This article was originally published on https://uncooked.medium.com/what-happened-to-the-lib-dems-46ed95f7122a April, 2010. Our Year 11 Religious Studies class broke with Buddhism for the day, because the teacher decided that we were to watch the general election TV debate which had aired the night before. He’d been struck down by Cleggmania, and although we didn’t then know it yet, we would soon be stricken too. At the end of the screening, he polled the class on who we would vote for — if we could vote — and every hand in the room shot up for the Liberal Democrats. The fresh-faced Liberal leader had looked down the barrel of the camera and spoke to us directly, and we liked it. The country agreed; The Sunday Times reported that after his debut debate, Clegg, with an approval rating of 72%, was the most popular British politician since Winston Churchill.
But like Churchill’s Conservatives, who went on to lose the 1945 general election in spite of their leader’s personal popularity, Clegg’s Liberals shocked the country by managing to lose seats in 2010, despite increasing their share of the vote. And then our man in yellow went on to break the first in a series of promises, by putting the Conservative party into government. Instead of PR, we got a rigged referendum on AV. Instead of seeing the back of tuition fees, they were tripled — and EMA scrapped to boot. Trident was renewed, not removed, taxes were cut for the richest rather than raised, and police were made redundant rather than recruited. With the zealotry of lovers scorned, me and my mates bunked off school and bussed into town to join local colleges to protest against the coalition government.
Fast forward to 2015 and the passing of time had healed some of those old wounds. Most people came to understand ‘tuition fees’ were a misnomer, and that the policy would be better described as a progressive graduate tax. Clegg has gone from hero, to villain, to just another lying politician. There was animus, but it wasn’t reserved or especial for Nick. But this didn’t help him or his party in the elections — Tory voters didn’t trust him not to prop up a Labour-SNP coalition, and Labour voters didn’t trust him not to put the Tories back in power. His heterodox support base splintered and his party went from winning 23% of the national vote in 2010, to less than 8% in 2015. It was a disaster. But this bad performance didn’t have to spell a death spiral — Clegg’s own seat in Sheffield Hallam was saved by Tory voters, and there was no reason to think Liberal defectors of the centre and right wouldn’t come home in due course. But then the 2017 election happened.
Instead of accepting the result of the Brexit referendum as the major two parties had chosen to do, the Lib Dems opted to differentiate themselves by campaigning for a second EU referendum. Perhaps they sensed that for once they might be able to game the first past the post electoral system to their advantage, and capitalise on the votes of the 48%. But they miscalculated, badly. Though they advanced their position in Parliament by putting on 4 seats, they alienated their heartland voters in the West Country — wherein virtually every constituency voted for Leave, and the notable exceptions that didn’t, such as in Bristol and Exeter, were unshakeably Labour anyway.
But the party didn’t care for their traditional voters, and they didn’t shy away in letting them know about it. Jo Swinson was elected to lead the Lib Dems after Farron stood down, and set her sights on urban centres, and small ‘L’ liberal Labour waverers. Since Labour had by now played the Liberals to a draw in the Top Trumps game of ‘who can betray their core vote the most’ by acquiescing to the People’s Vote campaign, the Lib Dems decided to play the Ace card — Revoking article 50. The prospect of winning London’s votes was so irresistible to the new leadership, that traditional voters were dropped like a bad habit. The Lib Dems were drunk on the back of a good EU Parliamentary election (a parliament from which the UK was set to withdraw from in a few short months) and had swelled their ranks in Westminster thanks to defections from the Tories and Labour. When the general election campaign began, they had 21 MPs, at its end, they had 11 — less than Tim Farron had won. Jo Swinson, who had spent the election claiming to be the ‘next Prime Minister’, lost her own seat.
The Liberal Democrats used to be a key player in British politics. They enjoyed celebrity endorsements from John Cleese to Daniel Radcliffe, and could boast of being a mighty force in the British parliament as well as formidable fundraisers. They held successive governments to account and kept opposition parties on their toes. But today, it’s unclear what the point of them is. They are led by Ed Davey, a vacuum within a vacuum, and under his leadership they poll 6%, and on a good day 7%, worse than they managed in the calamitous 2019 election. Their policies stretch from joining the failed EU vaccination programme, to opposing Cumbrian coking coal, and dogging the government to conduct an inquiry into its Covid-19 response ‘Today’ — diverting personnel time and resources in the middle of a deadly pandemic. They have nothing to say about farmers, the countryside, free speech, lockdowns, or anything else you might expect a liberal party to concern itself with.
Instead of putting in the work to rebuild the party from the bottom up, each post-Clegg leader has engaged in opportunism so naked it would make Del Boy blush. The public fired a warning shot at the Liberal Democrats in 2015 — in response the party denied the existence of biological gender, and sought to revoke the biggest democratic decision in our nation’s history — and as a consequence have cemented their reputation as being vote grabbing shapeshifters. Are they left, are they right, are they wrong? Nobody knows, and more importantly, nobody cares, which after a decade of broken promises and transparent manoeuvres, is less than they deserve.