By Tan Wah Piow
The greatest loser of the 2015 General Election in the United Kingdom is the Liberal Democratic Party. They went into coalition with the Conservative Party after the 2010 election, and its leader Nick Clegg, was made the deputy Prime Minister, while several of their senior leaders were given ministerial positions.
The Liberal Democrats basked in the limelight of the last 5 years. During the 2015 election campaign, they claimed credit for putting the ‘heart’ into the Conservatives. The Conservaties, seen as a party of the privileged and the rich, was once said by its own Chairman as being perceived publicly as “the nasty party”.
As the co-driver, the Liberal Democrat could rightly claim to have curbed some of the excesses of the spending cuts, and helped keep the Human Rights Act in the statute book.
In the course of the election campaign, all opinion polls were claiming that neither of the two main political parties, the Conservatives nor the opposition Labour Party, could win more than 325 seats of the overall 650 seats to form a government.
That “certainty” of a hung parliament buoyed the spirit of Nick Clegg, encouraging him to repeat the mantra that by voting the Liberal Democrat, voters would put the “heart” into a Conservative, or the “brains” into a Labour Government. In other words, Clegg was happy to sleep with either of the two main contenders. With their existing 57 seats in parliament, the Liberal Democrats felt that whatever the outcome, they would still remain a partner of choice in a hung parliament, and continue to enjoy the perks of office.
The Liberal Democrats entered into the coalition as a “centre-left” party in 2010, but after 5 years in bed with the Conservative, they lost their identity, and became “toxified” by the Conservative brand. The mantra of “heart” and “brains” sounded opportunistic. Many young voters who had previously supported the Liberal Democrats in 2010 could not forgive the party for breaking their election pledge of not increasing university tuition fees. They were, as coalition partners, blamed for the three-fold tuition fees increase in 2012. But with the false hope of a hung parliament, those criticisms did not appear to trouble Clegg too much.
It therefore came as a rude shock when 15% of their supporters deserted them at the ballot box. From 57 MPs in parliament in 2010, they are now left with just enough MPs “to fit into two taxis”, as commented by a BBC journalist on election night. Left with just eight MPs, the result was described by Nick Clegg, with tears in his eyes, as “the most crushing defeat” in his party’s history.
One of the problems as a junior co-driver is that the Liberal Democrats’ claim to credit for any successful policy of the Government would be taken with a pinch of salt; while as a coalition partner, the party was blamed, especially by their own supporters, for voting in unpopular policies. Attempts to extricate the party from responsibility for unpopular policies, as they did during the election, was met with cynicism.
Licking the electoral wounds, the best Nick Clegg could do within hours of the defeat, was to offer his resignation as party leader. He insisted that the original decision to enter into the coalition with the nasty party was a sacrifice in the “public interests”. Having dutifully served the Conservatives in the coalition, in defeat, this line of justification was cruelly dismissed even by a pro-Conservative commentator who said “the Liberal Democrats could have insisted on an … arrangement, supporting the Conservatives on a vote-by-vote basis . Instead, they opted for the allurements of office in partnership with a party with which they disagreed about virtually everything.”
There are important lessons to draw for those contemplating entering into coalition with a “nasty” party whose ethos are anathema to their own supporters. They should take heed of this little trivial detail in the Financial Times. “William Hague tells a story of how, after a day negotiating the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government in 2010, his wife asked how he had got on. “I think I’ve killed the Liberal party”, he replied.”
Ideologically, the core supporters of the Liberal Democrats are closer to Labour than the Conservatives. Had the leaders Labour and the Liberal Democrat anticipated the outcome of the elections and the dire consequences, and if they had the courage to forge a progressive alliance and set aside their tribal bias before the start of the 2015 election campaigns, a Conservative-majority government could be avoided.
The Conservative Party had enjoyed a net gain of 24 parliamentary seats at this 2015 election, thereby giving them a majority of 6 seats. But an analysis of the actual votes cast for the Labour and Liberal Democrats in those 24 constituencies, the Conservative gain could be slashed to just one seat if there were a progressive alliance and electoral pack between the two parties.
Unfortunately, this is just hindsight. As one Liberal Democrat grandee said, it would now take another 50 years before the party could find a place in Government.
So, aspiring co-drivers, beware before you jump into a cab, especially when the navigator is set to a destination different from yours.