Where did it all go wrong for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats? Therein lies a tale. Was it their vote to treble tuition fees, when they shredded their pre-election pledge to scrap them? How about their failure to deliver change to the election system with the humiliating two-to-one loss of the 2011 referendum on the Alternative Vote? Or was it the very moment they entered into coalition with the Conservatives?
How about going a bit further back, all the way to July 2004 and publication of a harmless-sounding collection of essays from party luminaries? Yet The Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism in fact marked a sea change in the direction of the party, one that now curses Nick Clegg and his acolytes.
The tenth anniversary earlier this month was a low-key affair. However, at the time, the book provided the intellectual ammunition to return the Lib Dems to their historical roots as a Gladstonian liberal party. In so doing, Clegg and his ultras junked the party’s social democratic heritage and embraced neo-liberalism, becoming much more antagonistic to Labour in the process. It is no exaggeration to say that the Orange Book paved the way for the coalition deal with the Tories. (Tellingly, eight of the ten chapter authors have served as ministers in the coalition).
Unfortunately (for Clegg at least), there is simply no space in British politics for a narrow neo-liberal party. Of course there are plenty of neo-liberals floating around in British politics, but the key difference between them and the Orange Bookers is that the Blairites and Cameroons never managed to subdue the other traditions within their parties in the same way the Orange Bookers have done to the Lib Dems. A well-organised cabal in a small party is evidently more successful than in a large one.
Their legacy – and central mistake – has been to wrench their party out of its familiar orbit as the nice and slightly wacky home for mavericks, eccentrics, single-issue purists, political spleen-venters and those voting tactically against one of the other two big parties. Yes, Clegg and the Orange Bookers made the party harder-edged, but they lost some of the ambiguity that made the Lib Dems such an effective sponge for soaking-up disparate groups of voters.
For the party’s poor bloody infantry, the Orange Book has been a false prospectus ever since it was published. Indeed, it is conveniently forgotten by his political assassins that it was Charles Kennedy, and not Clegg, who took the Lib Dems to their highest ever representation in the House of Commons, winning 62 seats in 2005.
With that incorrigible old social democrat out of the picture, Clegg actually went on to win five fewer seats in 2010. But those were heady days compared to what faces the party now they have to defend their neo-liberal record at the polls.
Last month’s European elections saw them dumped in fourth place, losing nine of their 11 MEPs in the process (in some regions, the Lib Dems actually fell to fifth place behind the Greens). In the north of England, where they once boasted of challenging Labour, they are in terminal decline. Just a handful of years ago they ran big cities like Liverpool and Sheffield. Now they have lost every single one of their councillors in Manchester and the second group leader in a row lost his council seat in Clegg’s Sheffield Hallam seat.
Further pain beckons. A recent poll of four Lib Dem/Labour marginal seats by Lord Ashcroft shows their share of the vote has halved from 38 to 19 per cent since 2010. In Lib Dem/Tory marginals, the story is the same, dropping 15 points to 28 per cent. Wipeout is a realistic prospect.
The promise of a new style of politics during that Downing Street Rose Garden love-in back in 2010 has been reduced to David Cameron reportedly making a contemptuous remark about “green crap” while helping scupper the Alternative Vote referendum and offering nothing else on constitutional reform. Clegg is left raking through the embers for proof that this experience has been worth the effort and the sacrifice. No wonder he doesn’t want his kids to go into politics.
To those critics in his party bold enough to stand up to him, it simply hasn’t been worth it. Matthew Oakeshott, a social democratic thorn in Clegg’s flesh for the past four years, quit the party last month, warning of impending apocalypse after his (admittedly cack-handed) attempts to engineer a coup against his leader.
The short term is beyond rescue. Clegg’s power-hungry neo-liberals are finished. Instead, ambitious Lib Dems need to look to the medium term and the election after next. A possible future lies in settling for being a party of ideas and values, seeking to influence the political debate. They should forget aspirations of governing again. The collateral damage inflicted on a junior coalition partner in the bear pit of British politics means it isn’t worth it.
In rediscovering the value of wielding influence rather than power, the Lib Dems should reconnect with their social democratic heritage. The first thing Tim Farron should do when he becomes party leader in the autumn of 2015, is pick up the phone to Lord Oakeshott.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut