Now more than ever we need a powerful left leaning liberal voice in British politics. Whether we like it or not, in a lot of situations around Britain, this comes in the form of the Liberal Democrats. This is hard for many within Labour and the Greens to swallow but it reflects a political reality.
I am no apologist for this current government and the role the Liberal Democrats have played in it. On the environment, education and welfare ‘reforms’, this government has let us down. I would however throw in the nuanced point that I honestly believe things would be worse without the Lib Dems in government (but that argument is for another day).
The public perception of failure and perhaps more significantly their feeling that the Lib Dems ‘let the left down’ has resulted in the party being left in a worrying situation.
One in five of their members left the party last year. More than half of Liberal Youth’s 6,000 members quit in 2011. Equally, the Liberal Democrats have seen a consistent collapse in the polls since the formation of the coalition (with only the rarest of exceptions). A recent ComRes poll shows that 36% of those who voted Lib Dem in 2010 have returned to Labour.
This is not a irreversible disaster for the party but it certainly represents a significant blow and illustrates the size of the challenge ahead.
Both the poor showing at the polls and the fleeing party membership have significant financial repercussions for the party. The drop in membership means a loss of income from party membership fees. The drop of support in the ballot box means a reduction in the contribution local councillors are encouraged to give to their local party. This will dent the long term development of the party both locally and nationally.
‘Good’ I hear you shout from behind your computer screens. “That will teach them to jump into bed with the Tories” I hear you sneer. Let me assure you that the collapse of Liberal Democrats is neither good, nor will it ‘teach them a lesson’ for jumping into bed with the Tories.
Let’s start with why it is not a good thing that the Liberal Democrats collapse. The clue is in their name – ‘Liberal’ Democrats. Both locally and nationally Labour have shown that they have little regard for the concept of liberalism (something which plays a central role in my political identity).
From policing to the environment the Liberal Democrats have been the only one of the major three parties to put together a policy package which tackles the size of the problems we face whilst also respecting core liberal values such as freedom. The Liberal Democrats acknowledge that climate change, terrorism and crime are all major problems but believe that these can be tackled through progressive measures that respect individual liberties.
Ahh, but what about the Greens?
Whether you like it or not the Greens are too often a disorganised, badly financed and a politically naive force locally (this is not to say they are not right on many issues). Despite showing in Brighton (the first council they have run) that they have what it takes, too often around the country they simply just don’t. There are a plethora of reasons for this but in many council elections they don’t field more than a handful of paper candidates. As Bob Irving, a prominent Green from the Cotswolds said to me earlier on twitter, “@steve4319 I think we have 15 members …. managed 4-5 paper candidates in district elections inc me …#uphillstruggle”.
This is where the Liberal Democrats often step in. All across the south west (which is where I am from) the Liberal Democrats provide a progressive alternative to an otherwise Conservative dominated political landscape. I dread to think what the south west would look like without the Liberal Democrats.
In short, if the Liberal Democrats collapse as a party, councils and communities would be looking blue – we would be poorer for this.
My second point is that this won’t teach the Liberal Democrats a lesson. This whole argument is based on a political naivety. How many on the left still refuse to vote Labour because of their illegal war that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians? Not many I would guess. How many of the left will refuse to lend Labour their vote because they grew inequality over their 13 years in power? How many on the left will not vote Labour because of their catastrophic failure to grasp the severity of the threat we face from climate change?
Have we ‘taught Labour a lesson’? If we have the senior leadership team inside the party seem to be slow learners. Politics is like swings and roundabouts. Liberal Democrat strategists (just like the Labour ones) know that the fickle political forgetful electorate will go full circle and come back to them. It’s depressing, but it is a sad reality of our broken political system.
Looking to the future, the next political test will come in the form of the Police Commissioner elections. The Liberal Democrats (and to their credit the Greens) are the only party committed to a science based drugs policy, who don’t just talk tough on ‘banging up the criminals’ but instead focus on community policing and who put the emphasis on rehabilitation within prisons. This is the sort of approach I want from my Police Commissioner. If the Liberal Democrats take another beating at the polls, we will be poorer for it.
These elections only serve as one more example where we need a strong liberal left voice and the Liberal Democrats are the only party in many areas capable of offering this. If nothing else I hope those on the liberal left will stop sneering at the downward spiral the Lib Dems are currently on.