The country is in crisis, so why have the Lib Dems gone quiet?
“Cleggmania sweeps Britain, Liberal Democrats surge in polls.” Headlines of this sort became commonplace during the general election campaign last year, and in May, Nick Clegg’s Party became the effective power brokers as the electorate returned a hung parliament. We all remember the scenes of David and Nick’s playful banter in the gardens of number 10 Downing Street as they announced the formation of the first Lib Dem – Con coalition in British history, a surprisingly easy consensus that gradually gave way to vicious debates over AV and the NHS.
All of this was and is entirely unprecedented. The Lib Dems are in power, being listened to and at the centre of British politics. The political media has revolved around the disagreements, debates, decisions and confrontations of Liberal Democrat and Conservative politicians for over a year. The Labour Party has largely been dormant.
Much of the Labour’s marginalisation is explained by the coalition. The very presence has been quite a refreshing change to the traditional Tory / Labour, Left / Right dichotomy, and it is natural that the media have focused on the tensions within government, as these have often been more marked, and more significant than those provided by Her Majesty’s Opposition.
Labour’s woes have been compounded by a number of internal problems that made them less effective as a political unit, just when their usual eminence was being threatened by the emergence of coalition politics. The Party embarked on a particularly lengthy search for a new leader following defeat in May 2010 and Gordon Brown’s eventual departure. The leadership “battle” was too long, failed to spark any lasting debate about ideas and was marked only by Ed Miliband’s surprising decision to enter and even more unexpected victory over the favourite, his elder brother David.
The nature of Miliband’s victory was immediately problematic for him. Ed found it difficult to step out from his brother’s shadow and mistakes he made, in PMQs and in interviews, immediately led people to question his suitability as a leader, and wonder aloud as to whether David might have been the wiser choice after all.
This particular image of contemporary British politics has lost track over the last two months, as we have been dominated by phone-hacking and the riots. One of the many overlooked features of both of these events is what they have changed about party politics.
Ed Miliband and the Labour Party have thrived, as he has been able to lead the government into a number of decisions, and link riots together with phone-hacking with a narrative of responsibility at the top and bottom of society. David Cameron and the Conservatives have looked wrong-footed and, in relation to the riots, abandoned the “hug a hoodie” rhetoric and retreated to an authoritarian Thatcherite position. The Lib Dems have disappeared.
The Liberal Democrats have struggled to strike a chord with the electorate on phone hacking. As part of government, high-profile Liberal Democrats were obliged to agree with the naturally defensive tone of the Conservatives, even though there are many in the party who would naturally have taken a line more akin to the Labour leader who was able to stridently lead the government into a number of decisions.
The reaction to the riots has entrenched this even further. These riots have awoken values and ideas that go to the core of both the Conservatives and The Labour Party. Ed Miliband and David Cameron both gave extremely poignant speeches on the riots on a day when Nick Clegg was entirely silent. The Liberal Democrats don’t seem to have a framework to respond to this issue and have been restricted to technical complaints about knee-jerk reactions from their Conservative partners.
Issues like phone-hacking and the recent rioting are truly fundamental. There are big questions of responsibility, society, consumerism and equality at stake when we choose to scratch beneath the surface and address the culture in which these things arose. The Liberal Democrats have failed to respond adequately and I think they are hampered by a lack of vision. The Lib Dems lack the history of either Labour or the Conservatives and have no experience of representing a nation to look back to. Many are technocratic policy wonks, thoroughly enamoured by evidence-based policy making and fail to realise that politics is often about much more than this. They can contribute manfully and nobly to debates about the exact provisions of the NHS but can tell us little about what to do next following a complex, policy-resistant problem like the riots. If they want to remain a prominent part of British politics then the Liberal Democrats need to develop a language and method for talking to the electorate about things that do not simply map onto a cost-benefit model. If they do not, then they will continue to represent an empty type of politics, and they will remain diminished whenever British political life is at its most interesting.