Coalition was not kind to Nick Clegg. Photo: Getty
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The Lib Dems’ painful lesson: splitting the difference doesn't work

The Lib Dems became the anti-conviction party.

The Liberal landslide of 1906 was, George Dangerfield observed, a victory from which they never recovered. One hundred and four years later, the success of the Liberal Democrats in 2010 - one million extra votes and Nick Clegg’s appointment as Deputy Prime Minister in a coalition government -  now looks very similar. 

"The little party always gets smashed," Angela Merkel told David Cameron in 2010. But there was nothing inevitable about the Lib Dems losing 48 seats on election night. It reflected something much more profound than the sense of betrayal engendered by voting to treble tuition fees: the failure of the Lib Dems to say what they were for.

Sure, it was obvious what they opposed. Clegg’s conference speech in 2013 bragged of 16 Tory policies the Lib Dems had blocked. The party said it was needed to give the Tories a heart and Labour a head. But in the process the Lib Dems assumed an almost robotic tendency, seeming to define themselves entirely by adopting the midpoint between Labour and the Conservatives on every issue. The Lib Dems became the anti-conviction party, who needed to check what everyone else thought before they worked out what they did.

Some Lib Dems had seen the perils of this approach. The electorate did not want an “insipid moderation”, Jeremy Browne warned this year. “Whatever liberalism is, it is not defined by where the other parties choose to pitch themselves or by measuring the distance between them and splitting it in half.” Once the party of the radical centre, the Lib Dems sleepwalked into repreenting mushy and timid centrism.

It could have been different. Clegg made a poor strategic choice when ministerial positions were allocated. He should have made the party own complete departments. Clegg could have become Education Secretary, declaring the Lib Dems the party of education and social mobility. As smaller coalition partners do in New Zealand, the Lib Dems could have been awarded ministers outside cabinet, free to criticise the government over decisions they had no say over.

The upshot of these failures came on Thursday. In aggressively briefing against the Conservatives, the Lib Dems had disowned their own role in government – making it easier for Lib Dem-Tory swing voters to vote blue. For a party who had just been in government for the first time since World War Two, the Lib Dems had surprisingly little positive to say about the experience.

Still no one expected election night to be so dire for the party. The Lib Dems now have just eight seats left – the lowest number at a general election since 1970, when the old Liberal Party won a mere six. The underlying belief that sustained the Lib Dems – that at least 25 assiduous incumbents could cling on by fighting by-elections divorced from the national campaign – proved delusional.

The foundations for this belief came in the Eastleigh by-election in February 2013, when the Lib Dems survived the Chris Huhne saga and terrible national opinion polls to hold onto the seat. But it now looks like a pyrrhic victory: defeat would have meant the end of Clegg’s time as party leader and forced an urgent rethink of the party’s strategy. The Lib Dems were willfully ignorant of the real lesson of Eastleigh: that despite pouring all national resources into the seat, they had still suffered a 14% fall in votes and only clung on because of Ukip splitting the vote. Not so this week: as Ukip fell back, Mike Thornton was thumped by 9,000 votes.  

Reports of the death of uniform swing have been exaggerated. No matter how popular, incumbent Lib Dems have not been immune to the wider campaign, and the Conservatives framing of the election as a choice between Cameron and a Miliband-Sturgeon coalition.

Many were confused why David Cameron spent so long campaigning here in the final days of the campaign. Well now we know: he said he needed to “destroy” the Lib Dems there to win a majority. How he did: 27 of the Tories’ 35 gains were at the Lib Dems’ expense. The 14 Lib Dems seats from Cheltenham to St Ives have become none.

“People were saying they wanted clarity, a government not beholden to the SNP. That message chimed with people right at the end of the campaign,” Gavin Grant, chair of the party’s western counties region, told the Guardian. “The trend among switch voters – those deciding between ourselves and the Conservatives – was away from us. There was a desire for certainty.” The warning signs should have been there five years ago: despite Cleggmania and all those extra votes, the Lib Dems actually lost a net five seats in 2010 - including a net nine to the Conservatives.

In five years time, the Lib Dems might be in a position to reclaim some of these lost seats. One way or another, scaremongering about the SNP’s impact will not resonate in the same way. The imminent cuts under a Conservative minority government might make many of those who switched from the Lib Dems to the Tories – or who abandoned the Lib Dems for the Greens or Labour – reassess the Lib Dems’ role in government. Given Labour’s appealing brand in swathes of England’s south and west, the Lib Dems are well-poised to take up the mantle of opposition to the Conservatives in these areas, especially if there are by-elections in seats which the Lib Dems lost in 2015.

But it is also possible that the worst has only just begun for the Lib Dems. In areas like Bristol West and Norwich South, the Green Party shows signs of attracting the young, socially and environmentally conscious voters for whom the Lib Dems were once a natural home. The boundary changes that the Lib Dems delayed once will come in 2018, reducing the number of seats from 650 to 600 – Tim Farron is one of the MPs who could be worst affected. Both Labour and the Conservatives might now try to entice the rump of remaining Lib Dems to defect. A split in what remains of the party, as occurred in the 1930s, is also possible.

For now the remaining Lib Dems – more than a black cab’s worth, but only just – have learned a painful truth. The electorate wants more than a party whose entire raison d’etre lies in splitting the difference between the Conservatives and Labour. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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