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Where now for the Liberal Democrats

dead-birdWhile we wait for the final results from the Orkneys to trickle in so I can scrutinise those all-important No2EU votes, let’s spare a thought for the Liberal Democrats. They went from 11 MEPs to just one, and managed to lose even more councillors than the Tories. In all, a very bad night and a grim portent of things just round the corner. With no surprises whatsoever, some have been calling for Clegg’s head. Others point to his radio debates with Farage as a contributing author to their misfortune. In short, it’s panic stations. So, where do the LibDems go from here? Is this a death spiral that will finish them off for good? Are they forever doomed to be beaten by the Greens?

No. Extinction does not beckon, but they are buckling under the political equivalent of front-loaded austerity. If last night was “peak UKIP”, then 2015 is likely to be “trough LibDem”. Forget about leadership plots, nice guy Nick will be leading the yellow party into next year’s general election. As previous rumbles and grumbles have shown, Clegg’s grip on his parliamentary troops is impressive – Dave must envy their discipline. “Left” pressure coming from Simon Hughes, Tim Farron and the recently re-principled Sarah Teather haven’t caused him headaches worthy of the name. And, because their stock is so low, the Lord Rennard scandal has barely touched them.

Who notices a bit more mud when you’re covered already in swill? LibDem ministers also like their cars and offices, and those who’d resigned their Parliamentary careers to a lifetime of opposition are enjoying the novelty of policy influence – an illusion that rubs off on layers of their beleaguered, traumatised membership. It will be an age if the LibDems ever get a look-in at government again, so best enjoy it while it lasts.

Their plummeting fortunes, however, are not a result of being in government per se. Had the arithmetic stacked up differently and the LibDems and Labour had gone in together in 2010, I can’t help but think the damage to them wouldn’t be anywhere near as bad. They have effectively acted as the Tories’ meat shield. Their body politic is riddled with bullets as they betrayed the social liberalism assiduously cultivated from Paddy Ashdown on – tuition fees, bedroom tax, work capability assessments, the backdoor privatisation of the NHS, tax cuts for the very rich. It’s the sidebar of policy shame. It’s what happens if you promise one thing to the electorate, and do the opposite in power.

Where then do the LibDems go from here? Some hold out the hope that their reduced Westminster posse could hold the balance of power in a hung Parliament. That’s possible, but with neither Ed Miliband nor Dave wanting to run another coalition, you can rule out high office. More likely, in my opinion, is the party looking at the blood price paid for five years of government and concluding they cannot carry on as they are. Returning to their all-things-to-all-people leftish liberalism holds the promise of rebuilding, of repeating all the patient, local work done over the last 20 years and getting the rewards for it. This will be much easier if next year’s election takes out LibDem ministers and reduces them even further. On the other hand, assuming Labour wins on its equality ticket the LibDems may find it difficult to outflank them from the left. But as things stand, returning to their old comfort zone is the only viable option.

This article previously appeared at All that is Solid

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