Happy Birthday: on their 25th anniversary the Liberal Democrats face their worse crisis yet


rennard_2490087aDid you know it’s the Liberal Democrats’ 25th birthday today?

And what a couple of weeks it’s been to celebrate such a milestone with the Liberal Democrats facing what is easily their worse crisis of recent memory.

During the dark days of the first tuition fees protests, it seemed the Liberal Democrats could sink no lower. And yet, they have managed it.

The Lord Rennard scandal and the Chris Huhne perversion of justice sentence that proceeded it have made the Liberal Democrats seem like everything they had despise in previous Labour and Tory governments.

Lying, sexism, even criminality were perceived as acts of politicians corrupted by power they, as the perennial opposition, were supposedly above. They were supposed to be the voice of level headed reason and human decency. They were the people who entered politics out of a sense of duty, not a megalomaniacal or narcissistic desire for power and influence.

Lord Rennard is hardly the first politician to become embroiled in sexual impropriety claims, Westminster is after all notoriously sexist. His fellow Lib Dem, Mike Hancock is currently being sued by a constituent over claims of sexual impropriety. The stories of sexual harassment floating around Westminster are legend and I can definitely think of a few ‘honourable’ members from other parties guilty of similar crimes.

But the ongoing abuse of power in the party exposed this week is particularly damaging to the Liberal Democrats because it is the final nail in the coffin for the idea they’ve been above it all for the past 25 years.

Examples like the nasty, homophobic by-election campaign of Simon Hughes in Bermondsey in 1983 back when they were still the Liberals, Mark Oaten’s fondness for rent boys back in 2006 and the ongoing saga of Chris Huhne’s legal troubles show they’ve never been perfect.But this scandal is in a different league as it shows the failing are institutional rather than a few bad apples.

And let’s face it, back when they were the third party no-one really noticed what they got up to, now they’re in government they need to get their act together.

But this scandal goes all the way up to top and it is hard to see how Nick Clegg is going to wriggle out of this one. For all his brief popularity during the last election Clegg has proven he isn’t capable of wiping off the misdeeds of his party as previous ‘Teflon’ leaders like Blair and Cameron have done.

The drip drip revelation of Clegg’s part in brushing the outrageous abuse of power by Lord Rennard under the carpet have shown that however personally progressive his values are, he is either unable or unwilling to tackle the caveman style mistreatment of women in his party.

A leader with such a loose grip on power (or indeed the plot) is dangerous with only two years to go to what may be the toughest general election they will ever face.

In spite of all this Clegg will still probably get a stay of execution until after 6th May 2015. Now his main rival has been defeated and the Eastleigh by-election was won with the smart decision to field an unassuming, local candidate who is unlikely to say anything stupid, no-one will want to rock the boat too much.

No-one wants to become the captain of a sinking ship but with his authority compromised Clegg will only just be able to keep his party together in the run up to the election. Not unlike Gordon Brown’s fate after the snap election that wasn’t in 2007. Most of the Liberal Democrats I seem to talk to, appear to be looking forward to escaping government and reclaiming their comfortable seat on the backbenches where they feel they belong.

Rachel Sylvester wrote in the Times this week (£) the Liberal Democrats weren’t ready for government. She said they had spent so long in opposition being ignored they cannot face up to the scrutiny and disappointment of government. Back in 2009 when Rennard was quietly moved on it seemed like the most practical way to avoid a scandal but in the days of new government accountability, people are angry enough to see yellow heads roll.

The Liberal Democrats have made it to their Silver Jubilee but if they seriously want to make to their Golden one they need to get to grips with the nature of power.

They need to learn they can’t act like progressive champions of women’s rights and let “octopus” tentacles slither up their female members’ legs. They need to learn how to fight a by-election as simultaneously the party of local people and the party of government. They need to learn when to make tactical withdrawals and become a party which can take a firm stance on issues without making promises it can’t keep.

Most of all they just need to learn to act like a modern, dynamic socially progressive of the twentieth first century not the hypocritical, middle class guilt party of the twentieth.

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Published by

Caroline Mortimer @CJMortimer

Freelance journalist.

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