Another nail in the coffin

Political oblivion looms large, writes James Turley

It has, all told, been a quiet month or two for the Liberal Democrats, who in the run-up to and aftermath of the holiday season seemed to face gaffe after gaffe, culminating in a mediocre performance in the Oldham East by-election in January.

Now, they may look back to that poll with a certain amount of nostalgia. Mediocrity has become humiliation. Like Oldham, last week’s Barnsley by-election would - under ‘normal’ political circumstances - be a good chance for hopeful pretenders to this safest of Labour seats (returning a red rosette since 1935) to make a decent showing at least. After all, the last MP, Eric Illsley, did not vacate his seat due to death or ill-health, or elevation to the Lords - he was a casualty of the expenses scandal, one of the handful of MPs whose greed was deemed to have crossed the line of legality.

The Lib Dems placed second in the 2010 general election, beating the Tories by a mere six votes. Less than a year later, their candidate finished sixth - out of six - losing his deposit. Dominic Carman was roundly beaten by the Tories, UK Independence Party and - worst of all for a veteran liberal anti-fascist campaigner - the British National Party, of whose leader Nick Griffin Carman has written an unpublished, unofficial and presumably pretty uncomplimentary biography.

This is about as thorough a trouncing as it is possible to imagine. What is worse is that even the Lib Dems clearly saw it coming. Carman complained of suffering intense abuse on the campaign trail, to the point of people spitting in his face. Nick Clegg, according to the Evening Standard, became the first Lib Dem leader since 1999 to leave a by-election candidate in the lurch, not visiting the constituency once (May 3).

Indeed why bother? It is the Labour heartlands where anti-Lib Dem hostility is at its strongest. If a nobody of a candidate can expect to get spat on, lord only knows what the good people of Barnsley would have in store for Nick Clegg. A visit from one of Britain’s most hated men would probably have reduced the party’s meagre return even more.

The Lib Dems have not lost anything here - apart from face, and morale. Even a robust challenge from a less detested party would have had an impossible task dislodging Labour in Barnsley. Far more serious challenges loom, however. On May 5, local elections take place around the country. The Barnsley result is probably a good indicator of Lib Dem chances in the Labour heartlands - the north, Wales, Scotland. As for Tory-leaning wards, Clegg and co are despised there too, for their part in (supposedly) watering down Tory policies on key rightwing shibboleths. Resentment of the coalition is now, outside bourgeois politics and the media, a national pastime, uniting everyone from the far left to the hard Tory right. (In Barnsley, it is worth noting that Ukip beat the Tories into third.) It is difficult to imagine any other result for the Lib Dems than near wipe-out on May 5.

Whoever does reap the spoils, of course, only inherits a local government structure systematically gutted by Thatcher and her inheritors - but that should not lead us to underestimate the importance of local elections. Getting councillors elected means having a layer of full-timers, who (if they make even a passable pretence of doing their job) will be in touch with the concerns of local people, and available to go on the knocker for Westminster candidates. So a catastrophic showing in the local elections will amount to a serious body blow for the Lib Dems, and will make the already very shaky possibility of recovery in time to fight the next general election in good order even more remote.

Best-case scenario

If the Lib Dems are to survive the next election as an organisation, they will require a lot of help - crucially from the Tories. In the first instance, they will need to secure a ‘yes’ vote in the forthcoming referendum on the ersatz-proportional alternative vote system - the only substantial concession Clegg managed to get out of Cameron in drawing up the coalition agreement. AV, as is well known on the left, barely qualifies as an improvement on the current ‘first past the post’ system. All things being equal, it will make it easier for smaller parties to register their level of support. As far as winning goes, it will favour those standing in the centre - note, the Lib Dems have traditionally posed as an intermediate option between Labour and the Tories (or at least it would have done prior to the disaster for the Lib Dems known as the coalition).

Current polls suggest a ‘yes’ vote to be marginally more likely; yet the pro-AV camp’s worst enemy is once again its staunchest supporter - Nick Clegg. In an earlier article, I half-joked that the ‘no’ campaign could win simply by pointing out that the Liberal Democrats would benefit from a change in the electoral system (‘The second death of liberal England’ December 9 2010); now it is a gleefully acknowledged line of attack to paint the AV system as a self-interested move on the part of Clegg and his cronies. People will be hammering the Lib Dems up and down the country with their local election votes; defenders of FPTP are keen to give them another way to send a message of protest.

Should the referendum be won, the Lib Dems will face their next major challenge, as masses move into struggle against cuts. Some kind of reaction is inevitable, as the bloodthirsty economic policies of the government hit home; indeed, it has already begun, with the student movement that has erupted last year. Concerted action by the working class movement could, even in its current parlous state, break the government and force an election (though we would not get much more out of it than prime minister Miliband ...). Clegg will rely on ‘good behaviour’ from the union bureaucracy, and equally from the Labour Party. Unfortunately, he may well get it.

Finally, the Lib Dems will need to go into the next election on the back of some kind of economic good news. Clegg will then be able to claim that he has been vindicated, and portray himself as a man who will ‘make the right decisions for the country’, rather than (as his popular image, not unfairly, has it now) a man who would sell his own grandmother if the price was right. This factor, of course, is out of his hands completely - no amount of political manoeuvring and backroom negotiations will tame the anarchy of the market.

Plan B

This accumulation of hostages to fortune suggests that Clegg and his allies will have to move to ‘plan B’ - that is, going into the next election as part of a formal electoral pact with the Tories.

‘Plan B’ deserves quotation marks - in fact, this outcome is the logical conclusion of the trajectory of the Liberal Democrats since 2004, when David Laws and Paul Marshall cobbled together The orange book, a collection of essays by leading Lib Dems (including Clegg and Cable) that argued for a political shift towards neoliberalism. The contributors have increasingly come into dominance within their party, and coalition government has conveniently absolved them of the duty of fighting out political compromises with their left-leaning ‘social liberal’ opponents. It would be no personal disaster for Clegg, Cable et al to wind up as members of the Tory Party - rather that is their natural political home - but it would mean the end of the Liberal Democrats as a substantial organisation in its own right.

Apart from the subjective trajectory of its leaders, there are powerful objective forces pulling the Lib Dems to this conclusion. The coalition deal has left them utterly at the mercy of the Tories and, the worse things get for them, the truer this is. The niggling complaints of the Tory right have come to seem a more credible threat to the government’s stability than the Lib Dem left, who stand to lose everything if it falls.

This is not the first time this has happened. The National Liberals joined the national government of the 1930s, first under Ramsay MacDonald, then under the Conservative leader, Stanley Baldwin, in the end becoming an adjunct of the Tory Party. The National Liberals won 19 seats in the 1959 with Tory support (to all intents they were Tories). They formally merged in 1968. Meanwhile, the Liberal Party was entirely marginalised. In the 1951 and 1955 general elections they held four of their six seats thanks only to local agreements with the Tories. Though the present-day Liberal Democrats will be concerned to avoid a repeat of history, political oblivion looms larger with every by-election.