The last five years have been tumultuous and bruising for the Liberal Democrats. A strong 23% showing at the polls in 2010 was translated into a paltry 9% seat share by our broken and outdated electoral system, and the ensuing electoral arithmetic left coalition with the Tories as the only option that could deliver a stable government for the UK in a time of economic uncertainty. Pundits almost universally predicted that this first coalition government for many decades would not last more than half a term at best, but our tenacious and hardworking MPs and ministers resolutely refused to cave. Liberal Democrats in government persisted in blocking countless Tory excesses before they even saw the light of day, whist delivering many cherished liberal policies, such as same-sex marriage and the abolition of ASBOs, curfews, and control orders.
Meanwhile, the scandal-hungry press descended in droves upon conference every year, gearing up to cover the coup that never came. Despite a sharp drop in support (mostly flowing to Labour) upon formation of the coalition, leading to 14-16% showings and thus plentiful lost seats in the local elections of 2011-13, the party remained resolutely united and committed to blocking nightmarish Tory policies, such as scrapping the Human Rights Act, whilst moderating their ideologically-driven cutting instincts in order to deliver a slow but steady recovery from the economic crisis in which the brunt of the suffering was, as much as was feasible in a Tory-led government, shifted towards the richer elements of society. Increases in the top rate of income tax (45%, compared with 40% for all but a few months of the preceding Labour government) and in capital gains tax were coupled with aggressive closing of tax loopholes and havens to precipitate a situation in which the richest elements of society paid more tax in every single year of the coalition government than in any single year of the previous Labour government.
While the ostensibly left-wing SNP rose in Scotland, a ‘Green Surge’ occurred south of the border. This built upon the 2010 election of Brighton’s Green administration, which managed the surprising feat of reducing the city’s recycling rate to one of the worst in England before it was removed from office in 2015. The party moved decisively away from the genuine environmental politics of sole MP Caroline Lucas (also elected in Brighton in 2010) and advocated an anti-globalisation, anti-EU, anti-trade, authoritarian stance that, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s scientists, would probably actually be less effective at combating climate change than the rather lukewarm policies of the coalition government.
Meanwhile, the attention of the media was resolutely fixed on Nigel Farage’s UKIP. A strong 2nd-place showing in the European Parliament elections of 2009 had been almost ignored by the media as nothing more than a pointless protest vote, but as their polling numbers reached 2009 levels in the run-up to the 2014, the media spun a different narrative. UKIP had suffered since the 2009 breakthrough-that-wasn’t, with most of its MEPs being either expelled and/or jailed for expenses fraud or expelled or resigning over scandalous statements. This time, UKIP’s predictable rise in the polls in the run-up to a European election was presented by the media as a fundamental shift in the nature of UK politics. The bandwagon was initiated, and the enigmatic Nigel Farage led his party to a stunning victory.
This rise in nationalism on both sides of the border was coupled increasing hectoring Tory rhetoric on immigration (spurred on by a fear of further defections after the party lost 2 MPs to UKIP), and a Labour leader saddled by a media image of indecision and ineptitude struggling to enunciate a countervailing narrative. Debate became ever more personal, ever more fear-driven, and the rhetoric ever more extreme and polarising. Support for Labour or the Tories became ever more driven by fear and hatred of UKIP and the SNP respectively. Somehow, the rise of once-fringe parties to the mainstream precipitated a return to the mentality of two-party politics.
In this conflagration of fear and hatred, a distinctive liberal voice failed to shine through. The campaign failed to establish any kind of clear Liberal narrative, preferring the suicidal tactic of attempting to place the party in a centre-ground defined negatively against the two main parties (“A heart for the Tories; A brain for Labour”). But this was a polarised and rhetorically driven election; such bland pragmatism was never going to appeal to an electorate who overwhelmingly saw a vote for the Liberal Democrats as an abstention in the most important national election for decades. Polling even on the eve of election suggested a loss of 26 seats for the Liberal Democrats, but this turned out to be stunningly optimistic, as the party collapsed to just 8 seats, losing out mostly to the Tories, as fear of an unstable Labour government with a weak leader propped up by a hated nationalist party drove people into the arms of “The devil they knew”.
Though UKIP and the Greens both emerged with just 1 MP (a testament to our broken electoral system), the former managed to develop a strong local government base, including taking control of Thanet district council, whereas the latter failed to convert their ‘Green Surge’ into any meaningful electoral success, losing control of Brighton and making very few gains elsewhere. Labour crumbled like rotten wood in the face of the SNP wipeout, and made precious few gains (even losing a few key seats to the Tories) south of the border to make up for their northern nightmare.
As a tired and shell-shocked Nick Clegg resigned leadership of the party (he had somehow retained his own seat against sustained Labour pressure), the country awoke to find that, somehow, it had elected a majority Tory government.
But, as forlorn Liberals huddled under blankets and cradled mugs of Horlicks up and down the country, the strangest of silver linings began to emerge. Party membership, which had been steadily growing since 2012 (unique for a party in government), suddenly started to pick up the pace. This is not hugely unusual after an electoral loss, as lukewarm supporters are enthused by their disappointment at the result. However, this was no small post-electoral bump. Within a month or so of the election, membership had surged from around the 45k mark to well above 60k, an incredible increase of around a third! And this surge has been achieved with no modifications to the price or conditions of membership. The Labour Party has managed to emulate this surge (in numerical if not in percentage terms) by creating a new category of member at a tiny price point and without many restrictions on membership, and is now regretting this decision heartily as its leadership race is flooded with entryists and Tory spoilers. This flags up another Lib Dem anomaly post-election: Our leadership race. Leadership contests after bloody election battering are normally vicious and divisive affairs, with the race to apportion blame and purge those culpable drawing sharp dividing lines down the party. Nowhere is this more obvious than Labour, where a damaging and very publicly nasty leadership contest is likely to lead to months more of internal splintering and wrangling, no matter who emerges victorious. Whoever leads Labour into this next period of opposition (when this interminable contest is finally over) will have to start by gluing together the pieces of a broken and divided party. But over on the orange side of the opposition, Tim Farron and Norman Lamb ran a respectable and positive campaign in which they laid out different visions for the future of the party whilst retaining respect for each other and for the party. Now Farron has emerged victorious, the party is uniting behind him and immediately knuckling back down the hard work of campaigning. And it’s working, too. Several big swings to the Lib Dems in council by-elections have already signalled that the people are ready for us to bring liberalism back to the table as the consequences of a slim Tory majority held to ransom by hard-right back-benchers begin to shine through.
We have a huge supply of new members and, thanks to copious losses to Labour in 2011-13 and to the Tories in 2015, very little to do in the way of defending. The right-wing excesses of this new government are unlikely to be that popular, and Labour are currently in no shape to take advantage. Scores of council and parliamentary seats were lost to the Tories in a paroxysm of fear and negativity. It’s time to turn the narrative back to positivity and hope, where liberal voices can shine clear, and start planting sandy gold islands in this deep new sea of blue. Join us here in Reading and be part of the Fightback!