Captain Clegg will not go down with his ship

After the May 5 elections and referendum Nick Clegg and co seem to face extinction as an independent political party, observes Eddie Ford

Super Thursday could not have gone much worse for the Liberal Democrats. The May 5 referendum saw the “miserable little compromise” of the alternative vote system, as Nick Clegg not inaccurately described it, decisively defeated on a 41.97% turnout - with 32.09% voting ‘yes’ and 67.87% ‘no’ (though, of course, we in the CPGB favoured a highly critical ‘yes’ vote).

Perhaps even more humiliating for the Lib Dems were their results in the English local elections, the most calamitous in the party’s history - their share of the popular vote plummeted to only 15%, and they lost 748 councillors and control of nine councils. Meanwhile, their performance in the elections to the Welsh and Scottish assembly and parliament was almost as dismal - coming fourth in Scotland with a mere 5.2 % of the vote (five seats) and in Wales they scored a similarly unimpressive 8% (five seats). To further compound the misery, one of the councils they were ejected from was Sheffield - the site of Nick Clegg’s constituency.

The upshot of all this is that the Lib Dem vote has been decimated, essentially falling to Labour in the north of England and Wales, to the SNP in Scotland and to the Tories in southern England. However, when you examine the results a bit more carefully, the picture is even worse for the Lib Dems - or at least potentially. Of the 279 councils holding elections, only in half of them were all the seats up for grabs - in the rest, just a third were contested. Imagine what would have happened to the hapless Lib Dems if all their councillors had been up for re-election - including in London, were there was no local poll on May 5. For instance, in Stoke - where every seat was fought - the Lib Dems lost all their councillors, with Labour winning 38 out of the 44 seats (and, as a fortuitous by-product, depriving the British National Party of its five councillors too).

Furthermore, it is important to recall that turnout in local elections is always much lower than in parliamentary polls - which in practice favours the Lib Dems, whose supporters have been more likely to vote than Labour’s during local elections. Therefore, it is a reasonable deduction that if it had being a general election held on May 5 - in so far as one can deal with, and predict, such imponderables - the Lib Dems’ share of the vote could have sunk to round about the 10% level or even lower (some opinion polls estimate that the party’s current support is between 8% and 11%).

But, whichever way you look at it, under Clegg’s leadership the Lib Dems are regarded with contempt and derision by increasing numbers of the British people. Needless to say, this is a development that communists welcome - they richly deserve such opprobrium. The supposedly saintly Liberal Democrats, that is, who righteously promised to abolish student tuition fees - only to dutifully troop into the House of Commons last year and vote for proposals to treble them. And then there were their Keynesian ‘counter-crisis’ measures before the general election, which turned to dust as soon as they entered the coalition government and became committed axe-wielders. Contemptible.

In from the cold

Just a year ago we had Clegg’s stomach-churning love-in with David ‘call me Dave’ Cameron in Downing Street’s rose garden. Then he was basking, or so it seemed, in the role of the great man who had brought the Liberal Democrats back in from the cold and into the corridors of power. A serious national party again, as was fit and proper for an organisation with such an eminently bourgeois pedigree; with the prospect of electoral reform to further excite Lib Dem ambitions - and placate the increasingly disgruntled rank and file, who for sure had not got involved in politics just to get the Tory Party elected yet again, coalition government or no coalition government. But if dealing and working with the Tories in a one-term parliament (and no more) delivered up AV, albeit as an initial ‘stepping stone’ to proportional representation, then maybe it was a price worth paying ... then came the train crash that was the May 5 elections/referendum, and the inevitable recriminations. Perhaps even the opening salvoes of a Lib Dem civil war.

So Vince Cable, the business secretary, described his supposed Conservative colleagues as “ruthless, calculating and thoroughly tribal” - as if you would expect anything else from the Tories, the preferred party of the ruling class. A party whose political instincts are anti-democratic, elitist and reactionary to the core. Lord Ashdown also vented his fury, the former Lib Dem leader accusing Cameron of a “breach of faith” for his refusal to disassociate himself from the “regiment of lies” poured out by the ‘no’ to AV campaign - like the idea that it was a “Lib Dem fix”. As for Chris Huhne, the energy secretary, he had exasperatedly denounced his cabinet colleague, Baroness Warsi - the Tory Party chairperson - for her involvement in the “Goebbels-like campaign” against AV, “for whom no lie is too idiotic, given the truth is so unpalatable to them”. Hence the contention that the introduction of AV would cost more than £250 million (thus leading to the closure of hospitals, etc) and would somehow “benefit” the likes of the BNP. Seeing how the BNP called for a ‘no’ vote on May 5 (alongside most of the left), such a charge is indeed curious. Even more so when one of the well observed effects of AV/preferential voting systems is a tendency to pull votes into the boggy centre ground. Exactly one of the reasons, of course, why communists, despite our critical ‘yes’ to AV, advocate PR (under a party-list system).

Now, almost fantastically, given the election results, senior Lib Dem figures have lined up to declare that they need to make more of a mark on the coalition government and its policies - put a bit more yellow back into a government that is too blue. To this end, Clegg has stated that there will be a “louder Lib Dem voice” in the administration - more “muscular” and “visible” - and claimed that the party is a “moderating influence” on the Tories, helping to “protect” the country from a “return to the unfairness of Thatcherism”.

Naturally, for Clegg this means “defending” the NHS, and he expected “significant changes” to the planned ‘reorganisation’ of the NHS, as laid out in the white paper - which amongst other things would give GPs control of much of the NHS budget - and if necessary would “block” legislation he was unhappy with. Talking tough, Clegg told the BBC that getting the NHS white paper right was “now my number one priority” and he would insist on guarantees from the Tories that there would not be “back-door privatisation” in the health service. He, Nick Clegg, was no Tory - “never, never, never” - and “will be carried out in my coffin as a card-carrying Liberal Democrat”.

More broadly still, we increasingly hear that the Lib Dems are entering a “transactional business relationship” (and so on) with the Tories, a cool and somewhat distancing phrase first used last autumn by Cable. And which in turn was a reflection of the unhappiness expressed by Sir Menzies Campbell, another former Lib Dem leader, that the impression was being given - god forbid - that they “get on like a house on fire with their Tory secretaries of state”. Stepping up the pressure, the Lib Dem federal committee will meet shortly to set out the specific ways in which it expects the party to do more to “differentiate” itself from the Tories, in line with a lengthy motion passed at the party’s spring conference in Sheffield. In private though, revealing the deep tensions within the party, many senior Lib Dems are said to be “spitting” at what they regard as an ill-judged attempt by some in Clegg’s inner circle to project the coalition as a kind of “new ideological fusion of JS Mill and Friedrich Hayek”. No third way - only the Liberal way.

Pipe dream

But this plan to ideologically renew the Lib Dems and finally start stamping its imprimatur upon the coalition government is a hopeless pipe dream - based as it is on the fantasy notion  that they are in some sort of position to dictate terms to their Tory ‘partners’ in the coalition. They are not, having just been annihilated in the elections. Time for a reality check. Rather the boot is on the Tory foot - with strident voices from the right insisting that there is no need to make any more concessions to the Lib Dems: enough is enough. After all, who the hell are they with their pathetic 15% vote of the vote and a failed referendum campaign behind them? Instead, time to steer the ship of government into clear blue waters.

We may be witnessing the Titanic moment for the Liberal Democrats, which will almost certainly be a disaster with few survivors. It is not that the Tories are using them as human shields - an obvious nonsense. People are deserting the Lib Dems because they betrayed their own manifesto, their own promises. The chances are that in 2015, or whenever the next general election is held, the Tories will offer Lib Dem ministers and MPs a deal. Stand as coalition candidates and we will not oppose you. Those who have got used to life in high office, those who aspire to high office, those who actually like their Tory colleges will accept. They will become coalition Lib Dems: ie, they will split away, as the National Liberals did in 1922 and then again in 1931 (the latter only finally merging with the Conservative Party in 1968).

Not that that will be openly discussed and debate by Clegg, Cable or Huhne. Try announcing that to the next Lib Dem annual conference - anyone got a rope?