Since Christmas, two things are taking up space in my copious social media feeds; it turns out that everybody I have ever met is:
- Re-joining a weight-loss support club, and / or
- Re-joining the Liberal Democrat party.
My thoughts on the first are no secret, and it is time to articulate what is so wrong with the second.
Who are the Liberal Democrats?
The Liberal Democrat party, often referred to as the Lib Dems, is a centrist political party in the UK. They have frequently had policies that impressed the left (such as an intention to increase tax to fund the NHS), but the joke always went that it was easy for them to have great policies: they’d never be in a position to implement them and see them in action.
Because one of the two major parties, Labour and the Conservatives, have been in government since 1910, the Liberal Democrats invariably came third in most General Elections. Positioning themselves sometimes to the left and sometimes to the right (according to what people in any given context wanted to hear) gave them leverage and made them a generally popular lot. But not popular or trusted enough to actually be put in charge of the country.
Then, in 2010, the Lib Dems got their big break. Nick Clegg, the party leader, was very successful in a televised General Election debate, with ‘I agree with Nick’ being said so many times, by so many leaders cashing in on his appeal, that it became a meme. The election itself, however, led to a hung parliament – an unclear result where no party had an overall majority.
This was the time for the Lib Dems to shine; they could pair with either Labour (who they seemed politically more aligned with) or the Tories (who had won more seats) to create a majority government and, to many people’s horror, they cosied up to the Conservatives, enabling them to form a government with David Cameron at its head.
Nick Clegg was made Deputy Prime Minister.
Four other Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament were given cabinet posts, giving them just enough power to facilitate the egregious moves that the Tories went on to subject the country to.
Votes for power
Prior to the 2010 General Election, I had naively hoped for a hung parliament because, in my hippie dippie brain, it would usher in an era of new politics where parties would have to negotiate and come to decisions based on widespread agreement. I imagined the left and the right working together and policies somewhere in the middle coming out and, while I’m not exactly middle of the road politically, it seemed like a tolerable solution, and one that could encourage politicians away from what has been dubbed ‘Punch and Judy politics’, a reference to the fights and sparring (not to mention the domestic violence) in the old-fashioned puppet shows.
It would do until a truly left-wing, radical government could take the reins. Or so I thought.
Instead, as part of a coalition government, the Liberal Democrat Party betrayed their left-wing supporters in a ruthless way, enabling the Tories to pass legislation tripling university students’ fees (when Nick Clegg had arguably won his seat – and other Lib Dem seats – on the determined and highly publicised promise that he would scrap tuition fees altogether) and diminishing social security benefits dramatically, in a way that was especially punitive to disabled people and women.
Clegg and his party had let down their core supporters, walking over them in exchange for governmental power. Disabled people started starving to death and young people found their opportunities curtailed to satisfy an austerity regime that was ideological rather than, well, logical.
The Liberal Democrats became a party of U-turns, a group of untrustworthy politicians who had become unpredictable and had failed at their bid to be an alternative. They had grabbed and grasped at power, for their own sake, and sacrificed many of their supporters and voters.
In the next General Election, they experienced karma of sorts, going from 57 seats to a mere eight. Nick Clegg immediately resigned.
History repeating itself
In the past, the Lib Dems frequently positioned themselves as an alternative to ‘the big two’ parties, such as by opposing the Iraq War. They are doing the same thing now with the argument over Brexit.
Alongside parties like the Green Party and the Women’s Equality Party, the Lib Dem leader Tim Farron led seven of his nine MPs (they won a by election, bringing up their total) to vote against giving the government the power to trigger Article 50 to instigate a ‘hard Brexit’.
Many traditional Labour supporters were dismayed that their party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, instructed his MPs to vote in favour of the triggering of Article 50, even threatening to sack shadow cabinet ministers who went against him. The Tories, naturally, generally supported approving the Article 50 move, too. This left the smaller parties to oppose – and they did – but those trusting Farron’s Lib Dems to be anything other than the same party that betrayed its supporters and left students, young people, women and disabled people to rot are setting themselves up for immense disappointment.
Their membership may have soared to 82,000, but only those with a short memory have joined or re-joined after the failed austerity experiment of the last decade, in which they were absolutely complicit.
Illustration: Iain Forbes/Creative Commons