Andrew Whitaker: Lib Dems count cost of coalition

Nick Clegg and his wife Miriam Gonzalez Durantez look dejected as the scale of the Lib Dem debacle emerges. Picture: Getty Images
Nick Clegg and his wife Miriam Gonzalez Durantez look dejected as the scale of the Lib Dem debacle emerges. Picture: Getty Images
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LABOUR has troubles of its own but it could seize the initiative on electoral reform, writes Andrew Whitaker

In the weeks that have followed their electoral massacring, the plight of the Liberal Democrats has largely slipped off the political agenda, with the Labour Party’s crises accounting for much of the focus on the vanquished opposition.

There has been the occasional media flashpoints for the Lib Dems, with coverage of the party’s leadership election including complaints from party members about rogue operatives from the campaign team of leadership contender Norman Lamb allegedly posing as opinion pollsters to raise derogatory points about rival candidate Tim Farron.

Following their cataclysmic result on 7 May, with the loss of 48 Westminster seats and the party’s presence in the Commons reduced to just eight MPs, it’s difficult to see how the Lib Dems could find a way out of the electoral wilderness in which they have found themselves exiled.

On top of last month’s catastrophic defeat, the centre party looks destined to pay a heavy price in the long term as well as the short term for their one and only stint in government in postwar Britain.

The Lib Dems could well find themselves reliving their experience of their forerunners the Liberal Party, which for most of the 1950s and 1960s could counts its number of MP in single figures.

In what was probably the expression of a forlorn hope, former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown recently suggested progressive forces in British politics should not retreat into post-election tribalism and should instead attempt to work together in a hint at a realignment of the centre-left.

Back in 1992, after Labour’s four successive general election defeat, when some commentators suggested the party might never win again – an argument some have rushed to make in the aftermath of 7 May – there was some pressure for a Lab-Lib pact to oust the Tories. Tony Blair himself was known to be sympathetic to such a move and to a view that left and centre opinion had been falsely divided throughout the 20th century and had allowed the Tories to dominate what could have been a progressive era.

Of course Blair’s landslide in 1997 kiboshed such a realignment and New Labour’s pledge in its election manifesto that year for a referendum on proportional representation – a Holy Grail for the Lib Dems – was never delivered.

But it’s entirely possible that, within the Lib Dem ranks and among some vaguely left-of-centre commentators, there will be fresh calls for Lab-Lib co-operation, particularly if the Tories press ahead with changes to the Westminster constituency boundary system that are almost certain to favour David Cameron’s party.

While the Lib Dem meltdown did not help inflict a Tory defeat as some predicted, there’s still a deep-rooted anger at the Lib Dems among anti-Tory sections of the electorate over the party’s decision to go into coalition with Cameron back in 2010 and preside over policies such as the bedroom tax.

But above all else it’s a struggle to see just what the Lib Dems would have to offer, with the party reduced to single figures in the Commons.

For sure Labour is on the ropes, but, despite its near meltdown in Scotland, the party still has regions where it dominates, such as in large parts of northern England, many of the main English cities as well as in swathes of inner London.

Whatever claims the SNP may make about being “the real opposition”, Labour’s 232 MPs mean that, however bleak things looks for it at the moment, it’s still the only game in town as an alternative UK government to the Tories.

Even if the Lib Dems were to make a limited recovery under either Farron or Lamb and start to pick up the odd by-election seat, it’s unlikely to win anything like the 62 seats it took during its high watermark under the leadership of the late Charles Kennedy in 2005. More likely is that the Lib Dems will become a by-election party, as it was during its last prolonged period in the wilderness in the 1950s and 1960s, and perhaps pick up a few seats that it then relentlessly focuses on retaining.

But even such a mini-revival would not help the party style itself as part of an informal anti-Tory alliance of the sort that Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy managed to re-position the Lib Dems into during the early 1990s.

It’s worth casting the mind back to the late 1980s when Ashdown took over as leader of the Lib Dems, the party that emerged from the wreckage of the ill-fated Liberal-SDP alliance.

Yet Ashdown managed to take the party by the scruff of the neck and, with the pivotal help of the more Labour-friendly Kennedy, who would serve as the party’s UK president in the early 1990s, position it as an anti-Tory force.

Certainly after the 1992 general election and the surprise re-election of John Major, large sections of the UK electorate got very adept at tactical voting to attempt to oust the Tories.

With Labour’s landslide in 1997 that made any prospect of a Lab-Lib pact redundant – and Blair’s failure to make good on a promised electoral reform referendum – the Lib Dems were subsequently able to attempt to portray themselves as being to the left of New Labour on some issues.

Critically in 2005 under Kennedy’s leadership, this would see many Labour supporters move to the Lib Dems largely on the basis of the Iraq war.

However, Nick Clegg’s decision to go in with the Tories in 2010 means the anti-Tory tactical voting that came to the fore in the early 1990s is utterly fractured, perhaps never to be repaired, and the Lib Dems are toxic in the eyes of most left-of-centre voters.

Proportional representation (PR) is off the agenda for a generation too, after Clegg allowed himself to be outfoxed by Cameron into agreeing to a referendum on a system – the alternative vote (AV), a very watered down version of PR – that no-one appeared to believe in.

But with the Tories re-elected on 37 per cent of the vote, and free to pursue an untempered turbo charged austerity agenda for five years, there is an opportunity for Labour where the Lib Dems have failed.

A statement from whoever is elected as UK Labour leader in support of electoral reform and a promise of a referendum on PR could help create an anti-Tory alliance of a different and more progressive kind.