What Next for the Liberal Democrats?

by Charlie_East_West on May 14, 2015

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Paddy Ashdown. David Lloyd George. William Gladstone. David Steel. Jo Grimond. Nick Clegg…your boys and girls took a hell of a beating…

The biggest loser on election night was the Liberal Democrats. A party that prides itself on its resilience was reduced to a parliamentary husk. The Lib Dems are now left with a meagre 8 MPs as Charles Kennedy, Vince Cable, Danny Alexander, Ed Davey, David Laws, Simon Hughes, Jo Swinson and Andrew George were tossed into the dustbin of political history by the electorate.

The likely next leader of the Lib Dems, Tim Farron, previously described his party “like cockroaches after a nuclear war, just a bit less smelly”. Unfortunately for the Lib Dems, many of these cockroaches have now been eradicated by the Tories.

The Lib Dems have paid a heavy price for their five years of coalition with the Tories. They are now left with so few MPs that they can all fit within one 140 character tweet on Twitter.

I do however, have a lot of sympathy for the Lib Dems. Admittedly, huge mistakes were made within the Orange Booker hiararchy of the Lib Dems, but it is the grassroots that I feel incredibly sorry for. They had no say in the coalition and yet, these decent, principled, true Liberal believers were punished with the loss of hundreds of councillors and parliamentary representatives and were left with a diminished force across local councils and European, Scottish and Westminister parliaments. Their activist base has been destroyed, and many people have lost their jobs. This is the human cost to the dreadful decision making from Nick Clegg and his senior parliamentary colleagues for entering into a coalition with the Tories, and subsequently destroying voter trust in the Lib Dems for a generation.

Many of the election swings against the Lib Dems will take a few election cycles to recover. For instance, Yeovil voters turned David Laws’s 13,000 majority into a 5,000 lead for the Tories. The once formidable Scottish Liberal Democrats (previously with rich liberal heritage and party grandees such as Menzies Campbell, Jim Wallace, Charles Kennedy, David Steel, Russell Johnston, Malcolm Bruce and Archy Kirkwood) have now been wiped out (apart from the survival of Alistair Carmichael in the defiantly Lib Dem supporting Orkney & Shetland).

However, for all their naivety in coalition, their is an argument to be made that the Lib Dems will be missed. The Tories will now run the country at full neoliberal speed, without any Lib Dem brakes. The Lib Dems in coalition have been replaced with right-wing zealots intent to destroy the welfare state, public services and human rights.

The millions of people who voted for this will soon discover that they get the Government they deserve – a turbo-charged right-wing ideology is now running the country and voters will learn that a Tory majority is very different from rabid right-wingers held back from their own nastiness by a liberal coalition partner.

There are many items on the new Tory Government agenda that the Lib Dems may well have blocked: the repeal of the Human Rights Act, anti-terror powers, battering the life out of the BBC, reviving the “snooper’s charter”, £12bn of benefit cuts and the inevitable cuts to the NHS and education budgets.

The Lib Dems are currently having a period of reflection to remember their own fallen. But do they have it within themselves to become a political phoenix from the flames? 10,000 new members since May 7th indicates that liberalism is still flickering in the wind.

Where do the Lib Dems go from here? I would like to state that I think the Liberal Democrats will die. But only as a name. Liberalism will survive. It is obvious however, that to survive, the Lib Dems need to do the following things:-

1. Axe the name “Liberal Democrats” and replace it with “Liberals” – I am aware that the name “Liberal Party” has been taken by a few previously disgruntled and disenfranshied Liberals – so it might prove tricky to patent and copyright that name – but taking the name “Liberals” would be a good starting point to remove previous toxicity around their brand and allow a clean break from the past five years.

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*The rest of this article will now step into the future and refer the Liberal Democrats as the “Liberals”.
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2. Tim Farron must be the new Liberal leader. He wins because there is almost no one else in the house. Norman Lamb is too Cleggite. The Liberals need a clean break from the past and realign towards their social liberal heritage and core grassroots support.

3. Any spare copies of the Orange Book must be torn up, burnt or shredded. This book was the ideological starting gun towards their own destruction. The likes of Nick Clegg and David Laws developed a Tory-lite, free market, classical liberalism philosophy that pushed the party into the wrong direction by coup d’état and into the coalition gates of hell guarded by the Tories.

4. The Liberals must become the party of protest on the left. They need to reposition themselves as the champion of the underdog. There are any number of opportunities to do this, almost immediately – Human Rights Act, EU Referendum and Trident renewal. The Liberals must once again become the activists, campaigners and thorn in the side. They could become a key asset to any future Progressive Alliance.

5. The Liberals must be realistic about their own electoral prospects over the next five years. Once the dust settles and they have chosen a new leadership team, they must target 20 or so key constituencies and focus their entire energies into winning those seats either through targeting by-elections or key seats at the 2020 general election. If that means not standing in the 350+ seats that they lost their deposits, then so be it. What is the point fighting in seats that will only result in losing money through lost deposits? The Liberals must think pragmatically and operate prudently and realistically to claw back a parliamentary base similar to where they were between 1992-1997.

6. Finally – and most controversially – The Liberals must shout from the rooftops about how awful the Tories are without the Liberal hand-brake in Government. Yes, coalition was an absolute strategic and electoral disaster for the Lib Dems, but there has to be a reminder of what a disaster it will be for the country when the Tories are left to their own devices.

As a personal aside, I wish them well. For all their faults and betrayals between 2010-2015, Britain still needs a Liberal Party. Prior to 2015, I always voted for the Lib Dems. Christ, I have even worked for the Lib Dems. If they implement my suggested recommendations, I am sure that I will be voting for them again at some point in the future. I quite like supporting an underdog.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Eddie Kaye May 14, 2015 at 4:14 pm

If a name change is on the cards, how about ‘New Liberals’ – although I am not 100% sure it is necessary. Maybe a ‘New Labour’ type branding is called for.

Agreed, trying to wrestle a number of key seats back from the Tories in the SW is one policy. From the #LibDemFightback hashtag doing the rounds, is the fightback plan to avoid about half the country – it looks a bit more agressive than that.

Totally agree on the last point, they need to move away from the defensive Clegg stand of doing ones best at a difficult time, and come out fighting – even a hands up ‘we got it wrong’ statement would send out the message that they are where they are due to their own mistake.

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John Stone May 14, 2015 at 6:44 pm

You don’t really big it up, but there’s no doubt that the tuition fees debacle was a huge factor. It made the party look like it would sell it’s granny for power. The other factor was the emergence of UKIP which attracted the pensioner NOTA vote away. The latter will be hard to win back so I suspect many of the Cornish seats may have gone for good, as has Scotland. The opportunities may lie with liberal urbanites, especially the academic vote, and possibly the rural less well off.

I feel sorry for the LibDems, as you say, it’s only in this Parliament that people will see what they kept off the agenda.

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nino May 15, 2015 at 10:51 am

If there is a bright side its that in future the Tories will find it impossible to go into coalition (should they need it to form a future government) with no one other than crazies like the kippers – a frightening thought in itself. They have proved lethally toxic. The question also remains of whether Cameron is up to the task
of even handling a 12 seat majority without a fall guy. After all the libdems helped him save face on many occasions. Cameron is no heavyweight statesman and posing as such for the cameras is no substitute

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alx w May 17, 2015 at 8:14 pm

Not sure that this election will lead not to a continual fragmentation to different parties, but a return to two party politics (at least outside scotland) As the grim fact will be that the country is being polarised into any one but Labour and anyone but the tory camps. Leaving people with choosing the least worst scenario. Unless the conservative government do magically turn into a one nation centrist party??

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