I've hesitated for a while about writing this post but I feel that now I need to.
I think that after next year's election, the Lib Dems will be finished as a serious political force in this country.
It gives me no pleasure to write this but it is a reflection of the reality the party is now facing.
When I left the Lib Dems last November I did allude to some of the policies the party had enabled or allowed in government (e.g. secret courts) that I had been very unhappy with although my primary reason for leaving was more a general disillusionment with politics. But what was also becoming increasingly apparent to me was that the path the Lib Dems were continuing to take was doing them no favours. This has been crystalised in the last few weeks with the dreadful results in the local elections, the catastrophic result in the European elections and to top it off the party's candidate in Newark losing his deposit and coming sixth.
I know that in each of these cases there are defences that can be deployed. Parties of government always get a kicking mid term. The press is virulently anti-EU so of course being "the party of in" was always going to be a difficult sell. Newark was never likely to vote Lib Dem in significant numbers and smaller local parties always get squeezed out in by-elections. Etc. Etc. Etc.
But the excuses are wearing thin. very thin.
The Lib Dems are now facing an existential crisis. Parties like Labour and the Conservatives can take a "mid-term kicking" and even lose a couple of million (or more votes) between elections and it only reduce their parliamentary representation by maybe a third. But for an already small party like the Lib Dems, a loss on this scale could mean something close to wipeout.
We have already seen a taste of this in the European elections. I saw Lib Dem after Lib Dem both online and in other media express the view that the party would probably retain "a few" MEPs. The idea that they would lose all of them was not seriously entertained at least publicly. And yet the party only retained Catherine Bearder in the South East by 8,000 votes (I cast one of them). Catherine is now the only remaining Lib Dem MEP. For a party that prides itself on being the party of Europe this is utterly devastating.
The thing is that the polls all pointed to something like that happening, coming within a hair's breadth of total wipeout and yet the Lib Dem party leadership led their troops into battle on a broken prospectus with a leader who has lost all credibility.
It pains me to say this. I have met and spent time with Nick Clegg. He is a very nice man who showed personal kindness towards me. He was generous with his time despite the fact I am sure he had more important people to be speaking to. But the fact remains that he is now politically toxic. He is the punch-line to a thousand political jokes. In the same way as Tony Blair will forever be associated with Iraq, Clegg will forever be associated with the broken pledge on tuition fees. No matter what he says and does he lacks credibility.
During the first debate with Nigel Farage in the run up to the European elections he visibly deflated when asked about that subject. He must know in his heart of hearts that he will never escape it. He has tried toughing it out pointing out that the Lib Dems have introduced a fairer system than Labour. He has tried apologising. He has tried time and again to move on from it. Nothing has worked.
But it is not just Clegg. All Lib Dems who are members of the government are equally complicit in the compromises they have made, and therefore in the eyes of much of the electorate would be similarly poisonous were they to be elevated to the leadership in Clegg's stead.
I am not saying any of this is fair. It is not. I genuinely believe that the Lib Dems came into government at a time of crisis in the national interest and have tried very hard to ameliorate the policies of what would have been a fairly hard right government. But in doing so they have scorched their own earth. You only have to read through the voluminous comments on the many, many soul searching posts recently published on Lib Dem Voice to see how so many of the party's own activists fear this analysis is correct.
Small "l" liberals like me who wanted to see liberal policies like reform of our ridiculous drugs laws have seen things actually move in the opposite direction. Those on the left have seen the party execute what they perceive as a series of betrayals. Those on the right have seen the party thwart the sort of policies they would have liked to have seen. And those who pay very little attention to politics have been exposed to a low-level background drum-beat of a narrative that constantly criticises the party in general and Clegg in particular for all of this.
I cannot see how the Lib Dems can avoid something close to wipeout next year. Until recently I had thought that incumbency would save a decent number of the party's MPs. But at 6.7% nationally which is what the party just achieved in a national election they would be back to the days of fitting all their MPs into a phone box or worse. First past the post can easily deliver that sort of outcome.
And I can see a similar pattern of denial happening with regard to next year's elections that we saw with the Euros. Clegg still seems convinced that the party will ultimately reap the rewards of an improving economy. Even though he was convinced a couple of years ago that that would have happened a year or so before the election and even though the economy is clearly improving and the Conservatives are getting the benefit of that, the Lib Dems are not. Let me spell it out. They will not. The dynamic is all wrong. The Lib Dems are getting all of the blame and the Conservatives are getting all the credit.
The only hope for the party I fear is that the next parliament is not hung. Then they can retreat with whatever is left of their parliamentary party in the Commons and rebuild. Although that could take decades.
If there is another hung parliament and the party somehow manages to get enough MPs to form a coalition and they do so then the party will be dead within 5 or 10 years, whichever way they go and whatever they do. If they go in with the Tories they will just be seen as an adjunct of them. And if they go in with Labour they will be seen as unprincipled political gadflies who will do anything to get and keep power.
I mourn this. I am in favour of pluralistic government. I like seeing parties working together. But a combination of the history of the politics of this country, the crushing electoral system that is so unforgiving, the way the media splits everything into a binary choice and the mistakes the party has made in government mean that they will never get a fair hearing unless something fundamental changes.
It is now clear that Clegg will be leader for the 2015 general election. He has seen off his little local difficulty and got rid of Lord Oakeshott into the bargain. He is probably quietly pleased with that. But all that has done is deferred the day of reckoning. It is coming though and one way or another the most likely outcome in the short to medium term is that the Lib Dems will end up a small rump unable to influence very much or do anything of note, perhaps for many years, perhaps for ever.
Disraeli once said "England does not love coalitions". We are about to see that played out.