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Are the Liberal Democrats dead in the water?

I registered my support for a political party for the first time just months after my sixteenth birthday, and I still remember it as though it was yesterday.  Just a handful of two years’ worth of politics classes had afforded me a basic insight into Britain’s political setup, and I wasted no time in digging deep for a mere fiver, in return for which I received a flimsy membership card affirming that my beliefs were tinged yellow.  Yes, I was a young Liberal Democrat, and, for what it’s worth, it felt great.

And why wouldn’t it?  The way I saw it, the Liberal Democrats were the fairer option, scouring both socialism and capitalism for the advantages which would assist society as a whole.  If only more people would vote Lib Dem, I often despaired.  If only more people would wake up to the idea of three-party politics; accept that Charles Kennedy and his ilk are a feasible option; and understand that their reputation for flip-flopping on the most salient of issues is nothing but media spin.

Perhaps that’s why I renewed my membership on more than one occasion, and why I voted intently for the party at every opportunity I had.  Call me naïve, but I’m not ashamed of it: I had my hopes for the country and they had theirs, and it just so happened that they were neatly aligned.  It might not have been the most sophisticated way to mark a ballot paper, but it was honest, and that was good enough for me.

So, it’s not terribly difficult to predict which standpoint I backed during this year’s election campaign.  And what a campaign it was, too: not only did it mark the advent of the long-awaited prime ministerial debates, but it also left reporters and analysts speechless as the Liberal Democrats surpassed both of their political rivals in the opinion polls.  The critics, of course, dismissed the newfound hysteria as nothing more than a senseless effort to reinvent the humble general election as something of a lowbrow popularity contest, but I was quietly confident.  This is our time, I thought.  This is the moment we’ve been waiting for!

As it turns out, it really was – only, it wasn’t quite as I’d imagined.  Don’t get me wrong: I was never gullible enough to expect the Lib Dems to fall prey to a miracle and ride into Downing Street on the wave of a landslide victory.  I knew the best we could hope for was a hung parliament, and that’s what we got.  But was it unrealistically optimistic to expect the party, this time fronted by Nick Clegg, to honour their pledges and stick to their principles?

The Liberal Democrats have long prided themselves on offering the electorate a viable alternative to the wearied policies of Labour and the Conservatives, and their approach to this year’s election campaign was no different.  A replacement for Trident is nothing but a nod to the days of Cold War mentality, they derided; the decision to go to war in Iraq had been immoral, not to mention fruitless; calls for a cap on immigration are simplistic and negative; and the electoral system as it stands is undemocratic and unreasonable.  As for education – well, they showed no signs of deviating from their long-term vision to make higher education free for all; even unveiling a six-point timetable which aspired to eventually scrap tuition fees altogether.

These are the very principles which attracted me to the Liberal Democrats in the first place, and I’m not unwilling to admit it.  Do we really want – or even need – to fund an effort to become a grossly paranoid neo-conservative state, creating and subsequently battling with perceived enemies?  Do we really have to waste time and resources on an immigration cap which seeks only to pander to the vulnerabilities of those blissfully unaware that the vast majority of immigration derives from the European Union anyway, and is therefore immune from any sort of plug?  There can be no doubt that the simple plurality system under which general elections are currently held is a ridiculously unjust means of gauging public opinion, and the argument that it produces supposedly strong governments has surely been rendered useless by the neither-here-nor-there result at the election this year.

When it comes to higher education, I’ve always believed that – given that British industry has long since collapsed – the government should prioritise and invest in the future of one of the only exports the country has left: fine university graduates.  We academics are this country’s future doctors, nurses, teachers, accountants, scientists, journalists, researchers and inventors: if we’re not good for tomorrow’s economy, what is?

Still, while it’s all well and good playing a game of snap in key areas of public policy, it wouldn’t hurt to remember that all that begins well doesn’t always end well.  It’s a notion I’ve had six months to get my head around, given that it was that long ago that Nick Clegg accepted David Cameron’s offer of a coalition, effectively giving the Conservatives a leg up to sneak in through the back door (and, naturally, dismaying members of the Liberal Democrats up and down the country).

But could it be forgiven?  At first, maybe.  The fact is, as enchanting as their ambitions had been, the Lib Dems – contrary to what the initial polls would have had you imagine – suffered an unenviable election result even by their standards, and subsequently found themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place as they were ushered into talks with negotiation teams from both of the leading parties.

Admittedly,  I may have slightly jumped the gun by conjuring up fluffy images of Clegg and Gordon Brown’s eventual successor skipping into Number 10 arm in arm, but it was never to be.  Never mind the fact that a Lib-Lab coalition would fall short of a clear majority; the Labour party, apparently, decided it would be more profitable to lay low and re-emerge as a progressive opposition.  With that, the Liberal Democrats’ fate was sealed: they would join the Conservatives to form a new government.

And why begrudge them that?  I’m no fan of the Conservatives, but with a Liberal backbone, I doubted the damage they could do.  The anger I felt towards Clegg for jumping into bed with Cameron was watered down at least.  This could be good for us, I began to rationalise, putting any thoughts of deserting the party on a backburner.  We could keep those wretched Tories on their toes for the next five years – if the farce even lasts that long, that is!

The reality, though, has been somewhat different.  Clegg promised the party faithful that the very issues which characterised the Libs’ election campaign would take priority in the Con-Dem coalition, but it seems as though that was just the first in a long line of broken promises: we’ve seen the introduction of an immigration cap and almost forgotten what electoral reform is altogether.  It would unreasonable of me to completely neglect to mention the coalition’s stance on a replacement for Trident, but let’s just say it’s vague and most likely unreliable.

But what about education?  Surely the good old Liberal Democrats would never turn their back on the students they’ve drawn in for so long?  Well, apparently so.  When the findings of the Browne Review were published last Tuesday, Business Secretary Vince Cable defied all odds as he stood in parliament to concede that scrapping tuition fees – or even capping the annual cost of attending university – was nothing more than a fantasy, never destined to see the light of day.

It’s sad, really: look hard enough and you can probably see Cameron and his dear partner in crime (the ever-ghastly George Osborne, that is) holding a pistol to the back of Cable’s head.  And isn’t he loving it?  The Liberal Democrats gave the Tories the green light to seize power for the first time in 12 years, making a rod for their own back in the process and ensuring that – prime ministerial debates or not – they won’t overtake them in an opinion poll ever again.

Still, as much as I’d love to blame this on the Conservatives, I have to accept this is actually nothing but the Liberal Democrats’ own doing.  Nick Clegg was presented with an opportunity beyond most Liberals’ wildest dreams, and he blew it – simple as that.  But really, if you’re genuinely prepared to do the dirty and become a puppet of your arch rivals, you deserve everything you get (reputation for being a power hungry moron included).

The Liberal Democrats might not be finished just yet – after all, if everything is to be believed, the coalition is still going strong.  Yet I’m struggling to accept that their performance at the next election will be any better than the last, and the Tories – when presented with a clear majority of their own – will want anything to do with them.  No, the Lib Dems, in all their clownery, are done for, and down the pan with them will go all the hard work which brought them this far.  It’s a bitter shame, but it’s the truth, and so it seems three-party politics will soon be nothing more than a relic of the coldly remembered past.

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