It’s a commonplace that the Lib Dems are Lib Dead. The polls taken so far this year have them hovering around 10 per cent – less than half of the 23 per cent they gained in 2010. Commentators assume that their 57 seats will drop below 20, all of which is fine by me. Yet, I have a gnawing worry that, while the Liberals aren’t thriving, neither are they drowning. They might prove more tenacious than many people expect.
The evidence from local by-elections backs this up. On the day that most politicos were talking about the police and crime commissioner ballots, as well as three Westminster elections, a host of local contests registered five gains for the Lib Dems and no losses. Taking seats off the Tories and Labour, this pattern has been repeated throughout England recently. Local Lib Dems are not always being blamed for the sins of their Westminster masters.
Waltham Forest gives an example of how the Lib Dems will approach the next couple of years. For two terms until 2010, the council was hung, with 24 Labour and 21 Liberal councillors. They were a significant local political force, having grown from nothing over 20 years to a position in which they believed that, in 2010, they would take control of the council and run us close in the parliamentary seats of Walthamstow and Leyton and Wanstead. That did not happen – 2010 brought hefty parliamentary majorities and 36 Labour councillors. The Liberals were left with just six.
For much of the previous two-and-a-half years, the local Lib Dems appeared shell-shocked and without any direction at all. Yet, in the last six months, something has changed. Things are still pretty desperate for them, but they no longer appear quite as resigned to their own demise. They have found some direction and, while the content of that direction is not surprising, the sheer chutzpah of it may be.
Their approach seems to rest on two pillars: put as much space as possible between themselves and the Tories; and pretend that the national government doesn’t exist. Again – not surprising, but taken so far as to be not just opportunist, but utterly cynical. This is quite a change: for much of 2010, 2011 and 2012, the Liberals appeared perfectly happy to be associated with their national colleagues.
Lib Dem council motions are generally written by their head office, appearing on order papers across the country. Until recently, their motions tacked closer to the Tories than to us, often being Labour v Lib-Con affairs. Then, somebody at Lib Dem HQ had a change of heart. They now either offer anodyne motions, or go out of their way to make sure that the Tories vote against them – no sign of that Ronseal relationship in Waltham Forest (and probably no sign of it where you are). Nick Clegg’s aide, Richard Reeves, mapped out three phases of coalition in 2010: unity, followed by differentiation, followed by divergence. Liberal strategists appear to have skipped phase two in their local approach.
Pillar two of their approach is to deny that the Lib Dems are part of the national government. Last month, Waltham Forest Lib Dems introduced a motion written in their HQ, criticising the government’s change to planning law, particularly condemning the Prime Minister for announcing the change. In fact, it had been announced jointly by Cameron and Clegg, but Lib Dems in government have been airbrushed out of their official history.
This might be all part of the cut and thrust of local politics, but it is certainly a sign of Liberal Democrat official thinking. They are utterly cynical, but utterly determined to survive. Anyone in Labour who is relying on the Liberals just dying a quiet death will be disappointed. They won’t. Their strategy is clear – the Tories and the government are nothing to do with them, guv’. Most will not be fooled by this but, where there are sitting Lib Dem councillors or MPs, their strategy may bear more fruit than we hope.
Their cynical approach in Waltham Forest and elsewhere suggests that we need to be equally strident in our response. We must not rely on the Lib Dems just disappearing – it is that complacent attitude in formerly safe Labour seats and wards which let the Liberals grow in the first place. Within the movement, many will differ as to whether we should hug them or bash them. Either way, it is clear that this will not be a natural end – it will have to be an assisted suicide.
Mark Rusling is a Labour and Cooperative councillor in the London borough of Waltham Forest and writes the Changing to Survive column
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