Ian Birrell: The Lib Dems don't need a new leader. They need a point

Searching for cheap populist policies and silent on issues long held sacred, what do they stand for now?

Share

It may be the post-Olympic euphoria, but a spirit of harmony has descended on the Coalition. Insiders say that, for all the froth and fervour between the parties in public, a decent working relationship has been restored among key operatives after the Liberal Democrats suffered the failure of House of Lords reform, then lashed out against the Tories' treasured plans for boundary changes.

It won't last, of course, once the summer holidays end. Party conference season is looming, and both parties face rising unrest in their ranks as the next general election approaches. Curiously, the mood is angrier in the Conservative grassroots, whipped up into rage against their leaders by loudmouthed right-wingers despite the quiet radicalism of the Government.

Nick Clegg's troops have been more sanguine, despite poll figures bumping along the bottom. After the heady excitement of the 2010 election campaign, their ratings dropped from 23 per cent after entering government, fell again after the tuition fee fiasco and have since flatlined at around 10 per cent pretty much regardless of events at Westminster.

Such insouciance may be down to the fact that one in four of them walked away in disgust last year. Latest figures show that the party now has fewer members than the number of football fans who fill Sunderland's Stadium of Light – or, perhaps more pertinently, than members of the British Psychological Society. But their commendable calm may not last much longer.

In an article asking if the third party was on death row, Peter Kellner, the president of YouGov, has warned that it is on course to win just 10 seats in the next election. It will almost certainly do better than this, since Lib Dem MPs are hard to winkle out once dug in locally. But even a partial recovery to 15 per cent in the polls could halve their number of seats, a terrible blow for a party that has enjoyed steady growth in recent decades.

Meanwhile, the ambitious Vince Cable is on manoeuvres, limbering up for a crack at the leadership he has long coveted. Publicly, he has dismissed the idea that his age counts against him and refused to rule out standing; privately, friends predict he will soon be in charge, ready to break the Coalition and lead his party into power with Labour in 2015. Seditious talk in tearooms will be boosted by a survey for the Liberal Democrat Voice website showing that half of party members want Clegg out by the next election.

This is unsurprising. Put two political nerds in a room and chatter soon turns to how and when the Coalition will end. Clegg is a decent, dignified and likeable man, but has had a disastrous time since becoming Deputy Prime Minister. It is not just that long-held liberal dreams of proportional representation and constitutional reform were dashed in such humiliating style. He has torpedoed his party's brand.

Having campaigned to restore trust in politics, he breached the public's faith by voting to raise tuition fees after campaigning vociferously against them. Having taken over his party as an economic liberal, determined to unleash market reforms on sclerotic public services, he panicked and backtracked when the going got tough on NHS reforms. And having set out to prove in power that coalition politics could work in Britain, his party's frantic search for a distinctive voice undermined this core concept for third-party politics.

After two torrid years in office, a fundamental question hangs heavy over the Liberal Democrats: what is the point of them these days? The party has long been ill-defined, split between social democrats on the left and market liberals on the right. In many ways, their brilliance as they grew under successive leaders over the past four decades was this blurred brand, ensuring disgruntled voters of any persuasion could see their own views reflected back when looking at the party.

There were, however, certain issues that stood out: support for civil liberties, opposition to the Iraq war, espousal of the European ideal, flirtation with drug reform, focus on the environment, a refusal to join the main two parties in their fuelling of fears over immigration and crime. Such stances were courageous, controversial – and often correct. But as they flail around now in search of cheap populist policies, and stay silent on issues long held sacred, can anyone truly say what they stand for today?

Clegg and the Orange Book liberals sought to remake their party in the mould of its greatest leader, William Gladstone, as both socially and economically liberal. This gave them definition when the Tories, shell-shocked by Tony Blair's success, turned right – and that is why coalition felt such a powerful idea under a more progressive Conservative leader. Meanwhile, Cable, more in tune with party members and core voters, wants to return them to their comfort zone on the soft left – even though Ed Miliband is staking out much of this terrain.

Government is about choices, sharpening issues that remain blurred in opposition. This is a problem for both coalition members. But for the smaller partner, it is forcing to the surface deep fissures buried during its rise to power. Negativity is not enough; it should stand for something other than the prevention of another party's policies. As they confront electoral devastation, the dwindling band of Liberal Democrats must ask themselves an awkward question: when they look into the soul of their party, can they see anything there?

twitter.com/@ianbirrell

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own