Saturday, May 7, 2011

Winds of Change Are An Opportunitity For The Liberal Democrats

It's been a bad night for the LibDems but it's also been a bad night for Labour who, despite having probably the most favourable climate possible to gain seats against their opponents given the difficult decisions the government has had to make, failed to make the kinds of gains expected. They should have gained well over 1000 seats and that would just have put them back to where they were before their disastrous 2007 local election performance. Starting from a low base, as they were, gave them a chance to make substantial gains. And the Tories, starting from such a high watermark, were widely predicted to lose hundreds, if not over a thousand seats. In the end they actual GAINED seats! On top of all this Labour lost in Scotland and it looks like Ed Miliband has led the Yes To AV campaign to a humiliating defeat as well. The broadcast media have been quick to airbrush his elbowing of Nick Clegg out from the campaign leadership and are focusing on blaming Clegg, which is quite unfair.

So we won't hear much about Labour's woes. Clegg is in the firing line especially from disaffected and deselected members of his party. What with a massive defeat on the AV referendum it will be a dark few days and weeks for the LibDem leader.

There's talk of him playing a "more critical" role in government. I assume by this they mean being more questioning rather than more important. Perhaps they mean both. Either way I think this is the wrong reaction.

Clegg did well to win as much as he did in the Coalition negotiations. His vision and bravery are to be admired and applauded. But he, and his LibDem colleagues, already exert more influence on the agenda and policy than their support in the election justifies. Rather than attempting to distance themselves from the Government they should be proudly promoting what has been achieved via the joint venture. And not in terms of the "Tories would have been a lot worse if it wasn't for us" angle they so often take.

Instead they should look to the future and consider a permanent realignment that reflects where the true centre of British politics now is. Look where they suffered most last night; in the North where they used left wing friendly messages to gain seats; and in college/university towns and cities where students supported them as the anti establishment / anti tuition fee party. To some it may seem logical to readopt or re-emphasise these messages and shift to the left to regain lost support in these areas.

I disagree. The true centre of British politics is to the right of where the LibDems have traditionally pitched themselves. Not a lot to the right but enough to alienate many of the genuine leftists that liked the non-establishment / left wing combination. The reality is that the LibDems are now a party of government. They cannot be anti-establishment any more. So the leftists are left with Labour as a more attractive option.

The elections last night were effectively a hurricane ripping through the LibDems support, knocking down the weak but leaving the strong in place. As in nature, a disaster is often part of a natural cycle. These results blew away the leftist/anti establishment supporters and left the truly centrist supporters intact. I don't believe the LibDems can ever get the old supporters back fully and certainly not without destroying any credibility they will gain from seeing through the agenda of economic and social reform they are now committed to in the coalition.

Instead they should try to build on the new make up of support. Ed Miliband's union backers will be keen to see him take Labour further to the left while he will be keen to keep using language that won't alienate the parties' moderate supporters. The LibDems have an opportunity to expose this deceit and offer themselves up as a more economically credible (having helped fix the nations finances), truly liberal (meaning less authoritarian than Labour, accepting the free market but with a demonstrable social conscience) and, possibly, more libertarian than the Tories. This is one position to take, there are probably several options for realignment. But the important point will be to realign as a real alternative to the Tories and to replace Labour altogether as their main rivals. This would free up the Tory party to offer up a purer idealogical free market, socially conservative position that many of it's member desire and for which there is a demand in the country.

The true left - statist planners, tax and spenders, militant unionists etc, will still have their home in Ed Miliband's Labour party. But the LibDems will represent a much more popular, centrist body of opinion and deservedly replace Labour as one of Britain's top two parties, representing the centre against the Tory right.

It will be a painful transition though. The likes of Huhne and Hughes will not fit into the new order. They want to return to perpetual opposition so they can return to being the representatives of sandal wearing anti-establishment students, hippies, celebs too embarrassed to admit they're really Labour and environmentalists too embarrassed to admit they're really Greens. Ex-leaders will also struggle, having led the party through '97 onwards when there was strong left wing support for the LibDems and of course there's the ex-Labour/SDP members who will struggle. But those that have vision and are long sighted enough will know that they can't ever be more than a third party bit part players if they continue to compete for the ever decreasing left wing constituency.

There is no left of centre (or progressive as they like to call themselves) majority in this country. Most people don't align themselves on the left or right at all. They want to see clarity of thought, competent economic management, honesty and have confidence their politicians are working in the national interest. If Nick Clegg can keep his party whole heartedly committed to the economic rescue package and the public services reform agenda being pursued by the coalition, in four years time he can rightly claim his fair share of credit for it and make a credible claim that his party is a true party of government when the next election comes around. If they start playing silly buggers by disrupting business and attempting to show they're still great oppositionists - that is where they will return, permanently - to the opposition benches where, sadly quite a few of their current MPs are more comfortable.

And now there's a threat of Scottish independence with the SNP in power in Scotland. Scotland is a massive left wing counter balance to the naturally right of centre England. Removing them from Westminster elections will further decrease the scope for success of left leaning parties in England, Wales and Northern Ireland only elections. Scottish independence is far from certain but if it happened it would make a realignment of British politics essential.The LibDems would be in an even stronger position if they had already made the move.

So, through all the gloom and depression, Liberal Democrats with vision and ambition to play a full and responsible role in the country's future should dispel from their minds the myth of the existence of a "progressive" majority in the country and look to their future representing the real political centre, even though such a shift will be painful. The party is already feeling the pain of losing many of their harder left wing supporters. The process of transition would be even more painful as they lost activists and some big names as well. But worth it in the long run as they gained new supporters from the moderate left and right and eventually overtook Labour just as Labour overtook the Liberals at the beginning of the last century when Labour adopted a more relevant agenda that voters actually wanted at the time. Labour have long since lost their raison d'etre and, with a weak leader, are ripe for picking off at the next election.

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