It cannot be denied that the Liberal Democrats currently enjoy a prominence unprecedented in recent decades. Nationally, they are at a 75-year high; the last time they or their predecessor party matched their current tally of 62 seats was in 1923. Locally, they control Cambridge City Council and have the MP.
It is obvious why they were able to achieve such relative electoral success in 2005. Anger about issues such as the Iraq War and top-up fees translated into protest votes. It was a perfect storm for the Lib Dems. Labour had annoyed swathes of their progressive supporters and given the Lib Dems some electoral open goals, particularly in university seats like Cambridge. Meanwhile, the Tories were still hopelessly discredited, and never looked like winning the election. This meant that annoyed former Labour voters and students could vote Lib Dem with little prospect of this resulting in a Tory government. However, the political situation is now turning against them, for both external and ideological reasons.
Firstly, the next election is an utterly different proposition. A Tory government is no longer a distant prospect that can be safely ignored – indeed, it is the most likely outcome. The choice will not be between a Labour government with an enormous majority and a Labour government with a reduced majority, but a choice between a Labour government and a Tory government.
Progressives may have legitimate grievances with the Labour government, but after a few years of unremittingly right-wing Tory rule, policies such as massive investments in public services, record cuts to NHS waiting lists, tax credits, the minimum wage, record increases in child benefit, educational maintenance allowances, free bus passes, Sure Start centres, a Keynesian economic policy, and so on, will seem a lot more enticing than they do at the moment, when we take them for granted. So, a protest vote will not be without consequences next time. To vote for the third or another minor party will split the anti-Tory vote and fudges the basic question facing the country – do we want a disastrously reactionary Tory government or an imperfect but nonetheless far superior Labour government?
The Lib Dem response in Cambridge is predictable. They will argue that because David Howarth is the sitting MP, a vote for him is the real anti-Tory vote. This brings me on to the more profound reason why progressives should not vote Lib Dem at the next general election.
The Lib Dems are no longer the cuddly alternative, British politics’ answer to the Care Bears. The merger of the Social Democratic Party with the old Liberal Party always concealed profound ideological differences between the old-fashioned liberals who were more to the right on economic issues and the more traditionally centre-left SDP people who betrayed the Labour movement in the 1980s. This is becoming increasingly obvious under the leadership of Nick Clegg, who belongs to the former rather than the latter group. He is orchestrating an unmistakable Lib Dem rightwards lunge.
At Lib Dem conference he committed the party to ‘savage’ cuts in public spending and benefits. He has repeatedly indicated his opposition to the longstanding Lib Dem policy of abolishing tuition fees.
As David Cameron put it, this means that nationally there is ‘barely a cigarette paper’ between the Lib Dems and Tories. If, as is still quite possible, there is a hung parliament after the next election, the question we have to ask ourselves is – whither Clegg? Would he countenance a Lib Dem-Tory coalition?
With the differences between them fast fading, it seems increasingly likely, the implication being that a Lib Dem MP in Cambridge could well become lobby-fodder for an essentially Tory government.
The fact is that ultimately the Lib Dems are an ambiguous, shape-shifting spectre. Because they fight against Labour in Northern working class areas and against the Tories in leafy Southern suburbs, they have no core constituency, no core values – they float whichever direction the wind gusts, which was obvious from their dramatic left-right vacillations during their conference this year.
A classic example of this weather-vane quality is the occasion during a council election in London when the main local issue was the erection of a telephone mast at one end of a street.
At the end of the street where the mast was erected, the Lib Dems put out a leaflet opposing the mast on safety grounds.
At the other end of the street, where there was just very good mobile reception, they put out a different leaflet supporting the mast.
There’s no better metaphor for the Lib Dems nationally. Rootless, shifty, they have gradually become the Janus of British politics; one face the concerned frown of Nick Clegg, the other the smug grimace of David Cameron.
(George Owers is Chair of the Cambridge University Labour Club)