July 3, 2015 11.32 am This story is over 100 months old

Where it all went wrong for the Lib Dems

Keeping faith: John Marriott looks at how it’s all gone wrong for the Lib Dems, arguing it started with the Labour landslide in 1997.

The article entitled ‘The Clegg catastrophe’ which appeared recently in a national newspaper, should be essential reading, in my humble opinion, for anyone who really believes that liberal ideas have a role to play in our society but are devastated that the work over the past forty years appears to have landed the party more or less back to where it started.

There are some clear lessons to be learned; but the source of the difficulties for the Liberal Democrat Party, which, although always inevitably representing a minority view of life, managed for many years to punch above its weight, lies further in the past than the tuition fees debacle.

Despite the disappointment of the 1983 and 1987 General Elections, the painful merger of the Liberal Party and the SDP, resulting briefly in the approximate 3% in the opinion polls, the ‘Liberal’ recovery began with the parliamentary by-election successes of the 1990s, which continued into the new century, not forgetting the many wins in local government.

To those, who still keep the faith and to those who, for whatever reasons (hopefully not just out of sympathy), have recently joined the party, my comments may come over as defeatist or unduly negative.

I know that politicians are only supposed to accentuate the positive; but I personally find that hard to do at the moment. The fact is that I am pretty hacked off with the way that years of dedication by many decent people can be virtually airbrushed away by a cross in a box on a ballot paper by those who are too easily influenced by scare stories cooked up deliberately by opponents or by a failure, or even unwillingness, to understand how coalition government actually works and why it may be necessary on some occasions.

I’m equally fed up of hearing from most party stalwarts that, despite all the humiliation, it’s still business as usual. The phoenix may rise again; but, at the moment, it will need a great deal of coaxing.

So, when did it all start to go wrong? It wasn’t the changes of leader following the late Charles Kennedy’s removal from office. It wasn’t tuition fees, although they didn’t help, nor was it doing the brave thing and joining the coalition. No, in my opinion, it started with the Labour landslide in 1997.

Right up until then those of us directly involved had really believed we could achieve a proper realignment in British politics by finally changing the voting system.

It was pretty obvious that, having chickened out in 1992, the electorate was not going to vote in another Tory government; but the question was whether they really would give Labour a clear mandate to govern alone. Lib Dem Leader at the time, Paddy Ashdown, and his team were clearly hoping for a situation, possibly short of a hung parliament, where Lib Dem influence could bring about the one reform which really would have broken the mould, namely the introduction of Proportional Representation (PR).

Couple that with real reform of the House of Lords and devolution to the English regions as well as to Scotland and Wales and a federal United Kingdom could have been just around the corner.

As it turned out, Tony Blair and Labour didn’t need the Lib Dems and so the unique opportunity to get real reform was missed. With Labour’s agreement to stick with the Major Government’s spending plans for the first two years, for fear probably, of frightening all those ex Tory voters who were ‘lending’ them their support, you could see that what we would be getting would be a dose of ‘Tory lite’ – and what a sad disappointment those years from 1997 to 2010 turned out to be for those of us who saw such a golden opportunity for a root and branch reform of our political system go to waste.

With the Tories licking their wounds, as the ‘go to’ party of protest, by adopting a more principled left of centre position under Charles Kennedy and with their opposition to the Iraq war, the Lib Dems appeared to continue to make progress, especially as the ground not occupied by the ‘old parties’ was pretty empty – the Greens, the SNP and UKIP were nowhere at that time, unlike today.

People often forget that, after their high point in parliamentary representation in 2005, the Lib Dems have been on a downward path for some time, both in local government and as a national party.

There was even speculation that the 2010 General Election would see a severe reduction in the number of Lib Dem MPs, so some of us were pleasantly surprised to see our numbers more or less hold up and to find our party in government for the first time in peace time since the 1920s.

Once again we have a government that represents around a quarter of the electorate. As things stand it would take a massive economic downturn to change the status quo, which nobody in their right mind would contemplate.

The only way you can be certain of electing a government that would, in theory, represent over half of those who actually voted is to change the voting system and the only way this could happen is to persuade all opposition parties to adopt and campaign for PR.

Beside the Tories, who cynically torpedoed the lukewarm attempt to change from ‘First past the Post’ (FPTP) in 2011, the only opposition party in Wales, England and Scotland that is ambivalent to PR is, as far as I can see, the Labour Party. If they could be persuaded to come on board, such a change could become a reality after 2020. The trouble is that they still think that they can win on their own.

If you still think the FPTP voting system is fair, just consider this: In May 2015 it took roughly 26,000 votes to elect an SNP MP, 34,000 to elect a Tory MP, 40,000 to elect a Labour MP, whereas, to elect a Lib Dem MP, a Green MP and a UKIP MP it took 302,000, 1,157,000 and 3.9 million votes respectively.

If we ever do get fair votes in national elections, a major task of re education will be necessary. Unless we return to the two party system that reached its peak in 1951, people had better get used to voting for a menu with prices.

Of course, vote for the party whose policies appeal to you the most; but be prepared, in the event of no party reaching the magic 50%, for compromise. Who knows, perhaps, in a few years time, if we carry on as we are, many people may look back on the coalition years 2010 to 2015 with a certain amount of nostalgia.

John was a councillor for thirty years, finally retiring in 2017. A schoolteacher by profession, he served on the North Hykeham Town Council (1987-2011), the North Kesteven District Council (1987-1999, 2001-2007) and the Lincolnshire County Council (2001-2017). He was also a County Council member of the former Lincolnshire Police Authority for eight years until standing down in 2009. In 1997 he was the Lib Dem Parliamentary candidate for Sleaford and North Hykeham. He is currently not a member of any political party.