We are witnessing a spate of exits from the Liberal Democrats announced online. While these have been happening intermittently for a while, we’ve had several in the last week or so. James Graham announced that he was leaving the party, and elaborated that the issue was party politics generally, rather than the Liberal Democrats specifically. Yesterday we had blog posts by Chris Ward and Daniel Furr announcing that they were resigning. No doubt there are many others deciding to leave the party less publicly. From the left and the right there is discontent, but for different reasons.
A focus for much of this discontent is the recent shenanigans around the Health and Social Care Bill. Those who were pleased – either for political or policy reasons – that Conference voted to amend the “Shirley Williams” motion are disgruntled, first, because of the way the leadership tried to manipulate the vote in the first place and, second, because almost immediately after Conference had voted Parliamentarians were indicating that they were going to ignore the vote and support the Bill. And so it came to pass in the House of Commons on Tuesday.
In contrast, those who supported the Health and Social Care Bill and believed the Libdem Lords had won significant amendments were frustrated by the whole Drop the Bill effort. Rather than an onward march towards the sunny uplands of a bright economic liberal future there was a feeling that the Drop the Bill grouping represents some form of backsliding towards soggy socialism – Libdems somehow succumbing en masse to delusion, under the spell of the Labour party.
So no one is very happy.
For some the H&SC episode was simply the last straw. The Coalition is perpetrating yet another in a series of insults to liberal democratic principles or ignoring established Liberal Democrat policy. Enough is enough. It is hard to continue to support, let alone campaign for, a party that is not only not standing up for what you believe in but is actively supporting the opposite.
If these moves to the exit gather momentum then the party could be in real trouble. Exits from the party are likely to be systematically skewed towards those who object to the Coalition agenda, who are more likely to be on the centre-left. The consequence will be a party that drifts to the right. The sundry remaining dyed-in-the-wool economic liberals and their fellow travellers will jettison those components of the policy platform that are not to their taste. That will inevitably reinforce disillusionment elsewhere and accelerate the process of transformation. This is, however, a path to oblivion, as others have pointed out. Moving the party closer to the Tories will lead to its extinction. Voters are unlikely to vote for a pale (yellow) imitation of the neoliberal Tories when they can vote for the real thing. Of course, a Libdem move to the right is precisely what both the Tories and Labour crave. They know that will represent the party signing its own death warrant.
As Mark Thompson observed on Twitter:
When dedicated campaigners like @christopherward are leaving we should all be very worried.
— Mark Thompson (@MarkReckons) March 14, 2012
But do we get any sense that the Leadership are worried? I’ve no idea.
But I’m certain that quite a few members that I know are worried. And what many of them are worried about is that the leadership is becoming progressively detached and insular. The notion that the Coalition Libdems are suffering from Stockholm Syndrome has recently re-emerged to describe the situation. Certainly there is a sense that some of the leadership – Nick Clegg in particular – are not, and perhaps never have been, strongly connected to the Party grassroots. Instead there is a reliance on a coterie of like-minded advisors. If the leadership and the Parliamentary party aren’t listening to the grassroots because they don’t like what the grassroots are saying then the party has got itself into a mess.
The leadership should be worried, because the foundations upon which their own position is built are crumbling. Losing voters is one thing. Losing members is perhaps worse. Losing genuine activitists is a whole different ball game. The Party will be left without the resources and the energy at local level to campaign effectively.
One future scenario – easily envisaged – is the implosion of the party in its current form.
But is this inevitable?
I was heartened by yesterday’s post by George Potter. His analysis of the situation was spot on. He captured the slow ebbing away of reasons to support the party as we witness Parliamentarians endorsing one illiberal policy after another. But his conclusion was not that it was time to head for the exit. Rather it was time to stand and fight. To reclaim the party from a leadership that has taken the party to a dark place.
Later in the evening I came across Stephen Glenn’s reinterpretation of Kipling’s If, based on the preamble to the Party constitution.
The first comment on Glenn’s post is to the effect that when you reflect upon the Party constitution and its commitments then you are drawn to the conclusion that the majority of the Parliamentary party is no longer Liberal Democrat. That may be putting it too strongly. It would be fairer to say that it is hard to tell from their public actions – rather than their words, when not obliged to defend Coalition policies – that our Parliamentarians are standing up for distinctively Liberal Democrat values. And the majority of the public have lost any sense that going in to Coalition was a noble thing to do for the good of the country. They are much more inclined to the view that Liberal Democrats are facilitating a stringently right wing political agenda. Except, of course, for those who are way out on the political right, who blame the Liberal Democrats for preventing the Tories from perpetrating even greater outrages against the poor, the vulnerable and the country’s social institutions.
An alternative future is one of renewal. But that could well be a future of fracture. It may require that the party slough off the Coalition Libdems because they are irrevocably associated by an agenda that is an affront to much that Liberal Democrat members and voters hold to be important. It may demand facing the electorate with a new leadership, untainted by the current Coalition. Or it may require leaving the leadership where they are and striking out under another banner.
But does the party have the determination to do either?
If so then we are destined to replay the experience of previous coalitions with the Tories even more fully than most would have anticipated.
Update: When I wrote this post I had not come across this excellent post by Liz Williams, who has also resigned this week. (h/t @richardmorrisuk)