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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An odd wind blows through Eastleigh

ChrisHuhneRichardIII
Image Courtesy of Peter Brookes at the Times

Guido Fawkes was gleefully rubbing his hands together yesterday as Chris Huhne surveyed the burning wreckage of his ministerial career, his home life and probably his personal freedom.

While the remains of one would-be king were being exhumed from Leicester social services’ car park, another is watching his career committed to the ground.

A driving licence! A driving licence! My kingdom for a driving licence it would seem.

However, in the 24 hours since Huhne changed his plea the focus has moved from him to his constituency and the uphill battle for political soul of the nation. Or something like that.

Comparing the Eastleigh by-election to the Battle of the Bosworth Field might be slightly over doing it as far as shoehorned political metaphors go but as the battle extinguished the Yorkist claim to the throne in all but name, so could this election prove decisive for the Liberal Democrats.

This is, in real terms, the first time they’ve been properly tested in more than a year. Forget the by-elections where they didn’t take it seriously and lost their deposit. In Rotherham, they only campaigned in one council ward because they were hoping to concentrate their resources to get a council seat further down the line. This, of course, rather backfired but it wasn’t the crushing defeat everyone else imagined.

Over the past year we have seen an unusual number of by-elections but the Lib Dems have not really been challenged until they are faced with a seat they could actually win. Eastleigh, despite being historically Tory, should be a Lib Dem slam dunk. With Huhne and David Chigley before him the seat has rested in the party’s hands for nearly 20 years. They control the council and the attitude of the local people on Channel 4 News last night suggested Eastleigh is about as indentured Lib Dem as any one seat could be.

However, with the Liberal Democrats current, continued, unpopularity and only a majority of 4000, they’ll have their work cut out for them.

Eastleigh could also just be the test piece for each political party that Corby wasn’t as they try to prove themselves as the party which will win the next election.

Liberal Democrats: They need a win. The Liberal Democrats’ supporters are deserting them in droves and they are fighting like cats and dogs with their coalition partners. The atmosphere amongst grassroots has become a case of counting down the days till they can get out of Government. Contrary to popular opinion, the Liberal Democrats are not likely to be finished as a political force at the next election. But they will be severely wounded and face substantial losses to the parliamentary party they need to steal themselves against. If they lose Eastleigh it may be a step too far.

Given the current situation, the grassroots could live with losing a few Lib Dem-Labour marginals. But to lose a seat like this would should dent any faith in the leadership there is left. The gallows humour currently flying around the party could turn into all out revolt. Much like the Conservative Party cannot possibly win the next election while they are still cleaved in half over Europe and gay marriage, the Liberal Democrats cannot afford to go into the next election preaching their faith in Nick Clegg when they openly don’t believe in him themselves.

Conservatives: Eastleigh is winnable for the Tories. Despite losing control 19 years ago, the seat is historically Tory even if it is in a relatively working class area. However it is going to take some real effort. Many commentators are saying the Conservatives need to put up a charismatic, big hitter- someone who could possibly be tipped for a ministerial post somewhere down the line rather than a local grandee that has paid their dues. However, the danger is Eastleigh won’t want another Louise Mensch. Marginals like Corby and Eastleigh thrive with a charismatic MP who actually cares about their local area rather than someone using it as a stepping stone to greater things. Unfortunately for the Tory party at the moment, they are struggling to find bankable candidates. It seems they are stuck between a rock of lacklustre locals and a hard place of upstart A-Listers. They only way to win would to somehow find a middle ground.

Similarly, gay marriage could be an issue. Nigel Farage’s reluctance to commit to standing there demonstrates even UKIP know they’re no real threat in this particular marginal. While Europe is a relative non-issue amongst the electorate (especially since the announcement of the ‘maybe referendum’), the gay marriage row has made the party look even more out of touch. The Tories will be hit hard by the regular voters who perceive the party as out of step with popular opinion and the local Tory activists who may decide to stay at home in protest.

Labour: This by-election provides a dilemma for the cash strapped party. They will not win, but they could dramatically improve their vote share if they really put the effort in. While they languished far behind in third place at the last election, they can’t afford not to campaign in this election because they still have to beat UKIP to remain credible as the favourite for Number 10 in 2015. With a bit of effort and a good candidate this should not be too difficult. Given the unpopularity of the two Government parties, they could even squeeze second place.

If they were to push ahead of the Tories, or even the Liberal Democrats, it would probably be the best publicity for the Labour message they’ve had since Ed Miliband won the leadership. It would prove they are on the up and Miliband in particular is a credible as a future leader. But, will a cash strapped party want to waste resources on what would be a short term gain? In the long run it may be better to invest properly in their policy review so Ed Miliband’s promises of ‘One Nation Labour’ would not seem so paper thin. A comparative victory in Eastleigh will do nothing to ameliorate their continued lack of vision.