Clobbered Liberal Democrats elect new leader

In the wake an electoral catastrophe in which they were reduced from 56 seats to just 8, the Lib Dems today announce a new leader. Can British liberalism be resurrected from the ashes?

On the morning of 8 May, an ashen-faced Nick Clegg stood before a room full of cameras to announce his resignation as leader of the Liberal Democrats. ‘Fear and grievance have won,’ he said, ‘liberalism has lost.’ It was a blunt assessment of a bruising election result: over the previous 12 hours, the Lib Dems had watched as MPs who had served for decades were routed one by one. They lost 48 of the 56 seats won in 2010. From partners in government they were reduced to an impotent rump. It was the party’s worst ever result.

Today, Lib Dems begin their struggle to rebuild the party from the rubble. After a two month campaign, the votes of members in the leadership election are due. Norman Lamb, a centrist former care minister, hopes to pull off a surprise victory. But pundits and party insiders say that he is almost certain to lose out to his left-wing rival Tim Farron, a young, folksy Cumbrian MP.

The new leader faces a daunting challenge. Not only must he re-energise a party battered by defeat: he must also decide what it will now represent. Before Clegg’s leadership, the Lib Dems surged to their most impressive election results on a platform of progressive policies and outspoken criticism of the Iraq war. Clegg was more comfortable with free market policies and, when the 2010 election produced an inconclusive result, cheerfully entered coalition with the Conservatives. The damage this did to the party’s support is part of the reason for this year’s disastrous election results.

These contrasting approaches can be traced back to the circumstances of the party’s birth: its origins lie in a 1981 merger between the once-mighty Liberal Party and a group of breakaway Labour MPs. Traditionally they have occupied the centre ground between Labour and the Tories; now, however, their role is unclear.

Clegg’s vision of liberalism focused on moderate, rationalist politics and a strong support for the EU. Lamb campaigned for traditional liberal policies such as relaxing prohibitions on drugs. Farron, an evangelical Christian, argues that the Lib Dems must fight a ‘moral crusade’.

Lib doom?

Despite these differing visions, these leading Lib Dems have one thing in common: a powerful belief in the enduring relevance of their party’s founding ideals. ‘We are living in a liberal age’, says Norman Lamb — the quest for liberty and justice has never been more crucial or had more popular support.

But many outside the party doubt whether it has any real place in the modern political landscape. Squeezed into an ever-narrowing gap between the centre-left and the centre-right, they say, the Lib Dems have become directionless and irrelevant — they belong to a bygone age.

You Decide

  1. Would you consider voting for the Liberal Democrats?
  2. Should minority parties always compromise with their more powerful rivals?

Activities

  1. What does the word ‘liberal’ mean to you? Write down your definition and compare it to those of the rest of the class.
  2. What values or ideas do you think are missing from mainstream politics? Write a short manifesto for a ‘third party’. If you have time, discuss your thoughts as a class and vote on a platform.

Some People Say...

“Extremes to the right and to the left of any dispute are always wrong.”

President Dwight Eisenhower

What do you think?

Q & A

What do the Lib Dems actually stand for?
The most famous statement of traditional liberal values is John Stuart Mill’s ‘harm principle’: ‘The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.’ Most Lib Dems would still hold to this — they oppose government intervention in private life and want power to be distributed evenly among people. Beyond that, however, there’s a lot of ambiguity: ‘classical liberals’ oppose government intervention in the economy, for instance, while ‘social liberals’ believe in redistribution of wealth as well as power.
Well, whatever, I can’t even vote.
But you will be able to soon! The next election is due in 2020, and this is really the beginning of the long debate...

Word Watch

Served for decades
For instance Charles Kennedy, a former leader of the Lib Dems, who had served his Highlands constituency since 1983.
Worst ever
Although this was the Lib Dems’ worst ever result, the Liberals have had lower ebbs: in 1955, for example, they won six seats and just 2.5% of the vote.
Merger
At first, the Liberals and the SDP remained as separate parties but agreed not to stand for election in the same seats — known as the SDP-Liberal alliance. They combined to become the Liberal Democrats in 1988.
Liberal Party
The Liberals were successors to the Whig Party, which dates back to the 18th century. Until the 1920s, the Liberals were one of Britain’s two dominant parties, along with the Tories. But after the expansion of the voting franchise, the new Labour Party chipped away at traditional Liberal support.
Breakaway Labour MPs
In the early 1980s, the Labour Party swung to the left pursuing radical policies that alienated some more moderate members. Led by an influential ‘gang of four’, who were prominent MPs, a faction broke away to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP).

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