Nick Clegg’s resignation was unavoidable and urgent, and he tendered it with his usual persuasive style. He acknowledged the “cruel punishment” administered to his fellow Liberal Democrats by the electorate and warned that British liberalism is needed to challenge the politics of identity, grievance and fear.
Clegg took full responsibility for the fate suffered by 49 of his former colleagues on the Lib Dem benches in the commons and earned the warm applause of his audience at an emotional moment. But his remarks can only begin the process the party must now enter of examining its identity, strategy and conduct. That process will ask hard questions, to which the history of British liberalism supplies some of the answers.
The scale of Liberal Democrat losses on Thursday cannot be appreciated by a single examination: each new reflection upon it reveals new aspects or consequences not recognised upon first sight.
Big job ahead for just eight MPs
The Lib Dem parliamentary group of eight is not only one seventh of the size it was at the dissolution of parliament, it is smaller than at any time since 1970. In the departure of MPs such as Vince Cable and Simon Hughes, it has lost MPs with ministerial and campaigning experience which will take a generation to replace and which can no longer add to the public profile of the party.
The eight MPs in the House of Commons will have to go back to taking multiple portfolios, “acting” as the late Liberal leader Jo Grimond put it “like an overworked and rather ragged repertory company”. The notion of a Liberal Democrat front bench will become once again a sardonic joke rather than an organisational reality.
There is a more fundamental problem raised by the single-figure group of MPs: their capacity to engage with the party around the country will be limited compared to the group of 57. There is a danger that the party will lose a sense of its parliamentary identity outside of the eight constituencies. This will exacerbate the effects of years of depletion of local government representation: in those local council elections held on May 7, the Lib Dems lost control of four councils, and 324 council seats.
There was a siege strategy in the 2015 campaign in which resources were devoted, almost exclusively, to Lib Dem-held seats, and not even to all of these. Other candidates sometimes missing hustings meetings or national media exposure to campaign for a neighbouring MP. The decision was made to abandon the doubtful prospects of gaining new seats to keep as many as possible of the existing MPs in the air: but on Thursday the balloon still plummeted to the ground. Targeting is a vital part of electoral planning, but these trends together could leave the Liberal Democrats with just a few oases of representation surrounded by deserts of political inactivity.
When the Liberals had a dozen MPs in the 1960s and 1970s they also had a different culture and a different relationship with their party from those of the Liberal Democrats. Weekly parliamentary meetings were held around a dining-table and were likened by one present to “a pleasant, often amusing think-tank session.”
Post-war Liberal leaders were chosen by asking each MP in turn to leave the meeting to be evaluated by colleagues, or by placing voting slips in a champagne cooler. This gave the group an atmosphere of independence from the party organisation and from each other, with MPs’ rarity giving them an exaggerated sense of their significance.
This is not the relationship which Liberal Democrat activists have come to expect with the parliamentary group, but current processes for decision-making may stretch the capacities of an eight-strong group.
The MPs will need to take part in setting a new direction for the party, more specific than the noble principles set out in Clegg’s resignation speech. There will be a period of frank debate about the determination of Clegg’s leadership team to stay uncritically loyal to the coalition, to stay in it to its death, and to enthuse during the election about new coalitions that were not even really on offer.
Clegg felt a constitutional loyalty to show the British public that coalition works; but the ironic result has been to nearly destroy the only parliamentary group which fully favours it. The next leader may want to reflect the indignation many members will feel at the Tories’ deliberate hunting of their coalition partners, particularly in the south-west of England.
Not as bad as the 1950s
While Liberal history gives these warnings, it also offers hope. The party was reduced to five MPs in the 1950s. After the 1970 election it was 1,800 votes away from becoming a group of only three MPs. Yet by 1974 it had a fifth of the vote and went on to support a Labour government in office through the Lib-Lab pact in 1977-78.
There will be many cheap predictions of the Liberal Democrats’ final demise, but the party has a history of defying exaggerated reports of its death. In 1953 a Times editorial predicted that “the Liberal Party may at the next general election be finally extinguished”; but by 1964 the paper was expressing bemusement that “by all accounts the Liberal Party ought to die. And yet it does not.” The Lib Dems will be back – but it will not be easy.