By David Talbot, Consultant, London
When the Liberal Democrats joined the coalition, the historic rules of British politics changed. A party with much to say, and traditionally no one to say it to, they suddenly found themselves centre stage. For some in the party, this was a step too far. They had become quiescent and comfortable in the role that, truth be told, they really rather liked – perennial opposition. Many then, and indeed still now, must decide whether they want the Liberal Democrats to be a party of government, with all the inherent responsibilities, or whether they would prefer to go back to being a party of protest.
It is true enough that, in a Parliament of uncertainties that has defied the traditional duopoly of British politics; the Liberal Democrats have shouldered a heavy burden. Once lauded to the skies as a return to Churchill, as another Obama, as the new kingmaker, their leader, Nick Clegg, surely knew ‘Cleggmania’ must be as good as it got. And how it turned out so. Burning effigies scarred the land, the party sunk to historic lows, lost deposits and pitiful results abounded.
A more nuanced view would rightly ask what else were the Liberal Democrats meant to do in 2010? The only other option open to the Liberal Democrats was to stand aloof, tolerating a minority Conservative government and most likely precipitating another early election. The country, having just gone through the toils of a general election, would not have taken kindly to such short-sightedness. An alliance with Labour, who had just been decimated in the polls, would have been simply incredible.
Faced with an unenviable decision post the May 2010 election, the Liberal Democrats chose to enter government for the first time since Lloyd George. But for all their ills, and the polls do not do a disservice to their level of unpopularity, the Liberal Democrats have contributed to providing solid, stable government.
The Liberal Democrats have, against high odds, kept their ramshackle of a party together through two and a half years of brutal politics. The great irony, however, is that for a party that for so long represented no great interest, nor held office since the advent of universal franchise, may well take centre stage again come 2015.
Current polling numbers predict, on the surface, electoral wipe-out for the party. Bumbling along in the single digits, having fallen as far as fifth in some polls behind the Greens and UKIP, soothsayers predict electoral Armageddon surely awaits. But thanks to the oddities of our first-past-the-post electoral system, and the hyper local nature of their support, the Liberal Democrats look set to return twenty to thirty seats. This will provide a creditable base that, given the hung parliament which is all but assured, allows them to sit at the table to discuss the formation of the next government.
In 2010 many thought the Liberal Democrats were merely kingmakers for day. But the party has the opportunity to be a permanent fixture of this country’s government, the perennial kingmaker, forever determining who wears the crown. Clegg may now longer be hailed as the “game-changer” but his party has surely changed British politics.