THE Eastleigh by-election is an unfamiliar affair with two partners in a coalition government locked in mortal combat. Even more oddly, the Tories’ best hope of winning appears to lie in claiming that unfamiliar territory, the higher moral ground.
It seemed that the long-suffering burghers of Eastleigh were prepared to overlook the legal difficulties of Chris Huhne, their former MP. Then along came Lord Rennard, who had not previously impinged upon the public consciousness, and suddenly the Tories are back in the race amid complaints of moral turpitude and cover-ups. Whether Eastleigh cares will soon be revealed.
For guidance, it is worth recalling from Eastleigh’s exotic political history why this staunch Tory seat was won by the Liberal Democrats in the first place. That was in a 1994 by-election which resulted from the high-profile Tory MP being found hanging from an electric cord in a sad case of auto-erotic asphyxiation.
However, it was not the foibles of a lonely MP that outraged the voters of Eastleigh but the Tory plans, then in full swing, for privatisation of the railways. This was a railway town with thousands employed in the maintenance depots and the voters rightly foresaw what the giveaway would do for their community.
I suspect this memory of what the Tories are about still counts for more than Lord Rennard’s social habits. In the meantime, the Lib Dems have built up a huge majority on the local council by doing what they are very good at: paying close attention to the minutiae of matters which concern voters. Pavement politics, as it used to be called, is not to be sniffed at. Ironically, its guru has been the same Lord Rennard.
We are told that, nationally, support for the Lib Dems is down to 8 per cent, four adrift of the saloon-bar party, aka UKIP. If Eastleigh stays yellow, so to speak, it will be a remarkable exception to the general rule that almost nobody has a good word to say about Nick Clegg and his party. The only gratitude the Lib Dems have gained as a result of their coalition adventure is from comedians in search of easy material.
If, on the other hand, Eastleigh merely confirms the perception that the Liberal Democrats can no longer win anywhere, then there will inevitably be demands for Clegg to go and for the Lib Dems to withdraw from coalition with the Tories. Equally certainly, these demands will be resisted by those who enjoy being in office and cling to the hope that something will turn up.
I don’t take any great pleasure from the Lib Dems’ fairly desperate plight, particularly if – as currently predicted – it leads to their virtual extinction as a parliamentary presence, in Westminster or Holyrood. We may not need the Liberal Democrats in their current ill-advised manifestation, but we do need liberalism as a coherent, articulate political force.
The coalition with the Tories always looked like carrying a disproportionate level of risk for the Lib Dems, and so it has proved. It may be that they have diluted the Tory medicine in some respects, but that is not often apparent to many voters. And some of their leading figures look far too much like true disciples to convince anyone that they are actually fighting any good fight from within.
These perceptions are now set and are not going to change. Should Clegg and his colleagues stay the full coalition course, then they will still be on a hiding to nothing when next the electorate pronounces. If the Tories face defeat, the Lib Dems will share in the opprobrium. If the Tories turn the tables, the glory will be theirs alone.
Why should this concern anyone outside the family circle of mourners? First, because the obvious gainers from a Lib Dem collapse are the Tories – a fact which they are well aware of even if the intended victims are not. If the Lib Dem vote collapses in the south of England (Eastleigh presumably excepted), then most of these seats will turn blue, not red.
But there is a more fundamental reason why I don’t want to see the Liberal Democrats (by which I really mean the old Liberals) eradicated. It is because I have always found them overwhelmingly decent, constructive and progressive. In fact, downright liberal; often a force for good and rarely for significant ill. We can have our differences, but in the great scheme of things, there is not a lot wrong with that.
Undoubtedly, my view is coloured by the fact that so much of my experience has been in the Highlands and Islands where the Liberal tradition, at least till very recently, was quite radical. The Liberals in the distant past had been the party of land reform, tenants’ rights and the old age pension. Generations forgave them a lot for that history and their parliamentarians did their best in return. We got on well.
All parties contain social radicals, but they also contain social reactionaries. A party which has liberalism as its credo rather than as an optional extra fighting against more populist trends is invariably a useful ally and often the outrider for reforms that are not yet mainstream enough for major parties to embrace. I think, for example, of David Steel’s brave work on abortion law reform, while Roy Jenkins was always a Liberal in Labour clothing. I forgive Nick Clegg a lot for at least trying to reform the House of Lords.
All of this makes the Lib Dems’ current status as junior partners to the Tories so confusing – and if it seems like that to me, then what must it be like to their own lifelong supporters? Instead of being on the permanent side of decency, they are now shared standard-bearers for the bedroom tax and silly Europhobia. It just doesn’t add up.
Liberalism, by definition, is about fairness, equality and the rights of individuals against the overweening state. It is internationalist in outlook and undeterred by the unpopularity of minority causes. How any of that can be equated with what they are now involved in, as vividly confirmed by the contempt heaped upon them by Boris Johnston and Co in Eastleigh, is hard to fathom.
The outcome in Eastleigh may postpone the hour of destiny, but it will not remove the need for the Liberal Democrats to make a decision before the Tories make it for them. If the liberal baby goes down the plug with the coalition bath water, we will not be living in a better place.