It certainly seems so. Coming on top of losing the appallingly mis-handled referendum on PR for the UK Parliament, they also recently lost Council seats in the UK by the bucketload, confirming that it is they, rather than the majority partner in the governing Coalition – the Conservative Party – that is wearing the opprobrium of the public for the austerity measures currently wracking the country.

 

From smiling chumminess in the garden at No 10 with his new mate David Cameron to contemplating the worst Council election results in his party’s history – is this mid-terms blues or is the party really over for Nick Clegg?

 

As nobody ever expects the Tories to do anything but ruthlessly “cut, cut, cut” when they are in power, (especially when they inherit Government from an utterly profligate and incompetent Labour Government), and the Liberal Democrats have for years portrayed themselves as nice, warm, wooly middle-class people who are in favour of just about everything sugary and nice and against anything nasty and pooh-bum-ish, then when they were pitchforked into the maelstrom of handling an economic crisis this outcome was, of course, utterly predictable.

As the inestimably wonderful Tony Benn once said to me over a beer in Harrogate  – although, as a teetotaler, he was drinking a mug of tea, of course – “The people don’t want us to be the Bastards, Stephen, they know we’re no good at it. If they want the Bastards, they’ll go for the proper Bastards. The ones who do it naturally. Left wing parties have no job being Bastards. Not you, not Labour.”

And he was spot on.

I sent an email to a friend commenting that the very good Lib Dem candidate for the London mayoralty really shouldn’t have come fourth behind the Greens. He commented by return:

You think London is bad? In Edinburgh (where the Lib Dems were the largest party until Thursday), one Lib Dem candidate received fewer votes than “Professor Pongoo, the Six-Foot Penguin”.

Well, I have endured some pretty awful election results as a Liberal in my time. However, I am pleased to say I was never beaten by a Six-Foot Penguin, no matter what his level of academic achievement. It reminds one fearfully of the wonderful Monty Python “Election Night Special”.

Eerily prescient. Anyway, since almost the very day that the deal was done between Clegg and Cameron and the Coalition came to power, worried Lib Dem campaigners with generations of experience have been tearing their hair out to convince the left-of-centre party’s central leadership that they need to be effectively – note, effectively – differentiated from their bigger Coalition partners or inevitably face an electoral backlash of considerable proportions.

The problem is, the Lib Dem leadership (with a very few exceptions) generally seem to show every sign of being perfectly convinced that the Government’s parsimony is the only way forward for Britain, when what was needed, of course, was an intelligent re-direction of spending priorities away from massive, flabby bureaucracy but back into the economy, to ensure adequate investment in national infrastructure which would duly trickle through to a variety of private enterprises.

Yes, the country must live within its means, or at least, very close to them. Ultimately, all countries must. However, there was and is still a deal of work to be done deciding exactly what that entails. Economies are like hungry bellies – they need feeding or they grind to a halt. Private business just doesn’t pick up the slack. Sticking up a few stadia for the upcoming Olympics will not cut it: on the basis of its transport infrastructure alone, for example, the UK lags far behind its European competitors. What was needed was a measured, thoughtful re-direction of investment. What Britain got was a wholesale panic shut down of Government spending.

In short, Clegg has singularly failed to convince anyone that his party is doing a smart job of ameliorating the Government’s excesses, or of creating smart outcomes that lock in a future for Britain as an innovative, manufacturing nation. He is now a figure of sarcastic fun, and electorally tainted – probably, in my opinion, damaged goods beyond repair.  There will be a gradually growing pressure for change within the party from the “ABC”  tendency – “Anyone But Clegg”  – not that many of the leading Lib Dems look well poised to take over.

In the historic scheme of things, the Lib Dems will recover from this experience – eventually – although they may have reached their modern high water mark at the last two general elections. In future, what positive effect they have on legislation is unclear, and probably subject to the concomitant electoral success of an eclectic bunch of nationalists, greens and anti-European bombasts, who will all make uncomfortable ginger-group colleagues.

(Perhaps the best thing that can be said about the UK Independence Party is that they are not the British National Party, which did very badly at the Council elections. However, those who enjoy watching the fringes of British politics might like to consider this story before they try and keep their kippers and toast down.)

In our opinion the Lib Dems should have resisted joining a coalition and supported legislation on a case by case basis, playing honest brokers between the two major parties, and demonstrating what it is that makes them different from the big boys.

Yes, it would have been messy, untidy and complicated, and the arrangement would have been roundly criticised for not being “stable”  enough.

But on the other hand the British public might have learned something about non-majority Government, (as Australia has in the last two years), and they would have kept their soul, and their uniquely independent and refreshing view of the political landscape in the UK. I know I will be accused of 20-20 hindsight, but I did say it at the time.

In the end, though, the lure of the Government benches was too strong. Being treated like grown ups for the first time in three generations was a heady brew.

Sadly, though, the hangover may go on for a very long time.

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Comments
  1. Paul says:

    Not sure there will be a comeback after these results and even if there was……who would lead?
    I can see the Lib Dems one day supporting a minority Labour Party but the country could be a very different place than it is now.

    Clegg must realise that he will be hounded out of his constituency at the next General Election.

    Some people say that they have sold their soul to the devil. I think the ‘devil’ will battle on and sort our country out to the point where it gets elected without the support of the LIb Dems. Having said that they need to stay firm and not start pulling their own Party apart.

    Like

  2. manzanotti says:

    I’d have to disagree that they are copping the flack for the austerity measures. They are getting destroyed for spending the entire election campaign telling people how they weren’t like the other parties, that they had principles, only to then show that they are actually *exactly* like the other parties, and that all of their principles are readily ditched in return for power. I fear that they’re the straw on the camel’s back for a lot of people who were sick of Labour and the Conservatives, and wanted a new type of politics. And, thanks to their totally incompetent handling of the AV referendum, they’ve pretty much just added to the large number of people who would rather not vote.

    They’ve also lost their entire left wing vote, and the sizeable number of people who cannot stand the Tories. Add to that, they are also (correctly) getting the flack for passing the NHS privatisation bill, which wasn’t in the Tory manifesto (in anything other than weasely words designed to hide their intentions) or the Coalition agreement, and that they therefore could have legitimately stopped.

    In response to Paul, I think that you are crediting the devil with far more intelligence and competence than they actually have. They aren’t going to sort the economy out, as their austerity measures (90% of which are still to come) are self-defeating, won’t reduce the deficit, let alone the debt, and will also attempt to destroy the fabric of the country.

    Just for the record, I did vote Lib Dem at the last General Election, for the first time, and I am now looking forward to watching their demise as a force in politics. I feel totally betrayed by them (more so than by Blair, believe it or not), and I can’t think of a single thing they can do to *ever* get my vote back, seeing as I can’t trust their word on anything.

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    • I do think that the public feel betrayed by the Lib Dems, by the decision on student tuition fees in particular, for example. I also think their leadership has handled the situation with staggering incompetence. I doubt things will get better before the next election. Clegg is a “dead man walking”, in my opinion.

      Like

  3. Richard Ember says:

    If austerity was going to work, they had to cut hard and fast. They have missed the boat and this ‘slice, slice, slice’ will not work. It is now too late for the major realignment that the economy needed.

    Worst of all, the return of the dreadful Labour Party is, in my opinion, all but assured at the next Election. We are, I am afraid, doomed.

    Like

  4. Richard Ember says:

    Ah, Tony Benn. The same Tony Benn who said in 2010, “Ordinary people are being forced to pay for the bankers’ profligacy. This government of millionaires says “we’re all in it together” and “there is no alternative”. But, for the wealthy, corporation tax is being cut, the bank levy is a pittance, and top salaries and bonuses have already been restored to pre-crash levels.”

    His grandaughter, Emma, clearly took this message to heart. She started with UBS in March.

    Like

  5. Richard Ember says:

    Yes, contradicted only by the facts. Well, in part. The part he has right is simply stating the obvious.

    Like

  6. Ed says:

    Last year’s referendum was on AV, not PR.

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    • Needless to say that is technically correct but AV was nevertheless an attempt to introduce an element of proportionality to the system and splitting hairs in that is not relevant to the point being made, which is that the Lib Dem leadership mishandled the referendum entirely. In fact, since the first ore-election leader’s debate, the Lib Dem leadership and their advisers have hardly put a foot right …

      Like

  7. Tim Symonds says:

    The LibDems ought not to have elected Clegg their leader – he’d make a fine Permanent Secretary but I certainly wouldn’t have followed him over the barricades. Then, when the offer of Coalition came along he selected a team of four males, not a female in sight, despite the threatened cuts impacting on women 70% to men 30% – and he should have offered to give suypport on a Bill by Bill basis, not a tied-in-with-every-Bill basis, as voting for college tuition fees showed. Also, people like me didn’t join the Liberal Party decades ago to see it shift to the Centre-Right on the grounds of some spurious bugle call to ‘save the nation’.

    Like

    • I completely agree, Tim. And the whirlwind we reaped was horrifying to watch.

      Like

    • Paul says:

      Very clear and concise view of what happened to your Party and it’s leader and I can understand your stance after knowing you as an active Liberal. Personally, something I noticed in some constituencies was that the libdem % loss was identical to the % rise in the Ukip vote which could indicate that some libdem voters were not liberal in any form. Anyway more importantly how on earth can you see the Party resurrects itself especially as Farron seems to be the only candidate?

      Like

      • I have posted this everywhere I can think of, Paul. I can only hope someone listens, as no one listened to my warnings.

        What do the Lib Dems do now? Here’s a refined Liberal message:

        “We exist to protect those without power. We exist to give them a voice. We exist to ensure that Government serves them, not the other way round. We do not hunt for some mythical place called the centre ground, we search for a place where there is justice, and compassion, and where the great talents of the people are liberated for the greater good of the community. We do not seek to rule our people, we seek to give them the tools, the knowledge and the support so that they may rule themselves.”

        Post it on your Facebook page, have it adopted by your local party, write to what’s left of the Parliamentary party to get them fired up and agreeing … The future starts today.

        Like

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