It is with genuine sadness I have to announce the passing of the Liberal Democratic Party. It has been to the edge of extinction several times before, but has always clawed its way back up the evolutionary ladder. However this time the decay is irreversible.
The Liberal Democrats stood for the virtues of moderation, fairness, tolerance and a basic liberal conscience, not always an easy platform to put across. It’s hard to express passionate moderation, extreme centrist views or radical laissez-faire, which is a shame because it’s how most people live their lives. We don’t spend our days shouting the odds and getting in each other’s faces, and should welcome a party which reflects that reality. But on a gut level politics is essentially theatre, the posing and quarrelling and promises are a performance, and we’re drawn to those who are good at it. Do we believe them? No, but if we were driven solely by logic none of us would be buying a lottery card, and no one would vote for Nigel Farage. We like to be sold a dream however silly.
For a while the Lib Dems rode the wave. Paddy Ashdown played the rogue male, Charles Kennedy the feisty Scot, Ming Campbell the honest “To Kill A Mockingbird” lawyer shaking his fist against the Iraq war. Nick Clegg rose without trace to the top job, but that seemed to make sense too. He was the Lib-Dems’ Blair, the smooth young well-educated internationally-connected 21st century man who could run rings round the dim Cameron or the sinking ship that was Gordon Brown. “I agree with Nick,” they chorused. Some of the puff had gone out of his balloon by the election but the Lib-Dems won 57 seats with 23% of the vote. Note those numbers.
Some commentators blame their fall from pet poodle to smelly cat on their acceptance of coalition. It wasn’t that. They did the statesmanlike thing, some holding their noses, others quietly thrilled to feel their soft hands on the rough tillers of state. Much of their record in coalition is creditable, modifying Tory excesses and supplying positive input of their own.
But by then it didn’t really matter. Nick Clegg had made a solemn promise to thousands of young voters who saw him as someone out of the normal cynical mould, someone they dared to trust. His treachery destroyed their faith in him and his party, but soiled the whole concept of politics for another generation, something they remembered every time they counted their student debts.
The second pillar to fall was that of Vince Cable. His voice was the only one to warn of the fiscal madness that lost the nation’s shirt. As minister for business he could have carried through the re-regulation of the financial sector the country was howling for, an open door waiting to be kicked in. But too long in their company softened his edge. Bankers can sleep soundly even if the rest of us must pay and pay.
That’s youth and business. Who was left to lose? Women. Last week in the summer doldrums the party exonerated Lord Rennard from multiple claims of sexual harassment, obviously hoping we wouldn’t notice, and reinstated him without an official stain on his character. It was the last straw. Underneath the tottering pile of weasel words about “credibility” and “proof” was a message that insulted half (at least) of the population of Britain. It’s the end. There’s no way back from such myopic self-destructiveness.
This doesn’t mean there’s no space for a leftist third party with a moral base and a spine. The opening and the need is wider than ever, but the damaged goods formerly known as the Lib Dems can never fill it now.
It’s time for those they’ve failed to cling together and start to build once more, this time with women as core members, and this time with the courage to challenge popularity with truth, something you can’t fake. It’s time for those Lib Dems who recognise how shamefully far their party has fallen to step outside its tainted shadow and stand upright, begin again. Otherwise it won’t be commentators like me who will write their obituary. Numbers don’t lie. 57 members, 23% of the popular vote? Would anyone like to hazard a guess what those figures will be come May 7?