Here’s a paradox. Britain’s political party leaders are the most mediocre, as a set, that I can remember. At least in 2010 we had Gordon Brown: a disastrous prime minister, but one who at least had the moral authority to help lead the world from economic disaster in 2009. But next year’s General Election looks to be the most interesting contest for a very long time. The shame for Liberal Democrats like myself is that we are bit part players, hoping to hang on to most of our parliamentary seats, but without playing much part in the national debate. But the rise of Ukip means that three-party dynamics remains potent. But perhaps the Lib Dems longer term prospects are better?
To start with, we have an unknown effect from the Scottish referendum later this month. Whatever the result, this will surely change dynamics north of the border in ways that it is difficult to predict. The Westminster elite hardly dare confront the possibility of a Yes vote, though the race is tightening and this is a real possibility. They have contented themselves with promising extra devolution for the Scots, without addressing the implications for England. If the Yes result comes, the Westminster politicians will have nobody but themselves to blame.
The constitution of the UK (note this not a “Scots question” – it affects us all) remains the most important issue hanging over our politics, including next year’s election. But for a moment I want to join the Westminster chatterers and put this to one side (the chatteres’ favourite website politicalbetting.com seems to think that the forthcoming Clacton by-election is more important than the referendum), and consider other dynamics.
Over the summer the Conservatives had looked quietly confident, and I shared that confidence on their behalf. They faced a strong challenge from Ukip, whose message appeals to many of their activists, but they seemed ready for that. David Cameron’s promise of a referendum on the EU is highly credible, and it is good bone to throw to potential Ukip defectors. Meanwhile they can promote scare stories about letting Labour in, and also blame the government’s more unpopular policies (to the right) on their coalition partners, the Lib Dems. The Euro election results in May seemed to support this confidence; Ukip were rampant, but Labour’s performance outside London looked lacklustre. Ukip were as much a problem for Labour as the Tories, and Labour’s message to Ukip supporters was (and remains) confused, unlike the Tory one.
Alas for the Conservatives their plan seems to be falling apart. The Tory MP for Clacton, Douglas Carswell, defected to Ukip, resigned his seat, and has caused a by election which he intends to contest under his new party’s banner. Clacton is a stronghold of the disaffected, white, aging, excluded working classes that is Ukip’s core constituency; a victory for Ukip looks certain. This gives Ukip real momentum. But, worse, it emphasises the divisions within Tory ranks between the more sensible moderate types represented by David Cameron, and what liberals regard as a lunatic fringe, whose strength has grown. This will encourage Tory voters to defect to Ukip, and discipline within the party to break down. That could scare off donors. Add this to the fact that the electoral system is weighted against the Conservatives, and they party’s challenge is looking steep indeed.
Which shifts the focus to Labour. That party has a clear hope that it will win the 2015 election by default. They have swept up a lot of former Lib Dem voters, and it seems certain that they will hang on to them. If the Tory vote sags because it is undermined by Ukip it looks good for the party. Labour faces its own challenge against Ukip, but generally in areas where they have very large majorities. There is an excellent article in today’s FT by Matthew Goodwin, who has been following Ukip’s rise closely. He may well be right that Ukip poses a severe long-term challenge to Labour in its northern heartlands, where its organisation is weak. But even he admits that this is more of a problem for 2020 than 2015.
So Ed Miliband’s Labour party could secure an outright majority after next election. And then his problems will really start. He is bound to disappoint his left wing supporters, including those Lib Dem defectors. The British economy remains fundamentally weak and unable to support the size of public sector that these supporters seem to feel is their birthright. There are no quick answers to this underlying weakness, and many of Mr Miliband’s ideas will make things worse, not better. Neither will he please the grumpy working class voters to whom Ukip is appealing. There will be a sense of betrayal among one group of their supporters, and panic amongst the Labour machine politicians in northern towns, who have taken their power base for granted. And the question of Scottish devolution’s affect on England will need to be faced, or, worse, the impact of Scottish independence. The party would surely be overwhelmed, rather like the Conservatives were after 1992.
But the Conservatives will not be much better off. They will remain divided between pragmatists, who lean towards EU membership, and idealists for whom the EU represents all that is bad. The party is likely either to lurch to the right or fall apart. Ukip, feeding off disillusioned Labour voters, will rise relentlessly.
You could hardly define more propitious circumstances for the Liberal Democrats, provided they stay away from any temptation to form a coalition with Labour. Labour will end up by prolonging many hated coalition policies, vindicating the party’s record in coalition. Meanwhile the rise of Ukip will create a strong anti-Ukip political backlash. As the Tories fail to contain their right, and Labour panics over its loss of working class votes to Ukip – this backlash will present a real opportunity for the Lib Dems, in a highly dynamic four-party play. This opportunity would be best exploited by a new leader. It would be ideal if this was a commonsense, well-grounded female – a Birgitte Nyborg. Alas I cannot see such a choice being available (my preference, Dorothy Thornhill, Mayor for Watford, is unlikely to be in contention). But the opportunity for a comeback is palpable.
What should the Lib Dems do now though? It has little choice but to stick to its guns in the coalition, and concentrate on winning any parliamentary seat where local strength is sufficient to make it winnable. This will mainly be about denying seats to the Conservatives. If things go very badly for the Tories, they may start to pick up some centrist voters from them generally – though that’s a long shot. But they must remember: the opportunities will be after 2015, they should do nothing that will make that comeback harder.
Interesting times indeed!