David Blackburn

Liberal moment or Liberal Democrat dilemma?

Liberal moment or Liberal Democrat dilemma?
Text settings

It’s not often that a man who claims to have bedded and satisfied over 30 women declares that the nation is on the cusp of ‘its liberal moment’, and it’s drawn attention to the Liberal Democrats. With Labour seemingly returning home to the house that Jack Jones built, Nick Clegg should be sweeping the country, but his earnest predictions about a progressive liberal future have made no impression and his party still trails.

Why are the Lib Dems doing so poorly? Lloyd Evans’ appraisal that they failed to use the expenses scandal to push their long-standing reform agenda has much to commend it. And today, Polly Toynbee writes a brilliant analysis in the Guardian, observing that the Liberals are caught between a split right/left voting base. She writes:

It seems doubtful that a boast of "savage cuts" will go down too well in Newcastle, Liverpool or Sheffield, which are mightily dependent on public spending, though it may play better further south. Yet again, caught in the old Lib Dem dilemma, Clegg fails to make up his mind about which vote he is really aiming for.

If he was serious, he could go for Labour's jugular with an unequivocally radical message. The empty political ground is not in the crowded centre, but out in the near-deserted radical wastelands. But Clegg looks over his shoulder, anxiously protecting those essentially conservative seats that so many of his MPs hold.’

I contest her assertion that the left is deserted, because that is where the Labour party’s death-throes will take it. But Toynbee’s assumption that economic realities and the Tories’ resurgence and threat that poses to Lib Dem seats in England has forced them to the right is correct. That the Liberals have been forced to follow the Tories is embodied by Vince Cable’s metamorphosis from sagacious Keynesian guru to the political equivalent of Heinrich Hoffman’s long-legged scissorman.


The upshot is that this is a conservative moment, creating a political dilemma for the Lib Dems – where and how far do they go. The dilemma is being played out in public by Clegg and Cable over the extent and timing of cuts, indicative of their uncertainty about the party’s position in the new political landscape.

The Lib Dems can no longer be all things to all men; Clegg and Cable must decide whether their move to the progressive right is designed to demolish Labour or frustrate the Tories. The party conference and the run-up to the election are vital for both men: the Liberal Democrats is no longer the party of bearded elbow-padded Tweeds, but one of seasoned regicides.