While I’ve never voted for the Liberal Democrats, I used to regard them as a progressive force in politics. Fifteen years ago they were unique, at least in England, in opposing war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then it was Charlie Kennedy, the party’s affable leader until 2006, who was the country’s most prominent centre-left politician, the bright optimism of the early Blair years fading away. Besides war abroad, Kennedy’s party opposed tuition fees and identity cards, and argued for free elderly care paid through higher taxes on the rich.
Although Nick Clegg, who assumed the party’s leadership in 2007, was more at ease with the free market, the phenomenon of ‘Cleggmania’ ahead of the 2010 election was somewhat predictable. Building on Kennedy’s commendable legacy, and standing in stark contrast to a deflated and rudderless Labour Party, the Lib Dems championed policies like scrapping fees, electoral reform and a democratic second chamber. Importantly they conveyed something Labour had struggled with for almost a decade: hope. While that translated to a million more votes in 2010, Britain’s electoral system meant that they actually lost seats that year. Ultimately that wouldn’t matter as they chose to form a surprise coalition with the Conservatives, becoming a party of government for the first time in living memory.
What followed was arguably the greatest capitulation in Britain’s modern political history. The coalition was cemented after the Lib Dems accepted a referendum on electoral reform, the ‘Alternative Vote’ system, which was never going to win. And instead of abolishing tuition fees, as promised in their manifesto, they helped triple them in line with the Browne Report. Over the following five years they underpinned a programme of historic austerity, scarring Britain’s public services like never before and leading to 130,000 ‘preventable’ deaths.
Despite the common refrain that the Liberal Democrats helped moderate the Conservative’s worst excesses, the extent to which the former believed in the coalition should not be neglected. James O’Shaughnessy, Cameron’s director of policy in 2010, wrote in 2015 how Clegg came to view Tory proposals on university funding as better than than those of his own party. “Clegg talking crap on tuition fees,” the co-author of the Coalition Agreement tweeted. “He wasn’t between a ‘rock and hard place’. I was in the room when he decided to vote for it. He was keen.”
This is confirmed in David Cameron’s recent autobiography, For The Record. In it Cameron recalls how his Chancellor, George Osborne, asked Clegg to not vote with the government:
“George did something surprising. ‘Don’t do it,’ he told Nick. ‘It would be a huge political mistake for you.’ George’s concern for Nick was genuine. And he worried about the health of the coalition if one partner damaged itself like this. I saw it differently. ‘George makes a good point, but I want us to do things together,’ I said. ‘And this is the right thing to do.’ Nick was adamant: ‘Our old policy was wrong; this is a good policy.’ It was one of the bravest steps I have ever seen a politician take.”
Far from restraining the Tories, Clegg’s party over-compensated with betrayal of their voters on a magnitude nobody could have anticipated. Their instinct, from the moment the party’s two leaders appeared together in the Downing Street rose garden, was deference to authority and vested interests.
In the aftermath of the party’s collapse some five years later, a nadir which was repeated in the general election after that as well, it was tempting to view the poor judgement of the Liberal Democrats as the result of naivety. And yet Jo Swinson’s leadership, still only months old, casts that conclusion into doubt. Swinson herself is more in the mould of Clegg than Kennedy, having voted with the coalition government more than the likes of Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt. Yet it is increasingly clear that her voting record, which is anything but progressive, is among her least concerning features.
More immediately troubling is how comfortable she is with misinformation, something made abundantly clear last Sunday as she was quizzed by Sky’s Sophie Ridge regarding a poll commissioned by a local party. It had asked voters in North Devon who they would vote for if only the Tories and Lib Dems could win (the Lib Dems still came second). The framing of such a question is absurd given Labour amassed more than four times the Liberal Democrat vote in the seat in 2017, something Ridge highlighted labelling the poll ‘embarrassing’. Swinson’s reply had the emotional intelligence of Siri – evoking George Osborne or Theresa May – as she replied repeatedly that “politics had changed”.
Then there is the claim, chorused by Swinson and her colleagues on a daily basis, that both Labour and the Tories are ‘Brexit parties’, with no discernible difference existing between the two on the biggest issue of the day. Corbyn’s position on Brexit, however, has been crystal clear for months and was expressed succinctly in a tweet earlier this week when he wrote, “Secure a credible deal in three months. Put it to the people for the final say, with the option to remain, in six months. That’s our Brexit policy”. Even James O’Brien, king of centrist Twitter, was impressed. Perhaps that is why Swinson chose to not even opt for the performative ignorance adopted by so much of the establishment media.
These repeated, unfounded assertions echo the conspiracy theories which have infused centrist politics in recent years. One was that Corbyn himself secretly voted to leave in the privacy of the ballot booth in 2016. Another is how the Labour leader is on the cusp of standing down (this re-surfaces every few months). Then there was the claim – as lacking in evidence as it was distasteful – that Corbyn was connected to those who carried out the 1993 Warrington Bombing. More humorous ones include him helping a mother with a pram at a train station and sitting on the floor of a Virgin train as, in fact, being stage managed photo ops. Then there is the issue of his favourite book being Ulysses, a text which, for his critics, he either hasn’t read or could never hope to understand.
These absurd claims reflect something profound: a crisis of legitimacy for establishment politics. For these people the possibility of a successful socialist politician can’t be real. After all the abstracted electorate, conjured in the minds of so much of the media and political establishment, has no interest in such ideas – hence Corbyn’s rise must be the result of arcane tricks, foreign intervention, outrageous luck or a lack of scruples which would make Machiavelli blush. Swinson personifies this mindset and, unable to offer a political or economic alternative of her own – this reflecting the same crisis – she immerses herself in the waters of Corbyn crankery. In so doing she becomes everything centrist commentators claim to loathe, a politician whose spin and sophistry crosses over to lies and deceit, and who is bullish and repetitive rather than reasoned. The narrative is that such politics is the exclusive preserve of Trump, Farage and various ‘right populists’, but this is also an all-too-convenient untruth.
Besides the tinfoil finger-pointing – or perhaps an outgrowth of it – is the fact that the Liberal Democrats don’t appear to stand for very much. This is most obvious in how the party became a safe house for those MPs fleeing both Labour and the Tories, with eight of the party’s 21 MPs having stood in the last election under a different banner.
Take former Tory Philip Lee. If anyone embodies the Lib Dem’s ethical vacuum it is the MP for Bracknell. In 2014 he proposed to ban anyone entering the country with HIV or Hepatitis B, abstained on same sex marriage and, whether its on electoral reform, devolution or an elected second chamber, has a voting record which is the polar opposite of everything the Lib Dems claim to stand for. Then there is Angela Smith who, like several of her colleagues, came via the Independent Group (later Change UK). Smith is best known for referring to brown people as possessing a ‘funny tinge’ on live television and being a staunch defender of water privatisation. More recently her husband Steve Wilson, who is also her office manager, had to apologise after accusing Labour’s Dawn Butler of lying about racism in the House of Commons.
Such figures would appear to be the definition of illiberal and have no discernible record of advancing what might be viewed as Liberal Democrat policies. To circumvent the minor problem of having no actual politics or collective values, the Lib Dems claim that improving society isn’t about ‘left and right’ but ‘open and closed’. How ‘open’ were the Liberal Democrats in government while overseeing the hostile environment? How ‘open’ is Philip Lee when it comes to equality under the law for gay people, or Angela Smith for those who wish not to be extorted by privately owned utility companies?
Most frustrating of all is that the net result of this – the turn to lying and vacuous opportunism – and all for a party which doesn’t stand for anything but ‘stopping Brexit’, is that a Tory-led departure from the EU is far more likely. In seats Labour can win, including that of Boris Johnson, Swinson’s party claim to be competitive when they aren’t. In Canterbury, where Labour’s Rosie Duffield has a majority of 187 and supported a second referendum before it was party policy, the Lib Dems are standing Tim Walker – formerly at the Telegraph and a prominent ‘alt-centrist’ figure on Twitter. To stop Brexit, Walker’s strategy appears to be helping defeat a Labour politician to let in the Tories. This is Swinson’s plan in a nutshell.
The legacy of Charlie Kennedy was a formidable party to the left of Labour on many issues. That of Nick Clegg was austerity for the country and organisational collapse. And Swinson? She’ll be happy enough if her party doubles in size while the Tories govern and Britain cuts a trade deal with Trump’s America. As far as she is concerned it’s good for business – whatever the consequences.
These are not the actions of a progressive political party, so let’s stop pretending otherwise. Now more than ever the Liberal Democrats embody everything they’ve always professed to hate: lying, duplicity, mystifying politics rather than shedding light. If Britain goes further right, which it will should the Tories win this December, they will have been its handmaid. The brutal truth is they’ll take that over a Labour government. It was ever thus.
Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media co-founder and contributing editor.