In 2010, the Labour Party was pushed out of government, and the Conservatives joined forces with the Liberal Democrats to take power. The conventional, if misleading, transatlantic analogy is that of Labour to the Democrats and the Conservatives to the Republicans. What, then, is the Liberal Democrat Party?
A mooncalf formulation. Fag-end descendent of Whigs, anti-trade-union social democrats, free-traders, social liberals, beachcombing disparate inspirations. The rightward lurch of the Labour Party under Blair allowed the LibDems to accrete a certain sheen. Which tarnished at astounding rate when they became part of the ConDem government – such a pitch-perfect portmanteau – signing up to and off on a Thatcherite agenda, privatisation in the health service, cutting the Education Maintenance Allowance that helped lower-income school students, undermining comprehensive education in state schools by pushing selection, the siphoning off of preferred pupils, creating a zero-sum game among proliferating local schools, attacking any nominal agenda of universalism. Melissa Benn, educationalist, calls the model ‘rigid centralization with widespread privatisation’. They tore up a promise not to increase university tuition fees. That last in particular helped radicalise a wave of students whose protests in 2010 started the backlash that, with fits and starts, continues.
Today the default demeanour of the LibDem politician is chippy defensiveness, plus/minus shame. Their left wing performs its lachrymosity and discomfort, their rugged pro-marketeers – like Deputy Prime Minister and party leader Nick Clegg – mutter about hard choices. Betrayal as machismo. Once a soi-disant progressive alternative, now they are Tory-enablers.
The economy toilets. Prices rise during a hecatomb of services. Libraries are closing. Social services are slashed. ’What else’, laments the front page of the Kilburn Times, ‘is left for them to cut?’