What is the point of the Lib Dems?

By Tom Roberts

The summer is well known as the ‘silly season’ in the British media, with Parliament in recess leading to an absence of serious political stories to report. Yet, the holidays this year were awash with articles on Ed Miliband’s ‘summer of silence’, as leading figures from Labour and elsewhere lined up to condemn the Opposition leader for his lack of direction.

But perhaps more startling was the quiet from the junior Coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. While the Tories basked in the news of an emerging recovery and Labour battled with its own problems, the Lib Dems were squeezed out of the picture over summer. You could’ve been forgiven for thinking we were no longer under a Coalition government and had returned to the old Red-Blue duopoly.

But as the Lib Dems return to the front pages of our newspapers, their party conference being the first of the three major parties, the reason for their own ‘summer of silence’ becomes obvious. They are deeply divided.

For many on the Left of the party – most of their activist base – Tory-led austerity policies were a disaster that would inevitably lead to recession and the experience in Coalition would reconfirm their place as a left-wing party. Yet with the recovery appearing to be gaining ground and Labour’s lead over the Conservatives shallow, many Lib Dems who had hoped the next government would be a coalition with Labour are being forced to reconsider their position.

But Lib Dems on the Right of their party face their own problems. Firstly, they are very much the minority. During the party conference, ‘Orange Book’ Lib Dems, which includes most of the party leadership, are most likely to be defeated on issues such as reintroducing the 50p top tax rate and welfare reforms.

Secondly, they need to reclaim recent economic growth as their own. While Conservative polling figures have witnessed something of a recovery, the Lib Dems continue to hover around 10% or so and in some polls still finish lower than UKIP. However, if they claim too much success, they risk becoming associated too closely with the Tories and risk further alienating the party rank-and-file.

The deep divisions that afflict the Lib Dems, Right vs Left, classical liberal vs social liberal, leadership vs party activists, will prevent them form forming a strong, independent identity for the next election and the current policy for ‘equidistance’ between the Conservatives and Labour will be doomed to fail.

It is difficult to see where the party will be able to carve out their new identity. Their flagship policy, the abolition of tuition fees, was sunk very early in Coalition negotiations. Changing current drug policy is no longer as radical as it used to be. And, unlike in 2003 when they took a stand against the invasion of Iraq, they have supported every military misadventure in the Middle East so far.

Even deciding what the ‘Liberal’ in Liberal Democrats stands for, whether it be Gladstonian classical liberalism, or Guardian-style social liberalism, will not fix the party’s quandary.

Emulating the laissez-faire German Free Democrats will not gain new votes on the Right, who now have a choice between the Conservatives and UKIP. Besides, as the vote on gay marriage demonstrated, the Conservative party, albeit begrudgingly, is beginning to accept social as well as economic liberalism.

Tacking to the Left is unlikely to garner support from left-wing voters either, co-operation with the hated Tories and acceptance of austerity leaving black marks against the Lib Dems.

So with the future of the party in doubt, with the party currently on course to loose over half its seats and deeply divided over ideological issues, I ask you, what is the point of the Li bDems?