Prepare now for rebuilt Lib Dems
The Labour party of 1997 – at least, the driving force behind it – grew up in irrelevance. Muted by the dogma of the 1980s, walking into campaigns with electoral suicide notes; it is little wonder that Tony Blair considered leaving politics completely.
1997 ‘happened’ partly because the country was tired of the Conservative party. But it was all the more welcoming of change because the project of modernising the alternative came to fruition under Tony Blair. His inner circle had all been witnesses to the disastrous politics of the 1980s, prompting a steely determination to change the fortunes of the Labour party. It is what drove them to modernisation; the inherent belief that Labour could be so much more for so many more people.
That sense of social justice with individual responsibility is what marks many of our shared political beliefs in today’s Labour party. It is no longer a party obsessed with left or right. Because of New Labour, our party is no longer challenged by dogma and irrelevance. The efforts of Blair, Brown and Mandelson mean we cannot return to the political incompetence of the 1980s.
New Labour liberated the modernisers of the Labour party. But it isn’t a phenomenon that can only occur once, and in one party. We should be wary of what growing up in defeat means for those of other colours, too.
Witnessing the collapse of the Liberal Democrats delivers a mixed bag of emotions; schadenfreude of course, but sorrow and worry too. Robert Philpot, in the June edition of Progress magazine, pointed out the electoral hazards should the Lib Dem wipeout continue into the next general election. There are repercussions of Lib Dem collapse further into the future too.
Liberal Youth membership fell by 50 per cent in 2011. While Labour Students chalks up some brilliant successes, the Lib Dems are losing presence in universities, at grassroots levels and in campaigning strength. Once the party of gross opportunism, they have become a hollow and indefinable mess.
They are losing those who might otherwise have made up a future generation Liberal Democrat party. But it also means we have to consider those who have stayed. There will be, as in every party or movement, a core of modernising activists waiting.
The Liberal Democrats of 2010 and onwards – this current crop of Liberal Youth members – will be driven by the failures of their party’s leadership. They will face criticism that their party is out of touch, not liberal enough, not fit to govern. Outdated, poor communicators, no sense of leadership.
All these claims ring true. It sounds like the Labour party of the 1980s. And like the generation of Labour politicians and activists who grew up in the shadow of the wilderness years, the Liberal Democrats who have chosen to stay are clearly determined to cling onto the hope of a brighter liberal future.
It means that, in a party which looks comfortable with supporting conservatism, the modernising urge will be to get away from the Tories. It doesn’t mean they’ll run to Labour either – this will be a Liberal Democrat party with have no qualms about taking up their old position of equidistance between red and blue. They will take votes from us in marginals and the south; letting the Tories back in, eroding our share of the vote.
Talk of a coalition in 2015 should be taken seriously should the mathematics require it. We are progressive, and so are they when they want to be genuine.
But the fact remains that the chance for a truly progressive realignment of British politics has long passed; a long and drawn-out death of the liberal politics they said made them different. The resistance – on both sides – to accommodating the Liberal Democrats into a New Labour cabinet was swiftly vindicated as they returned to opportunism, sinking back into opposition – their natural home.
And the failure to distance themselves from the Tories is a threat they must run from. A core of the party, a true Cleggite band, might remain supporting conservatism with a smile, comfortable with the environment of coalition. A disaster waiting to happen, but a scenario already played out with the FDP in Germany.
We should be clear about the timeframe. This will only come about in a generation; when Clegg, Cable and Hughes are replaced by serious, less accommodating liberals. The fact that so many are disillusioned with their leadership means they’ll only pursue their aims with more vigour; a chance to prove themselves as a real opposition alternative.
We should ensure that we are equipped for a rebuilt Lib Dem party. Early campaign planning for by-elections, as proposed by Richard Angell and me, must be fully functional by the time the Lib Dems start fighting them again. We have to make progress on local election gains with policies appealing to every part of the electorate.
Are the Liberal Democrats out of serious power for a generation or more? Definitely. Off the political landscape? Never.
Labour, Liberal Democrats