Friday, 10 December 2010

The Party Is Over

As I write, a Facebook group is holding the Liberal Democrats' Funeral in cyberspace. This follows on from yesterday's debate on tuition fees when the Lib Dem MPs split three ways over the proposed trebling of charges on students' attending English universities (devolution means different arrangements apply in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland).

The press today (once it got over the attack on the Prince of Wales car by students chanting "Off with your heads!") has been full of speculation about the implications for the party. Some have suggested the split - roughly between the "Orange Book" free market liberals under party leader Nick Clegg, and more progressive social liberals - is damaging but, now that the debate is over, can be put behind them. Others have suggested that the divide shows that the "real" Liberal Democrats, 70% of whom feel they are left-of-centre progressives in sharp contrast to the decidedly right wing agenda of the Coalition Government, have stood up and will begin to assert some degree of independence or at least a clearer identity for their party.
Clegg - full steam ahead to oblivion

Yet the real damage to the Lib Dems is not that they split - bad though that looks. Rather, the damage is that the proposed changes got through and the Government is unaffected in its further drive to dismantle not only education, but the NHS as we know it and the wider Welfare State, with punitive measures being introduced against disabled people and the long term unemployed. Clegg has suggested that now that tuition fees are dealt with, there are no outstanding disagreements within the Lib Dems and the Coalition will progress with its full programme - cynically, Lib Dem strategists believe that the public will have forgotten all about the tuition fee debacle by the election due in spring 2015.

So what we witness now is the real, truly strange death of the Lib Dems as a progressive force in British politics. Those who voted against the tuition fees (or perhaps even worse, the worm tongues who abstained) did so in the full knowledge that the measures would almost certainly pass. Their opposition therefore was a self-serving luxury - so they can insist to students that "it wasn't me guv" while continuing to support one of the most ideologically right wing governments in British history. Lib Dems are now at the heart of a project which is dismantling the legacy of great Liberal reformers like Keynes and Beveridge, and even Lloyd George, who played such seminal roles in establishing the Welfare State that has served Britain so well for the last sixty five years.

It is because the Coalition has survived that the Lib Dems should be afraid. Had it collapsed or been transformed into a less cohesive project, they may have been able to reassert some degree of their independence from the Conservatives, to re-establish something distinct about their contribution to the government. As it is, they are now forever sucked deep into the Clegg-Cameron programme, where they provide useful human shields for the worst Conservative reforms, cravenly defending them on dubious grounds of economic necessity. Clegg insists the Lib Dems did not win the election and so have to submit to not getting their policies adopted by the Government. Fair enough, but with barely 35% of the vote and no majority in the Commons, the Tories did not win either - so why do the Lib Dems yield again and again to policies which clearly have a deep blue imprimatur? On a whole slate of issues, they are driving through extreme liberatrian policies which even the Thatcher Government did not attempt back in the 1980s - and increasingly they are not even deploying their previous pleas of financial need. Rather, they simply do what they ideologically want to do.

The reason for this adoption of what in American terms would be seen as a pretty neo-liberal stance is straightforward - the Lib Dems are not in essence a progressive force. There are progressives in their ranks, no doubt, but as a party they have long since shed any progressive core in their thinking. Pragmatism in their coalitions and pacts at local level over local issues has perhaps infected them so badly that it has led them to both abandon all principles and attract people to join them who are essentially apolitical. To many Lib Dems politics are viewed as either a career choice or a part-time hobby rather than a belief or set of values about how society should function. For the ambitious, it is an alternative to banking; for the more casual, it can be a toss up between Focus leafleting and the local amateur drama society. Politics is largely absent from their activities or thinking.

And so, now that they are no longer in the position of being able to oppose everything, they are like rabbits in headlights, startled and overwhelmed by the choices and responsibilities facing them, clinging to Cameron's coat-tails to give them some sense of direction, however perverse that is set against their claimed progressive identity.

Freefalling to 8% support in the latest poll - barely a third of what they achieved at the election in May, a Lib Dem funeral is wholly appropriate. The party is unlikely to disappear completely, but it clearly faces massive losses in elections for the foreseeable future as well as a decline in membership and financial support. The fantasy peddled by Clegg's faction that they will be strong enough to have a further Coalition with the Tories after 2015 will remain just that - unless, as happened in the 1930s and 1940s, the Conservatives give a few favoured Lib Dems a free run in some constituencies in order to project themselves as part of a wider movement than the Tories alone.

But more than ever the question that will be most relevant about the Lib Dems will be : "What are they for?"

And answer there will be none.

Let's hope that at least it's a Co-op funeral - it might salvage a little social credibility for them at the very end; and there should be a cracking Afternoon Tea afterwards...
The Lib Dem Funeral 

"Say Goodbye To Broken Promises" - probably the most ironic and cynical party broadcast in history.

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