For many Labour supporters who woke up this morning, this is what ‘schadenfreude’ was introduced into the lexicon for. The smell of toast Lib Dem wafted through their windows up and down the country. In the year since Britain fell back under Tory domination, the most passionate vitriol has been reserved for the Lib Dems: it’s the sense many had that, after all, you expect to be screwed by the Tories, but the Lib Dems should really know better.
That’s suited the Tories just fine. They have ingeniously crafted the Lib Dems into human shields, allowing them to absorb rising popular anger at the Government’s onslaught against the welfare state.
The Lib Dems are stuck. If they withdraw from the Government, an election will be held which will wipe them out as a major political force. The Tories know this, and they also know that Labour is completely unprepared – financially as well as politically – for a snap election. With a gun to the Lib Dems’ heads, the party can occasionally squeal in staged attempts to distinguish themselves from their Tory allies – as Paddy Ashdown has done – but they are trapped in power. For a party that has been trapped out of power for such a long time, there is something deeply ironic about the Lib Dem plight.
These results have exposed a lot about the Lib Dems. Their support was always soft and, unlike the Tories and Labour, they have no real identifiable, substantial core vote to speak of. Yes, they functioned as a kind of South West regional party; in the North, they won by posturing to the left of Labour; in the South, they presented themselves as a more acceptable, rational alternative to the Tories. After a year of being allied to the Tories, many of their disgusted Northern erstwhile voters have returned to the Labour fold. Sheffield (the city I was born in) and Stockport (where I grew up) are among those who have kicked the Lib Dems out of office.
In the South, some have gone blue: after all, this Government’s programme is so polarising, if you support it, why not just vote Tory?
And, when the referendum results later show that the Alternative Vote has been rejected – forever, in all likelihood – the total humiliation of the Lib Dems will be confirmed.
It’s difficult to know where this baseless party is headed. It has a habit of splitting, with factions being absorbed by the Conservative Party. That’s what happened to Joseph Chamberlain’s Liberal Unionists in 1912 and the National Liberals after World War II. It’s certainly easy to imagine the likes of Nick Clegg and David Laws eventually defecting to the Tories although, given the plummeting Lib Dem vote, they may end up representing them in the House of Lords.
Protected by the Lib Dems, the Tory vote has remained steady (currently projected at around 35%, or around what they got in the general election a year ago). They’ve even made some gains. In other words, the Tories’ political strategy is working pretty well. Although it was easy to forget when they were languishing in the doldrums under the leaderships of William Hague and Iain Duncan-Smith, the Tories are the most successful political party on Earth. They governed for two thirds of the 20th Century. They don’t just lust for power: they expect it.
It was always comforting to pretend that anger over cuts would end up with the Tories being turfed out of power. But Labour has yet to present any coherent alternative to the Tory agenda. It hasn’t really won back those working-class voters who abandoned it, costing it the election.
It’s of course easy to overstate what has happened in Scotland, where Labour got a kicking at the hands of the SNP. It says more about Iain Gray’s woeful leadership – it seems as though the only substantial policy being offered by Labour was being tough on knife crime – than it does about Labour nationally. I strongly doubt the results would be replicated at a general election, and opinion polls suggest not. The SNP has stitched together a coalition of dedicated nationalists, disillusioned Labour supporters attracted by social democratic aspects of Alex Salmond’s leadership and, particularly in this election, former Lib Dem supporters.
But it does provide a case study of what happens to Labour when it fails to win back its natural supporters. Anyone who thinks that a lurch into hardcore New Labour territory will win Labour voters back from the clutches of the nationalists needs their heads examined.
Labour has made decent inroads in much of England and Wales. There were landslides in cities like Manchester, where it looks as though all other parties have been purged from the council. Those who believe it is not enough progress need to be quickly reminded that the party suffered its second worst result since the fall of Hitler just a year ago. The idea we were ever going to win a landslide after systematically alienating many of our supporters over so many years was always bonkers, no matter how much the Tory press cynically talked it up. And again, people need to be reminded: we lost 4 out of the 5 million voters who went AWOL between 1997 and 2005 under Blair. Blairites must not be allowed to whip up the idea that these are disappointing results in an effort to retreat to a failed New Labour policy agenda.
But, that said, there can be no underestimating just how potent a threat the Tories remain. They are political geniuses who are determined to remain in power at all costs, and unless Labour provides a convincing alternative that wins back its working-class voters, then Cameron’s cabal may well achieve that aim.