Clegg has survived, but his party might not

by David Talbot

It would be cruel to deny the Liberal Democrats some light relief from the two years of relentless drudgery they have had endured. Holding a seat they have held for some twenty years is seemingly a cause for wild celebration in today’s Liberal Democratic rump. Overly-excited, and optimistic, Lib Dem officials even audaciously briefed the Guardian that the party would now extend their sights to gaining Conservative seats at the next general election. The bravado is breathtaking, but one has to question the extent that the officials even believed it themselves. Still, it is a poke in the eye to their comrades in the coalition and a reminder to the electorate at large that they mostly still exist.

Let Nick Clegg enjoy his moment. Once lauded to the skies as another Churchill he surely must know that this is as good as it gets. Leading a party on the ascendance merely two and a half years ago he gives the appearance of a man horribly tormented by the reality in which he now finds himself. His party’s paradox ever since it was usurped by the Labour party over a century ago is that is has strove for influence in a hung parliament. Yet the moment they entered it, it hung them.

The Conservative’s masterstroke, having inexplicably failed to win an outright majority, was to in effect buy themselves a comfortable one with Liberal Democrat lobby fodder. The much-heralded Programme for Government, released all too beautifully in the Downing Street rose garden, was short term glory for the Liberal Democrats, but a longer-term suicide note.

But their downfall may not be solely of others bidding. When the Liberal Democrats joined the coalition, the historic rules of British politics changed. A party with much to say, and traditionally no one to say it to, they suddenly found themselves centre stage. For some in the party, much like the Labour left, this was a step too far. They had become quiescent and comfortable in the role that, truth be told, they really rather liked – perennial opposition. Many then, and indeed still now, must decide whether they want to be a party of government, with all the inherent responsibilities, or whether they would prefer to go back to being a depository of protest.

The past decade saw a golden opportunity for the Lib Dems to recapture the ground stolen from them by Labour a century ago. To the left of Labour in their constituencies, and to the right in Tory heartlands, it helped them win seats. But this benign fog can no longer continue if they wish to be a party of government and, for all his failures, Nick Clegg has attempted to drag a party of piecemeal local politics to one of serious standing on the national stage.

Clegg can have his Eastleigh glory. He may have chosen glory in death through the coalition, but a much more serious question shortly awaits his party. You joined the Lib Dems knowing, and no doubt some even wanting, the comfort of opposition. Two years out from a general election, with all the small certainty that can be mustered, a repeat hung parliament looms over our politics. If that is the outcome, just what do the Lib Dems fear most? Will they exchange responsibility with power for power without responsibility, and retire resentfully to preach from the backbenches.

The Lib Dem leader has, against high odds, kept this ramshackle of a party together through two and a half years of brutal politics. A party that for so long represented no great interest, nor held office since the advent of universal franchise, will soon face an even bigger test than the one Clegg set them in 2010. Having survived to 2015, will they survive beyond?

David Talbot is a political consultant


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8 Responses to “Clegg has survived, but his party might not”

  1. John says:

    More deluded nonsense from tribal Labour predicated on the idea that `just giving a critique of Government policy and saying we’ll pull different levers` will mean the Lib Dems crumbling and Labour rising up.

  2. Nick says:

    And just how well has Labour done?

    Ah yes, don’t mention the result

  3. swatantra says:

    The fact is the Lib Dems have been on a steep learning curve, preparing them for Govt; and they’ve proved that they can hold their own against the best of Labour and Tory Ministers. They’ve built up a formidable team of Cabinet Ministers and experience, and know now how the wheels and machinery of Govt works. And they’ve got Cleggy to thank them for that.
    So, if in 2015 Labour is forced into a Coalition with the Lib Dems, then most of the donkey working of training them up will have been done. The only training will be trying to get Labour into the mindset of Coalition politics, and that could prove to be the most frustrating of all. Eastleigh shows that Labour is unlikely to win over many ex Labour supporters and undecideds under our current leadership.

  4. Jason says:

    Interesting that the author of this article like the rest of the Labour party seems to have a very short memory. Labour seem to have forgotten (or would like the nation to forget at least) that they devastated our economy while in power.

    Has Mr Talbot forgotten this other recent article he wrote suggesting that Labour need to learn to act more maturely towards the LibDems?

    http://labour-uncut.co.uk/2013/01/10/labour-must-overcome-its-resentment-and-deal-more-maturely-with-the-lib-dems/

  5. paul barker says:

    I particularly like your description of Libdems as “representing no great interest”. Unlike the Tories who “represent” Big Business & Labour who “represent” Trades Unions The Libdems are a political party “repesenting” ideas, values & beleifs. That explains how The Libdems survive without constant subsidies & without any friends in the media.

  6. Steven says:

    “Having survived to 2015, will they survive beyond?”

    Perhaps the same question should be asked of Labour.

    Now that the elite of mainstream parties are packed with interchangeable communication consultants and lobbyists, all practicing the same stone-dead, political non-speak, whatever fate befalls one must surely be shared the others.

  7. Nick,

    Labour did very badly indeed. 29% of the vote badly, in fact. I’ve written about that before – but as this musing is focused on the Liberal Democrats, it would have been odd to reference.

    Jason,

    I praised Nick Clegg in my article above – seemingly never an easy thing for anyone to do nowadays – for handling the Lib Dems in a competent manner. In the event of another hung parliament, seemingly likely, Labour will have to deal “maturely” with the Lib Dem leader to attempt a Government.

    That there are some Lib Dems that don’t much like the idea of high office, well that was presently my point that aside from the usual ‘Lib Dems to be annihilated’ rhetoric the party will actually have great sway on hold it is viewed going forwards. A party of routine opposition, or one that holds the balance of power. For that Labour will have to overcome the resentment many feel, as I’ve argument.

    Steven,

    “interchangeable communication consultants and lobbyists” – why, whoever could you mean..?

  8. Steven says:

    “whoever could you mean..?”

    Perhaps that was somewhat close to the bone – but I am, after all, a fully certificated denizen of the contemptible “horny handed sons of toil” brigade. Instead, let’s be sophisticated and focus on the “stone-dead, political non-speak”…

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