The Liberal Democrat Problem.

[Another one of the entries for the Politics Prize 2013 within College]:

There is a better way of doing things if only you bother to look for it” according to Nick Clegg, a theme which he believes stands at the heart of the Liberal Democrat party. Liberal Democrats are about freedom; they believe that “power belongs, first and foremost, with the people” and that in the idea that we deserve to be able to use our civil liberties as much as possibly, granted that we do not infringe on others. The 2010 election saw a surge in support for the Liberal Democrats with ‘Cleggmania’ gripping the nation, mainly thanks to the televised debates. Before this election the Liberal Democrats struggled on the fringes of the politics, a third party in a two party system. A joke. The Liberal Democrats promised so much but they broke those promises, in so many different ways.

There is no doubt that the Liberal Democrats had some success in 2010. Before this election the last Liberal Democrat Prime Minister was David Lloyd George and even he headed a Conservative-dominated coalition government. He stepped down in 1922 – nearly a hundred years ago, not exactly the political standing of a key political party. The Liberal Democrat party as we know it today was formed in 1987 when it the Liberal Party and the Social Democrat party merged. Key events such as the Iraq War helped to boost support for the parties, as those opposed to it turned away from the Labour Party following Tony Blair’s decision to intervene in the conflict. Perhaps one of the biggest contributors to the success of the Liberal Democrat party in the 2010 elections was as a result of the TV debates and of Cleggmania. While Brown and Cameron bickered across each other, Nick Clegg was able to step in with clear concise points. According to The Guardian he ‘stole the first televised leader’s debate’ by presenting himself as a “fresh and honest alternative”. Perhaps one of the biggest successes of Clegg in this election is that he led to the questioning of Britain’s two-party system, even if the result of the election was a coalition government.

The problem with the Liberal Democrats dispelling of the two-party system however is that they have now opened up the floor to other third parties. In November 2012 a Rotherham by-election stunned voters when UKIP came in at second place, taking 22% of the vote. While it is a safe Labour seat, the results saw the Conservatives come in at fifth place and the Liberal Democrats, eighth. Both parties came behind the BNP in the area, despite a general national hatred that is often seen for the party. The Liberal Democrats have created a platform for third parties to be heard, damaging not only their political standing, but that of the two major parties.

One of the things Britain prides itself on most is its strong two-party system and electoral system which makes for a united government. The 2010 election dispelled this belief. While arguably this could be seen as a Liberal Democrat issue, they managed to push forward for a vote on a new system to elect the government. On the 5th May 2011 the government held an election on whether Alternative Vote (AV) system should be adopted instead of Britain’s traditional ‘First Past the Post’ voting system. The measure was defeated 67.9% to 32.1%. While this showed they did have some say in the running of their coalition government, it was by no means a success. The Liberal Democrats decision to make a series of concessions to the Conservatives, in order to have the referendum, was most definitely a mistake. They alienated loyal voters who were detrimentally affected by their decisions, and did not even have the referendum on the voting system they desired. The referendum was a costly waste of time, money and of future votes. The Liberal Party looked ‘hen-pecked’ by the Conservatives and appeared to be in little control of policy within the government. It was certainly not Nick Clegg’s finest hour.

According to ‘The Spector’ seven Liberal Democrat ministers have resigned and seven more have been accused of covering a sex scandal since Nick Clegg took over the running of the party. In 2006, Mark Oaten, Home Affairs spokesman who had been hoping to run for the position of leader resigned after it emerged that he had an affair with a rent boy who was half his age. While he still had some support with Ian Kirby, Political Editor at News of the World who said that they were a ‘liberal party’ and that “Mark’s private life was just that”, he did not have a large base to support his campaign. This scandal came days after Charles Kennedy, former Liberal Democrat leader, stepped down after admitting he was battling a drinking problem. His resignation actually came 25 MPs declared that they would not serve on the front bench with him as leader. It is important not to forget Chris Huhne, of course. A former cabinet minister, he was sentenced to 8 months in jail following a driving points scandal that took place in 2003. His decision to ask his wife to take the blame and claim his points left them both red-faced as they received their 8-month jail sentences. Huhne was reported as saying that “what was really painful was losing the one job I really wanted to do.” His political career and family-life are in ruins. More recently, the scandal of Chief Executive Chris Rennard has been revealed, who is accused of sexually harassing 10 women. One Liberal Democrat likened the party’s handling of the situation to “the way the BBC dealt with the Jimmy Savile scandal.” This case has seen an inquiry launched in April 2013 into Rennard’s behavior and the party’s response after it was reported that Nick Clegg’s private office was informed of the claims long before they came to light. Rennard’s behaviour left one Liberal Democrat candidate feeling “humiliated and undermined’. ‘The Spectator’ believes that Clegg’s ushering of Rennard into an early retirement was in a desperate attempt to abandon its adolescence and the attitude of ‘naked opportunism’ declaring ‘our party should be better than that.’

One of the most controversial policies the Liberal Democrats conceded on in order to hold their failed vote on AV was to raise tuition fees. Perhaps what made this such a big issue was the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto pledge to abolition said fees. Phrases like “We’ll scrap tuition fees too” and “Liberal Democrats believe tuition fees are wrong” can be found throughout their manifesto and even in Danny Alexander’s book “Why Vote Liberal Democrat”. Traditionally the Liberal Party are often thought to be the party of the young; at 30% the Liberal Democrats did their best among the young in 2010, but in this one decision they alienated a great portion of that voter base. Speaking in Danny Alexander’s book, Liberal Democrat supporter Floella Benjamin detailed how “education is your passport to life”. In compromising with the Conservative Party and in fact raising tuition fees, not just keeping them, but actually raising them, the Liberal Democrats have taken this passport out of the hands of thousands of Britons. In her section of the book, another Liberal Democrat supporter Elaine Bagshawe said that she was “sick of seeing young people let down again and again” and thanks to the Liberal Democrats, it’s safe to say a great deal of the youth feel this way too. Protests that took place in 2010 saw 50,000 students travel to London to vent their frustrations which saw footage of Nick Clegg promising not to cut tuition fees being “greeted by abusive chants”. Deputy Leader of the Labour party at the time, Harriet Harman pointed out that in April of that year Clegg had called the plans to raise tuition fees to £9,000 a year “a disaster”. She even went on to liken Nick Clegg’s coalition with the Conservative party to freshers’ week for students, saying “we all know what it’s like – you are at freshers’ week, you meet up with a dodgy bloke and you do things that you regret”. The 2010 protests saw the arrests of 153 people, with Aaron Porter, leader of the National Union of Students saying that “the anger felt at this betrayal is real, justified, and desperately disappointing to those who placed in you their hope for a different politics”. Not exactly the mantra Nick Clegg set out to govern by. The breaking of the Liberal Democrat promise to defend the young has backfired spectacularly. In 2012 he released a video saying “we made a pledge, we didn’t stick to it and for that I am sorry”. Unfortunately for Nick Clegg, this was not the dream PR move he was hoping for. An auto-tuned version of his apology video was created [watch here], mocking the deputy prime minister. It is clear that the public are far from being ready to forgive the Liberal Democrats.

It is not just in the public the Liberal Democrats appear to be struggling with. They and the Conservatives seem to be continually at logger-heads. Sky news described the two parties as “bitterly divided” over the issue of Europe. One especially strained point came in 2011 during a summit in the EU in which David Cameron used his veto to avoid having to sign up to a new European economic treaty. Clegg believed that this move was “bad for Britain”, and former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown called it a “catastrophically bad move”. It is unsurprising that both parties clashing over this issue. The Liberal Democrats are renowned Europhiles whilst the Conservatives are often Eurosceptic. Clegg want on to reassure the public that the coalition was not in danger of collapsing but the divides are clear. According to a poll by Survation 62% of the public agreed with Cameron’s decision, yet more evidence that the Liberal Democrats are out of touch with the public they represent. Another issue which shows a great political divide between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats comes over proposed legislation to reduce to the number of seats in Parliament. Redistricting would mean that people would technically be more represented, however the Conservatives were set to be the party that gained most from this as it would be mainly the Labour party who lost their seats. Showing a disharmony between the parties, in January 2013 Labour and Liberal peers banded together to delay the redistricting until 2018 at the earliest. While the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party should be working together to show a united front, relations appear to be openly strained. At present there are only 5 Liberal Democrats in the British Cabinet and with Nick Clegg often being likened to Cameron’s lap-dog it is not hard to understand why Liberal Democrats feel like their manifesto is being ignored.

It is not just Westminster Liberal Democrats who are seeking to, in many people’s opinions, make life harder for those in education.  In Luton, in 2006, Liberal Democrat Councillor David Franks proposed the abolition of the free bus service for the local faith school. Children from all the primary schools in the area wrote letters to Franks and protested against the increase. In 2013 this issue has arisen once again under a Labour council with Franks arguing that parents should have to pay towards 50% of the bus fee. The outrage from parents comes to previous council mistakes like a failed Luton festival which saw the council make a loss of over £300,000 and on a bus-way that many people feel is unnecessary. The hatred that many 11 year old students felt in 2006 for the party trying to take away their buses has only been strengthened by the same party increasing their fees.

“Liberals believe in the raucous, unpredictability capacity of people to take decisions about their own lives” says Clegg. Unfortunately for much of the population of Great Britain he lived this philosophy. Despite being voted in because of his manifesto, he has since abandoned several key policies of his own, and put several more in place which he arguably does not have a mandate for. The Liberal Democrats are facing a crisis. Of 30 people asked, in varying age ranges, just 4 said they would be voting for the party next election, and one replied with “I would, I have loads of promises I want totally ignored”. They are contributing to a coalition in turmoil, endangering the education of millions of children and above all, failing to keep their promises. If a General Election were to be called tomorrow, I promise I would vote for any party but the Liberal Democrats and, unlike Nick Clegg, I will actually keep my promise.

Ellie Clifford.

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