By Gareth R Roberts
Let me declare my interest: between 1994 and 1997, I was the Liberal Democrat Senior Researcher in Parliament. It was a time I look back at with great fondness: there I was in my mid-20s doing a job I loved, swanking around Parliament like I owned the place. It was a time of Britpop, Mandela, the Irish Peace Process and the end of over a decade of Tory government. Things felt great.
It helped that I was lucky enough to be in that role at a time when the Lib-Dems were in a good place. Paddy Ashdown’s party was a happy synthesis of the social democracy brought by the likes of Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams and the social liberalism of David Steel and Archie Kirkwood. The manifesto for the 1997 election, which I helped draft, was all about ‘unleashing potential’ and included commitments to the NHS, state education, social security and full employment. There were proposals for a hypothecated taxation system, a Human Rights Act and devolution.
It was all good.
In the two years prior to 1997, Ashdown had been in careful talks with Tony Blair. Ashdown’s vision was for a centre left coalition which would reverse much of what had happened under Thatcher and Major and provide a rather hefty and natural buffer against any potential future right wing government. He envisaged, with Blair’s acquiescence, that in return for throwing the Lib-Dems behind a Blair government, the Lib-Dems would be given proportional representation – which would ensure, in perpetuity, a greater Lib-Dem presence in Parliament.
In the event, even though the Lib-Dems did well in 1997, the Labour landslide was such that Tony Blair didn’t need the inconvenience of a deal with Ashdown and the proposals were quietly shelved.
Most of us understood this. Indeed most of the Lib-Dems (certainly the ones I knew) were perfectly content at the prospect of a Tony Blair government, as most of us had grown up under the Tories and just wanted them gone. For me personally, I left Parliament shortly after the election of 1997 – I felt I’d done my shift and needed a new challenge.
And the party I left did not see themselves as a natural replacement for the Labour Party, but rather, rightly or wrongly, as their social and liberal conscience – indeed on some issues such as tuition fees and the invasion of Iraq, the Lib-Dems would outflank the Blairites on the left in the years between 1997 and 2005.
But, as Charles Kennedy, who had replaced Ashdown, struggled with his own particular demons, the party started to change. The Orange Bookers published their pamphlet in 2004, it was a manifesto for the economic liberalism espoused by David Laws, Ed Davey and Chris Huhne – the Ashdownian acceptance of the dominant and necessary role of the state was replaced by a the neo-liberal belief in the supremacy of the market.
I didn’t really take much notice of this shift: the party had always been a fairly benign coalition of social democrats and traditional liberals, and, although I didn’t agree with the sentiments of the Orange Book authors, I liked them personally; nor, was I awake to the fact that the new political strategy was to supplant the Labour Party as the main opposition to the Tories.
Which is why, in May 2010, I confidently, though wrongly, predicted to anyone who would listen that the Lib-Dems would not under any circumstances enter into a coalition with the Tories. I even went as far as speaking to some of my former bosses who assured me that such an alliance was unlikely.
It took an hour for the Lib-Dem Parliamentary Party to overwhelmingly back the idea of going into coalition with David Cameron. An hour. Only Charles Kennedy voted against. Not that it matters, but I left the party that day, and I have not been back since.
I wrote at the time that getting into bed with an ideologically motivated party would only end badly for the Lib-Dems; austerity, I asserted, was an ideologically driven position, not an economically driven necessity. It doesn’t give me great pleasure, but I think I called that right because, as we all know, in the 2015 election the Lib-Dems were decimated. The Tories brutally destroying them as a political force as David Cameron pursued his ultimately doomed plan of achieving political dominance.
Since then, the Lib-Dems have struggled to be relevant, their performance in the 2017 election was poor and seemed to be epitomised by their leader, Tim Farron’s, inability to reconcile his Christianity with his politics.
But, fortune has been kind to them, they been handed a couple of lifelines in the form of Jeremy Corbyn and Brexit.
Brexit has been good for the Lib-Dems. As an unashamedly pro-EU party, they’ve had no problem presenting themselves as the party of remain; whilst in addition, the marmite nature of Jeremy Corbyn has proved fruitful as many ex-Blairites and moderate Labour Party members have jumped ship. The Euro elections saw them enjoy a 13% swing in their favour as they polled 19.6% of the vote, second only to the Brexit Party.
And, buoyed by this, they started this general election campaign in a sprightly fashion – their policy to revoke article 50, though seen by many as actually an affront to democracy, did make sense, as it included the caveat that they would do this only if they won the most seats and formed a government, which even the most ardent orange jumper wearing Lib-Dem knows is unlikely.
Then there was the deal with Greens and Plaid Cymru to enter into a reciprocal arrangement to stand down in certain seats in pursuit of a remain alliance – this is sensible and progressive. But, then, worryingly, it appears that as the campaign has progressed the Lib-Dems have started to lose their minds.
First, there is the continued outright antipathy towards Jeremy Corbyn. Sure, I can understand why the Lib-Dems might be reticent about suggesting any kind of pact with another party, particularly a party that is led by a man who is seen by many in his own party as being an electoral liability. But, their unequivocal rejection of Labour doesn’t sit comfortably with their slightly warmer attitude towards Boris Johnson’s Tories. It would seem utterly devoid of logic if, in the event of a hung Parliament, the Lib-Dems decided that they would prop up a minority Johnson government which is avowedly Brexit, rather than the Labour Party which, despite the efforts of Corbyn, is significantly more remain. It suggests that the Lib-Dems are falling foul of their own hype and failing to grasp the realpolitik of this election – a suggestion that has only been enhanced by the leadership’s decision to stand a candidate against Rosie Duffield in Canterbury, despite the original candidate’s decision to stand down in her favour.
Jo Swinson defends the decision by suggestion that Jeremy Corbyn is too radical – but, given that they are happy to form an electoral pact with Plaid Cymru, who have at the heart of their very existence a desire to break up the Union, and the Greens, who want to see a seismic shift towards sustainable economics, then this doesn’t really hold water.
Perhaps, more telling is the recent unveiling of their economic plans – the Lib-Dems, so, their economic spokesman Ed Davey told us, would make sure that the Treasury ran a permanent surplus. I almost choked when I heard this – just when everyone else is distancing themselves from austerity, with this policy the Lib-Dems, have pretty much declared that we will always be in a state of austerity – because the only way a permanent surplus happens is if the government is taxing like it’s 1977 or cutting like its 1981. There’s no need for the Lib-Dems to place themselves, or the nation if it ever came to that, into such a fiscal straightjacket – it means that almost certainly you either break your own promise or you fail dismally to impose any kind of social change that involves expenditure. It’s economically unnecessary and politically inept.
And the only reason that I can think of as to why they’ve pursued it, is that ideologically those at the helm of the Lib-Dems are still in thrall to the George Osborne vision of economics that was in nightmarish fashion ten years ago.
Since the Lib-Dems have decided to move themselves to the right in this campaign, their polling has gone down the pan. Are the two connected? Without doubt. As they did in 2010, the Lib-Dem orange bookers have forgotten that most of their natural constituency of potential support do not adhere to neo-liberal orthodoxy of Friedman or Hayek, but rather are the type of people who want to see pragmatic solutions to the problems we face. They do trust institutions, such as local government and the EU, but they are wary of ideologies. Most importantly, most of them are instinctively not Conservative.
My greatest fear now, is that come December 13th, if Boris Johnson phones up Jo Swinson and asks her to prop up a minority Tory government, she will listen to his nonsense and agree to do so. I can see them both now in the Rose Garden with Jo banging on about the ‘national interest’. Four weeks ago, I would have said that no political party is so monumentally stupid that it would shoot itself in the head twice, but now, suddenly, I fear that the Lib-Dems may just be that party.