Liberal Democrats at 30: How the third party went from Roy Jenkins to coalition government to the brink of extinction

Saturday marks 30 years since the birth of the Liberal Democrats, a journey that has taken them into government and to the brink of extinction

Tom Peck
Saturday 03 March 2018 11:24 GMT
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In March 1988 Paddy Ashdown became the first leader of a party that has exerted significant influence on British politics
In March 1988 Paddy Ashdown became the first leader of a party that has exerted significant influence on British politics

“Oh, it’ll spoil my whole afternoon that I’ve never been prime minister,” says Paddy Ashdown, over the phone from his home just outside Yeovil in Somerset, where he once served as MP.

It would be overstating it to say he was half-joking. Quarter-joking perhaps. Possibly even no more than a 16th.

Today it will be 30 years since Lord Ashdown became the first leader of a brand new political party whose influence on British politics has been significant, though evidently less significant than its founding fathers might have hoped.

On 3 March 1988, the Liberal Democrats were born. It would be tempting but wrong to say they took off. Not merely because the logo, the “bird of liberty” didn’t arrive for another 18 months, but because the opinion polls of the time gauged their popular support in the country as measurable with an asterisk instead of a number. The name took a while to arrive too – they were the Social and Liberal Democrats, right up until October 1989.

Tim Farron, who would become party leader in the wake of its near-death experience at the 2015 general election, remembers those giddy early months well. He was a student at the time, and a Liberal Party activist.

“It was horrific” is how he puts it, over the phone, on his way to take his kids sledding in the snow in his constituency in the Lake District. In the 1983 and 1987 general elections, what remained of the great Liberal Party of Gladstone and Lloyd George had joined in a formal alliance with the Social Democratic Party. The SDP was a more moderate party that had broken in the early 1980s from Labour, which was led by an unreconstructed socialist in Michael Foot and was, those who departed believed, in the grip of Trotskyite entryists.

They fought both elections under a joint manifesto, and with joint leaders: David Owen and David Steel. There is a reason parties tend not to have joint leaders. Disaster for both Liberal and SDP in the 1987 election compelled majority voices on both sides to seek a formal merger. But those voices were not unanimous.

“Eighty per cent of the Liberal Party was up for it, but 20 per cent were not,” recalls Farron. “And those 20 per cent were absolutely dead against it.” The other person who was dead against it was David Owen, the SDP leader, which didn’t help. “The leader of the thing you were trying to merge with was trying to kill it at birth,” says Farron.

Even after the merger, Owen carried on leading a version of the SDP, only winding it up in May 1990, inspired to do so by finishing behind the Monster Raving Loony Party in a by-election in Bootle.

Of these early months, Ashdown has troubled memories. “I was new, wet behind the ears, I’d been in Parliament for one term and, a newly minted Lib Dem leader, leading a party represented in the opinion polls by an asterisk to indicate we had no detectable support,” he says.

“In these circumstances, I had to stand up in the House of Commons and take on Mrs Thatcher in the full plenitude of her powers, and be trashed weekly in front of the television cameras of the nation.

“Of all the things I’ve done in my life, I have never been more frightened than I was at that moment. I used to sit there completely terrified.”

But Thatcher would have reason to be frightened herself in due course. The notorious Eastbourne by-election of 1990 arguably did more than anything else to establish a side of the Liberal Democrats that is not so well known understood outside political circles – that they are utterly ruthless operators.

Even today, Ashdown still speaks with delight at “hoovering up protest votes in Eastbourne”. At the time it was widely felt the seat should never have been contested, the by-election only coming to pass after the sitting Conservative MP was murdered in a car bomb attack by the IRA. But the Liberal Democrats were only too happy to turn the vote into an effective opinion poll on Thatcher’s poll tax. The Lib Dems won. Thatcher was gone within weeks.

Nick Clegg took up the office of Deputy Prime Minister in 2010, but the party's fortunes would not last

It was after this that Ashdown says his proudest moment as Lib Dem leader came, one with huge resonance for contemporary politics.

“I was proudest when I led the party, not without a good deal of arm-twisting, into supporting John Major on Maastricht.” There were many votes on the 1993 treaty that Eurosceptic Tory rebels still feel was the moment British sovereignty was handed to Brussels. The Lib Dems backed Major in a crucial one in March of that year.

“We made ourselves exceedingly unpopular,” Ashdown says. “Labour was being totally opportunistic. But we said ‘The Lib Dems will vote with you. We stood by our principles. We saved the country’s future in Europe.

“We were hugely excoriated by Labour, and the Daily Mirror and its political editor at the time, Alastair Campbell. But we put the country before the party.”

Over the next two decades, an odd but by no means inexplicable phenomenon is that the party’s fortunes rose almost entirely in conjunction with Labour’s, who one might be forgiven for imagining are its natural rivals in the fight for votes. But Labour’s return to more moderate ground, under Kinnock, Smith, Blair and Brown, had rich rewards for a party that was to an extent already occupying the space to which their far larger counterpart returned.

“Oh, it makes perfect sense,” says Ashdown. “The more frightening Labour is, the more difficult it is for the Lib Dems to make progress.

“The Conservatives have always done it. They were doing it in 1959. They frighten people off Labour, if they can, and that it makes it very hard for the Liberal Democrats.”

Under Ashdown the party more than doubled its MPs at the 1997 election, rising from 20 to 46. In 2001, under Charles Kennedy, that number rose to 52, and in 2005 to 62, not least as a consequence of voting against the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which remains one of the most significant moments in the party’s history.

By 2010, Labour had become tarnished by the financial crisis and fundamentally weakened by a prime minister in Gordon Brown who was absolutely not up to certain aspects of the job, and none more so than the televisual ones. The Lib Dems had a new leader, Nick Clegg, and the country was genuinely in thrall to something it had never had before – televised leaders debates in the lead-up to the election.

“If you’re a Lib Dem, you don’t often get the chance to feel like you’re winning nationally,” recalls James McGrory, who was then the party’s chief spinner, and went on to be Nick Clegg’s director of communications when he was Deputy Prime Minister. “We really felt we had made a breakthrough. That we might be on the brink of something.”

Clegg had, by widespread consent, won the first contest easily. So often had Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the words “I agree with Nick” that T-shirts were printed with those very words on, and some vaguely normal people even bought them.

“The spinning that night took care of itself,” recalls McGrory. “The team back in HQ went out for a drink. We were out late night enough to pick up the first editions of the papers. The front of The Times said: ‘Enter the Outsider.’ I’ve still got that paper up in my house.”

It is there the story become complex and contested. The Lib Dems went into government with the Conservatives, achieving some things of which many of their senior figures remain justifiably proud, but were perceived as enabling the Conservatives to do other things that decimated their base.

“I’m so proud of some of the things we achieved,” says McGrory. “In opposition, I was a home affairs adviser. We had a policy of ending the detention of immigrant children, and then we got to do it. We worked with Barnardo’s to reform the Yarl’s Wood detention centre. The system under Labour was a disgrace. We locked up kids who had committed no crime for weeks, months on end. That ended, because of Liberal Democrats in government. It was things like that, which isn’t necessarily top of the news the whole time, but that’s what got me through having to take the tough decisions. No one becomes a Lib Dem to cut public expenditure. That’s what had to be done.”

It ended on election night 2015, which McGrory says is “unquestionably” the worst moment of his Lib Dem life (he also worked on the Remain campaign in the 2016 referendum, though arguably that doesn’t count).

“We had prepared ourselves to lose, to be out of government, for Nick to stand down as Deputy Prime Minister and probably as party leader as well. But we didn’t expect the results to be as devastatingly bad as they were. To see the party you’ve served all your adult life, and a person, in Nick, a genuine person who did the right thing for the country. To see both your party and, in my view, the person who is the greatest man I’ve ever met, subjected to such a heavy, heavy political beating, was extremely tough to take. It will live with me for the rest of my life.”

At 10pm, the BBC’s exit poll, compiled by psephologist Sir John Curtice, gave the Liberal Democrats 10 seats. Ashdown, on air at the time, memorably told the BBC’s Andrew Neil if the poll was right, he would “eat my hat live on your programme”.

“I have since in fact eaten five hats,” Ashdown explains. “I have eaten a chocolate and marzipan hat. I have eaten a shortbread one. I have eaten a hat made from a Cornish pasty that I was presented with on a visit to Cornwall. I’ve eaten a biscuit one, and one genuine but extremely small hat. It was a miniature hat that was presented to me, a small baseball cap. I thought, ‘I could probably swallow that’ so I did. I have done my penance.”

Tim Farron was president of the party during its coalition years but did not have a job in government. It fell to him to pick up the pieces afterwards, and he is more circumspect about the choices that were made.

“The coalition should be seen as our proudest moment. Look at the last three years under the Conservatives, look at what we were stopping,” he said.

“But there is no doubt it possibly fatally damaged the party. I’m not pointing the finger at anyone in particular. But every year, as president, I was seeing half our councillors lose, eleven out of 12 MEPs, 90 per cent of our MPs. My job was to stop people defecting, stop people blaming the loss of councils on Lib Dems in government. It was hard.”

The result of the EU referendum has given the Lib Dems a cause, but Farron thinks ultimately it has not done them as many favours as you might think.

“We decided we would be unashamedly in favour of being in the EU,” Farron says. “Not everyone supported that idea, but it saved us, frankly. There’s no way we’d have 12 seats and 100,000 members now. We’d be doing a David Owen now and winding up the party.”

But the referendum of course led directly to the 2017 election. The Lib Dems made a few gains, but Farron says they needed “five years not two” to be ready, and ultimately it cost him his job.

On the subject of the 2017 election, he also makes an extraordinary claim. At the time Theresa May called the election, a by-election for Manchester Gorton, then the ninth safest Labour seat in the country, was well under way, after the death of Gerald Kaufman, then the oldest MP in the commons. But the general election was called, and the by-election was effectively rolled into it.

“I can never prove it, but we were going to win the Manchester Gorton by-election, I’ll say that now,” Farron claims. “And that result that would have cost Corbyn his job. We were further ahead in Manchester Gorton than we were by that point in Richmond Park. Then, Corbyn was considered to be an electoral liability, though it turned out he wasn’t. There are no great Corbynistas in Manchester Gorton. There was great disillusionment. He was the politician who benefited most from that early election.”

Talk of the next 30 years has a tendency to drive Liberal Democrats away from specifics, away from the mechanics of British politics and on to philosophy. Lord Ashdown is lightning fast to mention Emmanuel Macron, and “the need for a movement.” Macron’s movement, he claims, would even have “blown the British electoral system away”.

Ashdown talks of how the Liberal Democrats now “represent that moderate, tolerant, decent voice of Britain”. He is, he says, “not interested in being a protest party, a cosy little free think tank of new ideas on the edge of politics”.

But he stops short of identifying a clear path, that leads somehow through the impossibly divisive and unpredictable years ahead, where Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn loom on the horizon with fearsome intent.

​“There are many who believe that the party will not be able to grow again until Corbyn fails, which he will,” he says. “Whether it be failure to get to government, or failure in government.

“But if we cannot give voice in this country to the moderate centre, which is where most people lie, then we are condemned and God help us.

“We are condemned to seeing this broken, diseased, mangy beast of a government being followed by Mr Corbyn. I think the nation is very very close to having taken that emotional decision, even though it may be against rationality, to get rid of them and have Corbyn. That will be a catastrophe for our country.”

In the more immediate reality, the current leader, Sir Vince Cable, makes regular hints that he would rather be retired. Future leadership contenders tend to be arrived at by process of elimination more than anything else. Jo Swinson, the obvious candidate, did not stand last time round. Since then Layla Moran has intimated it is not “inevitable” that anyone would want to do the job.

Ashdown only says that “sooner or later British politics must reshape itself”, that “internationalism is the only answer to the problems of our world”.

Perhaps it is, but it remains a question of finding it. And that seems as far away as ever.

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