Looking back at the 2010 general election, the result caught unaware even the most seasoned political commentators. The so-called ‘Clegg-mania’ in the aftermath of the leadership debates, although failed to materialise in more seats for the Liberal Democrats, saw it launched into coalition with the Tories – something unseen in Britain since WWII. However even as Clegg and Cameron strolled smiling out into Downing Street’s rose garden to talk to the press, the scepticism of some was already easy to hear. As vocal as the optimists in the party were, there were those who said the Lib Dems would be a puppet for the Tories, with only a sprinkling of Lib Dem ministers in the cabinet to make any change.
Of course, for a party that was presenting itself in the election to the left of Labour (remember Clegg’s talk on banking’s culture of greed and promise to not support a rise in tuition fees?), entering a coalition with the Tories must have been quite uneasy for some. Lo and behold, of course, they implemented numerous policies that were contradictory to the pledges they previously enthused. The list goes on, but the trebling of tuition fees, the continuation of Trident and failure to reform Westminster have been some of the hardest to live down, leaving a sour taste in the mouth of many a (former) supporter. The cost to the party is easy to see in swathe after swathe of lost council seats in local elections, their near-total annihilation in the EU Parliament and, in one council by-election, losing to the Bus Pass Elvis Party. At the time of writing their membership count is two-thirds of what it was when they entered coalition in 2010.
We are being increasingly more often reminded of the imminence of the next general election and as that comes round the corner, the Lib Dems have been raising their head again. But is it too late? Very recently, Clegg turned around to say how he was wary of the bedroom tax, with Danny Alexander wanting to see ‘fairer rules’. Of course, this only comes months after the law had already been passed and while they may hope to change the law after the election, it’s impossible to deny that they could have softened its blow four months ago.
Another example was when (the relatively outspoken) Vince Cable claimed on the Andrew Marr Show that he was having second thoughts on selling off the student loan book that would allow private holders to potentially fiddle with its interest rates. If this was an attempt to win back confidence for the Lib Dems in young people, then it was small fry compared to how they lost it.
Clegg and co. have also become increasingly vocal against their Tory partners of late, with Nick often berating ‘Tory extremists who push the party to the right to combat the threat of UKIP or its hesitance in promising a referendum on the EU. A recent example was Clegg’s criticism of a faction (which includes ministers such as Theresa May) of the Tories who wish to limit the power of the European Court of Human Rights or leave it all together. Clegg said it was contradictory to Britain’s (spurious) ‘long tradition’ of standing up for human rights internationally. An unmistakably liberal claim, and worthy of the party as we approach the next general election. But this brings me to my next point…
If the Liberal Democrats were serious on human rights, they probably would have been less keen to so enthusiastically support the next in the government’s series of policies that no one asked for. I am referring to the emergency Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill, referred to as the ‘Snoopers’ Charter’ by its critics and ‘DRIP’ by ministers. To be clear, the support amongst the party is not unanimous with Liberal peers criticising how it was rushed through parliament in under a week. Furthermore, every other major party supported DRIP.
Clegg defended his hypocrisy by saying that the law is designed to be revoked after 2016 in what is called its ‘poison pill’. The government has been tight-lipped as to why this law is necessary – any details may compromise investigations into organisations and individuals that security services are trying to track. That may well be the case, but if the Liberal Democrats really wanted to be both more ‘liberal’ and ‘democratic’, they need to look across the North Sea to Norway.
This is particularly appropriate in light of Norway’s commemoration upon the third anniversary of the horrific massacre that saw 77 people killed (many of whom were under 20 years old) in an event that some perceived as the ‘loss of Norway’s innocence’ – not so, in fact. In response to these attacks, Norway did not pursue policies the way other western countries did after such terror attacks as 9/11 and 7/7 (amongst others). The then-Prime Minister of Norway Jens Stoltenberg said Norway would, ‘stand firm in defending our values’ and the ‘open, tolerant and inclusive society’ and that ‘The Norwegian response to violence is more democracy, more openness and greater political participation.’ In the words of one teenage member of the young socialist organisation that was attacked on the island, ‘If one man can show so much hate, think how much love we could show, standing together.’ In retrospect it may seem a tad trite, but it illustrates my point:
If the Liberal Democrats want to have a chance at being in government again after the next election, they need to be the new and different party they say they are.