Friday, May 6, 2011

What now for the Lib Dems?

I wasn't up for election yesterday. If I had been, I may well not be a Councillor today, despite having done OK in the role. Such is the nature of local elections - local issues are not what decides them.

This election has brought into sharp focus the challenge for the Lib Dems. The charge that the party is a 'human-shield' for the Tories has been borne out - they have come out without a scratch, while the Lib Dems face their worst results for 30 years.

When the party went into coalition last year, most party members endorsed it. The party was, in reality, trapped - but armed with a strong agreement, felt able to go into confidently into Government. However, the cuts - and their consequences such as the need to ask students to pay for their own education - have been the ubiquitious theme of the last year and we, not the Tories, have taken all of the political heat for them. The party's opportunism around fees - and its rash promise not to raise them - is now a burning large as a trust issue. Furthermore, Clegg's early view that all Lib Dems should 'own' the Coalition, now looks naive and we are seen to have 'played along' with the Tories rather than playing a strong hand as distinctive voice within the Coalition, as has been the case quite recently on health, which could provide a model for the future.

A second big problem is the North. In large areas of Northern England, the Lib Dems, not the Tories, became the natural opposition after the near-wipeout of the Tories in the 80s and 90s. Now that has been reversed, with the Leader of Hull Council, Carl Minns, actually losing his seat. The typical Northern Lib Dem voter is anti-Tory and has pulled away from the party in reaction to the Coalition. Interestingly, while Lib Dem members OK'd the Coalition, its voters probably would have vetoed it, given the chance, something which is only now being fully appreciated.

So what next? While there are odd calls for Clegg to go by angry councillors, this won't happen. It's too early and it would destabilize the Government and, ultimately spell doom for the party. There needs to be unity. And while there are whispers of an SDP-type split, I also see this as highly unlikely. Such things are years in the making and, for now, Labour provides a reasonable alternative home to disillusioned Lib Dems.

However, neither can things go on as they are. The Lib Dems in Government need to carve out a distinctive voice and be able to present themselves to the British public as a brake on the Thatcherite tendency in the Conservative Party. They need to be credited, politically, with stopping the Tories from privatising public services willy-nilly. They need to find some stronger themes than social mobility to campaign upon. And they need to look like a party that is listening again. This may mean admitting a mistake on fees early - in order to lance that boil. Clegg has the skills to do all of this and he is still the right person to lead the party - until the end of the Coalition.

After that point, or even going into the next election, the party needs a new leader, probably one who can pick up the lost voters and who can credibly join forces with Labour in the ev
ent of a hung parliament. Labour needs to win only 50 more seats to become a credible governing force again - but will still be short of a majority. I can't see them working with Clegg - ever - but it is possible to see them partnering with Tim Farron or someone from the mainstream centre-left. The Orange Book is now all but finished-off, outside Parliament at least.

And for me? I have never made any secret of my centrist views. If anything, I am still, at heart, a Blairite, as many, from all parties, still are. I want a Government which improves public services by diversifying supply, creates a dynamic but compassionate society and is modern and progressive in outlook, rather than backward-looking or statist. I had hopes for Cameron but he has reverted to type. David Miliband would have been supportable as Labour leader. Clegg, for me, has it about right.

But that will count for nothing if he remains politically toxic in the run up to the next General Election.

1 comment:

Edward Harkins said...

Hey Jimmy! You forgot about Scotland! Seriously, I think there is a different Scottish slant at play here.

There is the suggestion that Scottish Lib Dems were just so bealin’ about Clegg’s Conservative Coalition that they decided to protest. Post-Clegg (or Lib Dems having exited the Coalition?) they will return to the Lib Dem fold. I’ve read of this suggestion and found the logic strong.

The argument is that Lib Dems went SNP big-time as their protest. There were never going to vote Labour when it did for awhile look like there could be a return to office of the old barely reconstituted Scottish Labour (the Fates save us all). Moreover, it would still be a fair punt that if Scottish Labour did return, its whole apparatus of Labourism, clientelism etc. (see Gerry Hassan) and the remaining tribal politics of Scotland would have seen them in office for a considerable period.

Incidentally, the Scottish Labour election strategy and constituency tactics (low level turnouts, negativity, assume Lib Dems coming over to us) were so bad, that even a moderately competent redressing of these factors might help generate a significant Scottish Labour recovery.

All in all, the results are a considerable plus for Scotland; an until-now competent SNP are returned with a secure majority, but must prove they can deliver now that they are unencumbered; the Tories have been brutally punished for the near-uncivilised intents of their Conservative-led Coalition; Scottish and UK Labour have been red carded by their hitherto heartlands and must now reform or die.

That latter point is the next big issue for Scotland. A reformed, reconstituted and progressive Scottish Labour Party can only be good for Scotland and for the UK. But can they do it? Early signs are not good. We’ve had failed- junior-Minister-from-the-Brown- Government Tom Harris telling us that there needs to be ‘closer engagement’ between the Scottish Party and Westminster Labour MPs – that’ll be why we are getting visitations from Jim Murphy and Alexander ( oh dear, major wrong direction backwards to ‘Westminster top-down management of the Kailyard’ that the Scottish electorate will further resent).

If there is a future Lib Dem recovery in Scotland, they could again find themselves king makers between SNP and Scottish Labour contenders.