I had originally planned on writing this article before the general election. But I didn’t have the time. Given the result, this article therefore must strike a rather different tone to what I had planned.
People who know me will know that for a long time I have identified most closely with the Liberal Democrats. Indeed, in 2010 I spent election night not on the sofa watching David Dimbleby, but at a count, working with the campaign team for my nearest Liberal Democrat MP, Willie Rennie.
I worked for months as an intern at his office and on the streets of Dunfermline and West Fife. Even after I got myself a proper job, I continued volunteering for him right up until election night.
It was one of the most important things that happened in my life. Even if I ultimately decided I wouldn’t like to work in politics, the experience sharpened me up as a person, boosted my confidence and gave me a sense of purpose in my life.
But after all the effort, we were to be disappointed on election night. And not just for the loss of Willie Rennie’s constituency. The Liberal Democrats had underperformed relative to the pre-election hype surrounding Nick Clegg. Indeed, the party made a net loss in terms of seat numbers.
The coalition years
Yet, as had been anticipated, the weakness of both the Conservatives and Labour offered the Liberal Democrats the opportunity to play a part in government. That opportunity to help form a government is what politics is all about.
While those who follow politics closely will have seen the prospect of a Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition clearly telegraphed in the run-up to the election, it seemed to come to a surprise to the general public. It even seemed to be a surprise to many Liberal Democrats.
Coalitions are a concept Liberal Democrats are supposed to be comfortable with. It is a natural consequence of their long-term support for more proportional voting systems.
Given the opportunity to form a coalition, it was important for the Liberal Democrats to make it work. They did. Unfortunately, it has ultimately placed the future of the party, and liberalism in Britain, at risk.
The Liberal Democrats have lost the goodwill of the public. This has been seen in every major election for the past five years.
As I explained in my introductory article, I generally don’t like to support governing parties. But I thought the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition did a reasonably good job — at least, as good a job as could have been expected under the circumstances.
It was impossible to support everything the government did. But that is what coalition politics is about.
Moreover, I admire Nick Clegg. I know this places me in a minority, but I am sure he would have had an easier life if he had not made the decision to go into coalition — and moreover stick it out for all five years.
I think the public have greatly underestimated the effect the Liberal Democrats had on tempering the more extreme urges of the Conservatives. People may come to regret turning on our country’s greatest liberalising influence so sharply. What Nick Clegg achieved was actually pretty good.
I was interested to note that in their pre-election endorsements, the Economist and the Financial Times both praised the Liberal Democrats’ influence in the coalition.
The Economist highlighted the Liberal Democrat’s “welcoming attitude towards immigrants” and electoral reform, while warning that “the Tories’ Europhobia… could now do grave damage.”
Meanwhile, the Financial Times praised “the countervailing force of Lib Dem moderation at Westminster”, even going as far as to recommend voting for the Liberal Democrats wherever they had a chance of winning.
The Liberal Democrats’ campaign tactic of painting themselves as a centrist party, equidistant from the Conservatives and Labour, may have seemed strategically unsound in an election where people were turning to extremes like never before. But it held sway with me, and told me that the Liberal Democrats are prepared to do what’s right, regardless of what happens to be popular in the current political climate.
Inevitably there were disappointments. For me, the alternative vote referendum was a massive missed opportunity. Failing to get proper electoral reform in the books was a massive miscalculation.
This was potentially the once in a lifetime opportunity to reform the voting system for good, and it was missed. Not only were the voters presented with the weak option of alternative vote, but the referendum itself was met with mass indifference at best, and mass rejection at worst.
Mistakes like this, coupled with the Liberal Democrats’ generally weakened position, made me consider whether it would be the right way for me to vote this time.
Deciding to vote for the Liberal Democrats
Amid the rise of power-hungry nationalism in Scotland, the temptation to vote tactically has been strong. But as outlined in previous articles, I found it impossible to lend my support to the SNP, Labour or the Conservatives.
I thought Stephen Daisley summed it up well when he said that, love them or hate them, we need the Liberal Democrats:
“Liberalism doesn’t win elections in Scotland; authoritarian populism does.”
The power-crazed SNP seek to remove decision-making from local communities and centralise as much as possible among their Holyrood clique. Labour would flex their statist muscles and spend the country into oblivion.
Meanwhile, the Conservatives have already set about reviving their snoopers’ charter that would give the government an unprecedented ability to invade our privacy. The human rights act will also be under threat.
Other small parties also chiefly look to use government to control people and curtail liberty in one way or another.
The Liberal Democrats can reflect with pride
However, there is reason to be cheered. By paving the way over the past several decades, the Liberal Democrats can reflect with pride on where they have brought the UK on a number of points.
Firstly, coalition politics feels like a viable option for the UK. A coalition may not have happened this time, but for most of the run-up to the election people were talking about coalition options in a mature manner. The Liberal Democrats may have been harmed by the UK’s relative inexperience of coalition politics. But by showing that it can work, the Liberal Democrats have paved the way.
Secondly, people are talking seriously about electoral reform more than ever. The alternative vote referendum may have failed to bring about electoral reform. But major figures from all parties are now talking seriously about it. The gross unfairness of the SNP gaining 56 MPs on just 4.7% of the vote, while Ukip gained just one seat on 12.6% of the vote emphasises how ludicrous the current system is.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the chance of constitutional reform along the lines of federalism is being talked about more and more seriously. The Liberal Democrats have long pursued such a solution. It looks increasingly likely that such a system may be implemented.
It is a unfortunate, and quite ironic, that the Liberal Democrats will play a much lesser role at a time when many of their key principles are being actively pursued by politicians from other parties. We wouldn’t have got here were it not for the efforts of Liberal Democrats over many decades.
The party’s relative resilience in Scotland
One other thing. Scottish politics has undergone a pivotal shift in the past year. This has presented well-publicised challenges for both Labour and the Conservatives, who have found themselves at the receiving end of a cultural squeeze.
Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy was openly contradicted by the Labour party’s UK campaign several times during the election campaign. Meanwhile, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson was also at the receiving end of unhelpful interventions from David Cameron.
This has led some to suggest that both Scottish Labour and the Scottish Conservatives need to become more distant from their UK-wide counterparts. They need to fight different campaigns in Scotland to the campaigns they fight in the rest of the UK. That is deeply ironic for the two major unionist parties.
The Liberal Democrats had no such problems with inconsistency in its position in Scotland. In fact, Scotland became a key focus for the Liberal Democrats towards the end of the campaign. As a federalist party, it is comfortable in its Scottish identity. Moreover, that Scottish identity does not clash with the UK-wide vision.
The Scottish branches of Labour and the Conservatives are facing full-blown existential questions. But the Scottish Liberal Democrats are relatively well placed to perform in Scotland’s current political climate, despite the turmoil that faces the party UK-wide.
The election was a bad night across the UK for the Liberal Democrats. But the party weakened less in Scotland than it did in the rest of the UK. In fact, the 11.3 percentage point decrease in its vote share in Scotland was nothing like as bad as Labour’s 17.7 point collapse.
The party may have just scraped one seat in Scotland (Orkney and Shetland, which the Liberal Democrats really ought not to lose, so safe it traditionally has been). But it can look on its performance in Scotland with relative pride.
Challenges for liberalism in Britain
Whatever you thought of the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition, or of the Liberal Democrats today, their brutal night at the general election marks a severe setback for anyone who cares about civil liberties.
This was the worst result for liberalism there has ever been. The Liberals or Liberal Democrats have never finished lower than third in a UK general election.
But this year they have finished behind the SNP in addition to the big two, and on an equal number of seats with the DUP. In terms of vote share, the Liberal Democrats finished behind Ukip. So now five different parties can claim to be at least as big as the Liberal Democrats in terms of electoral support.
The Liberal Democrats are (or were) the country’s most influential liberal voice in any forum. With just eight MPs up against all the other parties, who are looking always to curtail our liberties, I believe this was a terrible election result for freedom and liberty in general.
Liberalism has a long tradition, but it still has to be relevant for today. Liberalism is the foundation stone upon which western society was built and has flourished. When there is an event such as the recent economic downturn, it is easy to forget how fundamental freedom is to the creation and maintenance of a successful society.
In such circumstances, people increasingly turn to populist parties, just as Europeans did at times during the 20th century. The lessons of history show us how important freedom and international cooperation must be. We cannot take our liberties for granted, and we must not turn inward to seek parochial solutions to our problems.
Where now for the Liberal Democrats and liberalism?
At this stage, it is difficult to know if the Liberal Democrats’ poor performance represents “merely” a major setback, or the beginning of the death of the party. The evidence of the so-called Lib Dem fightback, which has seen 8,000 people join the party since polling day, gives reason for hope.
I was also most interested in the perspective of on person who says he joined the Liberal Democrats overnight having not even voted for them before.
It may be that many voters were simply disenchanted with Nick Clegg rather than the party as a whole. It’s also possible that voters intended collectively to give the Lib Dems a bit of a bloody nose, anticipating them to lose perhaps 20 or so of their seats, only to be shocked to seem them reduced to eight.
That has certainly shocked me, and it has certainly given me food for thought that I ever considered voting for another party this time round.
The progress of liberalism may have, in the words of David Steel, been set back several decades. But this offers an interesting opportunity to reinvent the Liberal Democrats, hopefully unencumbered by the ghosts of the past.
Redefining liberalism for the modern era
There is a opportunity to redefine liberalism for the modern era. Liberalism has an important role to play in today’s politics.
I am not sure if the Liberal Democrats will be able to step up to the plate, or if liberals would instead be better fighting for the cause through pressure groups and other means. But I will watch developments very carefully, and I am even tempted to rejoin the party and play a role in shaping this future.
This is an important time for the UK. With the rise of nationalism in Scotland, England and across Europe, and the Conservative government already openly attacking our privacy and our human rights, liberalism has its back up against the wall at the very moment it is most needed.
This election result was a shock reminder of how fragile our freedom can be. I’m preparing for the fightback.