHEN the Lib Dems joined the Conservatives in coalition Government five years ago, I wrote an opinion piece for this newspaper entitled “Nick Clegg could be the gravedigger of modern liberalism”.

It suggested a meltdown in Liberal Democrat voters and a slow attrition of its membership. It prompted a critical and dismissive reaction from party members. This revealed how unaware they were of the toxic nature of the politics in which they were about to engage and in particular the alienation of younger voters and voters in urban areas.

It came to a head on the eve of the election when the party were so confident of retaining 30 MPs that they issued a Press release declaring the Liberal Democrats would be “the surprise story of the election”. “We are going to do so much better than anybody thinks,” he said, with a confidence that was shattered by the actual results.

This illustrates how far away the leadership of the Liberal Democrats were from understanding the reality of five years of coalition and the effect broken promises had on their formerly left-of-centre base and those who used the Liberal Democrats as a protest vote prior to 2010.

The way in which they actively participated in some of the more right wing policies of the coalition drove many former supporters into the arms of the Labour Party and, in some cases, the Green Party.

In Yorkshire they now have just two MPs; one in Leeds and one in Sheffield. The Sheffield MP is, of course, Nick Clegg. He won with a much-reduced majority, helped by the tactical voting of many Conservatives.

In the general election held on May 6, 2010, the Liberal Democrats won 23 per cent of the vote and 57 seats in the House of Commons.

On May 7, the Liberal Democrats lost 47 seats in the House of Commons, retaining only eight MPs – the capacity of two London black cabs.

However, this does not tell the scale of the problem now facing the party. At the recent election they lost £170,500 in deposits. The party is almost bankrupt and they have lost Parliamentary Short Money – a key source of funding. Each of the 47 MPs they lost represents a significant loss of income to the party.

More significantly they now face a huge loss of capacity – the constituency office, the personal assistant, the researcher, the email lists etc. Add all this to the massive loss of local councillors and the organisational hub is 
lost to the Party.

On a vote-by-electorate calculation the Liberal Democrats are Britain’s fifth party; not that far in front of the fringe politics of the Green Party. In the end, fewer than 25,000 votes – the combined majorities of the eight remaining MPs – saved the party from total obliteration. What we are witnessing is the evisceration of a political entity.

When Clement Davies, a former Liberal leader, moved the party to the right in the 1940s and 1950s, a similar voter loss occurred with a big loss of MPs. The political black hole that they then fell into required decades of work from Jo Grimond and Jeremy Thorpe before they came back into the light.

In 2005, three decades of hard work positioning themselves as a centre-left progressive alternative to Labour, paid off with 62 seats – their biggest number of seats since 1929. To go from 62 to eight in the space of a decade is remarkable in modern British politics.

The political map has changed forever. Many voters see the Green Party to the left of Labour and Ukip to the right of the Tories. This leaves very little space for the Liberal Democrats, and potentially for the Labour Party unless it redefines itself.

The real danger that the Liberal Democrats face is that younger voters go to groups 
such as the Greens and older voters move to either the Conservatives or Ukip and 
the political base they spent 
so long building rapidly disappears and is not easily rebuilt.

As for the future, they have to figure out what they are for and why they exist as a party. Are they fit for purpose in the 21st century and what is their USP? Until then, they are in lost deposit land until they can demonstrate delivery of key policies to their core voters in the country. They have a long hard road back to the levels of five years ago.

Across the world it, centrist political parties have learned that they have no guarantee for long term survival – from the Australian Democrat Party to the Progressive Democrats in Ireland. Is that the fate of the Liberal Democrats after 2020?

Alan McGauley is a principal lecturer in politics at Sheffield Hallam University.