Saturday, 23 April 2011

Lib Dems: the opposition party

Labour in 1983: wedded to inter-party conflict - and the opposition benches
There's something of the Greek tragedy about the Liberal Democrats. A fitting fate, you might say, for that most European of British political parties but their present predicament of being torn apart by that which they desired most - namely, government - is irresistibly reminiscent of King Midas.

The shock of Cleggmania, too, (in which the party actually superseded Labour in a couple of opinion polls) and its crashing obliteration at the polls is just another rerun of the classic Lib Dem 'so near, so far' melodrama. And, while the millions of cold feet at the ballot box were arguably not their fault, Lib Dems, like the great panda, seem to have a curious preponderance towards their own demise.

The party's Liberal predecessors were masters in this regard, of course; having cast Liberalism into the political wilderness some 90 years ago. And, while it's true there are a number of historical factors behind their third-place relegation, it is fair to say many of these were, if not orchestrated by Liberal politicians, certainly exasperated by them.

At the end of the nineteenth century, for example, the party's predominantly middle class leaders consistently ignored calls to increase the representation of working people in the party and to field working class MPs. Naturally enough, these activists eventually decided they had had enough and established the Labour Representation Committee, in 1900.

Given the political context of the time it was an understandable, if not entirely agreeable, position for these bourgeois industrialists to take and the LRC could have withered into historical insignificance. But, rather than ruthlessly wiping out a rival (as Labour would do 20 years later), the Liberals actively nursed the LRC's nascent spark with a Lib-Lab electoral pact in 1903 that increased the number of socialist MPs from two to 29.

This was done just as the party was beginning to tear itself apart over the issues of Irish Home Rule, 'new' and 'old' Liberalism and, later, coalition with the Conservatives. The latter would eventually broker a formal split of the party into two camps; one under Herbert Asquith and the other under David Lloyd George. 

The two factions reunited under the banner of free trade for the 1923 general election - which produced a hung parliament - just in time to be superseded by Labour as Britain's principal left-wing party. But, despite having only 33 fewer seats, Asquith decided to support a minority Labour government rather than force a Liberal administration. The following year the party's representation in the Commons collapsed from 158 MPs to 40.

What sort of a party would pursue such fevered, kamikaze tactics, I hear you ask? Well, as the Lib Dems were declared the legal successor of the Liberal party in 1988, I can say with confidence it is the very same party that is, even today, plotting to cast itself back into political purgatory.

The 'big tent' organisation of both Labour and the Conservatives has prompted many a political commentator to question what exactly is the point of the Liberal Democrats but you really do have to ask yourself what purpose a party serves when it seems so offended by the idea of political power.

Vince Cable is the absolute living embodiment of this poor, confused, mentality. It really is very difficult to understand what exactly he is hoping to achieve by constantly undermining the government in which he serves (see here and here). 

In the most remarkable flouting of collective responsibility, he has egged on the Prime Minister to sack him by calling him 'unwise', bragging with the most astonishing hubris that he can 'bring down the government' and declaring he would quite happily leave office as to do so would double his income.

Such an ostensibly intelligent man ought to know there is only one outcome from such childish behaviour: oblivion. His exit from the Cabinet - either through his own doing or the PM's - will result either in being ignored by his party colleagues as a once-promising embarrassment or, if they follow him, by the wholesale massacring of Lib Dem MPs in a general election the Conservatives would, given Labour's highly opaque alternative, almost certainly win.

Lib Dem councillors, too, seem possessed by an Ouroboros complex of failure. There is such delicious irony, for example, in former Liverpool Council leader Warren Bradley urging Nick Clegg to leave the coalition to 'regain the party's independence' when his party has campaigned for almost 100 years on changing the voting system to one in which coalitions, and thereby compromises, would be guaranteed. It seems to have escaped Cllr Bradley, too, that his party would be the junior partner in these coalitions in perpetuity.

Lib Dems like Cable and Bradley need to grow up and decide whether they wish to remain in the real world and continue to exert the disproportionate influence they have over coalition policy - while respecting collective responsibility and that sacrifices must be made - or go back to their beards and sandals; to a cosier world where they can continue to make outlandish promises on abolishing tuition fees without ever having the inconvenience of being called to account on them.

The choice is yours, fellas.

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