UK Politics

The decline of the Liberal Democrats

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The Liberal Democrats have not recovered from the 2015 general election. The 2010 General Election put the then leader Nick Clegg in a very difficult position. To either take the opportunity to form a coalition with the Conservatives with the view to having a much-needed stable government for the next five years, or refuse to dance with the devil and leave the country in a state of political paralysis at a time where the financial crisis needed to be tackled.

A coalition with Gordon Brown and other parties was unrealistic at that time, and it was clear from the results that Labour had lost their mandate to govern. Constitutionally, Brown had the right to form a government first – but even he must have known the game was up with his party on just 258 seats, a net loss of 91. The Tories, however, climbed to 307 seats, with the Liberal Democrats down five on 57.

After 13 years in government with Brown and Tony Blair, the power was handed back to the Conservative Party. A deal with the Liberal Democrats was struck to form a coalition later on in May 2010, an agreement that was perhaps not expected to last the full five years. But, to David Cameron’s and Clegg’s credit, it did.

However, as the 2015 election showed, this was a five-year period that did immeasurable damage to the Lib Dems, and one particular thing sticks out in my mind: tuition fees. As stated in the 2010 manifesto: ‘We will scrap unfair university tuition fees for all students taking their first degree, including those studying part-time, saving them over £10,000 each. We have a financially responsible plan to phase fees out over six years, so that the change is affordable even in these difficult economic times, and without cutting university income. We will immediately scrap fees for final year students.’

Despite this, university tuition fees were trebled under the coalition government, a move that sparked widespread student protests, and it’s still something which heavily impacts students to this day.

This, combined with huge cuts and austerity across the UK, punished Clegg’s party in 2015 when they lost 49 of their 58 seats. The leader’s resignation followed just hours after the results started to come in – and the party needed to rebuild.

How much of a blow this was cannot be underestimated. In 2005, the party was hoping to win far more seats than they did (62), with the late Charles Kennedy’s charisma and opposition to the Iraq War not ending up paying dividends at the ballot box. Even ‘Clegg-mania’, which took off after the 2010 live ITV debate, failed to materialise into anything special.

They were the third-largest party in the UK though – something they established themselves to be under the remarkable leadership of both Paddy Ashdown and subsequently Charles Kennedy. Since then, they’ve lost this status to the Scottish National Party and had two dismal election campaigns in 2017 and 2019.

One issue that dominated the 2017 campaign was leader Tim Farron’s views on homosexuality as a devout Christian. After being pressurised for an answer on this matter, he said gay sex was not a sin, although this was something he later backtracked on the following year after stepping down as leader.

This issue ended up dominating the campaign – and it certainly didn’t do the party any favours in trying to spread their message and manifesto. They gained just four seats as the main ‘remain voice’ in parliament, taking them to 12 – and although Vince Cable regained his seat in Twickenham, Clegg lost in Sheffield Hallam to the Labour Party.

The 2019 election wasn’t much better. The policy to revoke article 50 under Jo Swinson was widely condemned by both the main parties – but this just one of the two main issues. The Brexit Party, who planned to stand in most constituencies, pulled out of the areas where there was a Conservative MP in a plan to ensure Brexit was pushed through. Credit to Nigel Farage – the plan worked.

If the Brexit Party competed for many of the seats in the south of England, it could have split the Conservative vote. The Liberal Democrats, therefore, could have been given the majority vote in many constituencies. Farage’s decision to pull out of these constituencies, much to the displeasure of many in his party, helped to derail Jo Swinson’s aspiration to govern and stop Brexit.

Although many notable MPs including Luciana Berger and Chuka Umunna joined the party after Change UK’s poor showing in the European Parliament elections, neither of them were able to hold on in 2019, and the Liberal Democrats have just 11 MPs at present. Swinson even lost her seat in East Dunbartonshire, and Cable stood down ahead of his retirement from politics.

Now, with Sir Ed Davey as leader, they must become the force they once were under Charles Kennedy. His role as Business Secretary in the coalition could be a stain on his reputation to those who are more left-leaning in the Liberal Democrats, which could be detrimental for the party that is already at rock bottom and lacks a voice in the House of Commons. It will also become more difficult for the Lib Dems to gain any seats if Sir Keir Starmer decides to move the Labour Party more towards the centre.

The Lib Dems will also be keeping a keen eye on the end of the UK-EU transition phase over the next few months. If there is no deal and Brexit proves disastrous, their heavily pro-European stance could gain justification, and Scotland’s willingness to move towards a second independence referendum will strengthen.

Somehow, the Lib Dems need to fight back against the SNP in a ‘remain’ Scotland – but also try and accept the result of the referendum if Brexit is not the catastrophe that some are predicting. Trying to get the best of both worlds doesn’t work very often, as Jeremy Corbyn found out with his second referendum policy last year. Davey will need to play his cards right in the next election, with external factors also potentially playing a part.

The Brexit Party (which could be named something else by 2024) could benefit the Lib Dems if they decide to stand in most constituencies, splitting the Tory vote. Watch out for actor Laurence Fox’s potential new party too.

There’s no doubt the First Past The Post system hampers Davey’s party, as well as the lack of opposition to the Conservatives in most constituencies in the past. They must find a way of replicating their success in last year’s European elections and turn it into something meaningful nationally.

The influx of new voters and politicians from the Labour Party from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership makes things a little more interesting, but Davey must get to work in winning Scotland back. His involvement in the Con-Lib cabinet won’t have helped. Quite frankly, the Tories lack popularity in Scotland and he faces the difficult task of repairing and relaunching a once-prominent party. So good luck to him – it will be a huge task.

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