The Liberal Democrats suffered heavy loses in Thursday’s local elections, losing 336 Councillors and dropping below 3,000 Councillors for the first time in their history. The party were deserted by activists and voters alike. In Edinburgh, a Lib Dem candidate won fewer votes than a man in penguin suit.
Any Labour activist who fought local elections against Lib Dems would be forgiven for finding this, well, pretty damn funny. The Lib Dems are notoriously difficult to campaign against. In the past they have positioning themselves simultaneously to the left and right of Labour. They have taken votes from Labour championing national policies that are popular but near impossible to actually deliver. They have courted the “anti-politics” vote, free from the responsibilities of government to be “holier than thou.”
The Lib Dems can also be masters of extreme negative campaigning. Labour posters mysteriously defaced or sabotaged. Those dodgy bar charts. Leaflets containing negative attacks on Labour candidates, designed to drive down turnout in key Labour areas.
Yes the Lib Dems can be a nightmare to campaign against. But we need to ask ourselves, is it really preferable for the Lib Dems to be overtaken by UKIP as the “third party” in England? Sure, it’s fun to watch the Tories scrabble about, tearing themselves apart over Europe. In a general election, UKIP might even take enough votes of the Tories to hand victory to Labour.
But UKIP also drag the centre ground dangerously to the right. UKIP want to repeal the Human Rights Act. UKIP argue against multiculturalism. UKIP are against pensions justice. They are anti-immigration, anti-clean energy, and anti-gay-marriage. For many years UKIP have been attacking maternity leave and other fundamental workers rights. One UKIP Councillor recently questioned whether people on benefits should have the right to vote.
In contrast, pre-coalition Liberal Democrats at times moved the centre ground to the left. In opposition the Lib Dems made the case for social justice. They argued in favour of progressive taxation. They supported civil liberties. They were in favour of nuclear disarmament. Many Lib Dems supported the trade union movement. I even spotted a number of Lib Dem banners at 2011’s March for the Alternative.
During the 2010 general election, I spent a few hours as a teller on a polling station in Islington. The Lib Dem teller who accompanied me was a lovely elderly gentleman; a dedicated activist who had previously been a member of the SDP. I playfully teased him, telling him that the Lib Dems would go into coalition with the Conservatives (the local Lib Dems had been incensed at the very suggestion when we put out a leaflet speculating that this was a possibility). He said he was appalled at the idea of a coalition with the Tories, though he rather hoped for a coalition with Labour.
Things didn’t work out as he would have liked. The Lib Dems did enter into a coalition with the Conservatives. It turned out Lib Dems in government weren’t quite like Lib Dems in opposition.
On 3 May 2012 there was a Council by-election in Islington’s Holloway ward, a seat the Lib Dems had held in 2006. They finished fourth with just 12% of the vote (down 17% from May 2010).
The Liberal Democrats can be formidable opposition. I should delight at their apparent decline. But I frankly, I would much rather the platform of the” third party” in English politics be given to a party that acknowledges the importance of equality and social justice, than a party that questions basic and fundamental human rights.