Betrayal: Why young Brits now hate the Lib Dems
‘As a result of industrial action this exit is closed.’ The unwelcome tiding is stuck across two massive doors in King’s Cross underground station with what appears to be yellow-and-black crime scene tape. It is not what London’s put-upon commuters want to see.
It is the first week of December and a freezing London is enduring its fourth tube strike in three months, as unions fight plans to cut jobs. Students have staged rallies and campus occupations to protest planned university tuition fee increases. The police have taken to holding protesters in cordoned-off areas for hours on end. This being Britain, the tactic is called ‘kettling’.
And cuts to the defense budget mean Britain’s flagship aircraft carrier will be axed, together with the fighter jets that took off from it. But Britain will be allowed to use a French aircraft carrier, in a deal one commentator dubbed the ‘entente frugale’. The French vessel in question – the Charles de Gaulle – recently broke down.
Welcome to Britain’s ‘age of austerity’. And alongside the tube workers, fighter jets and subsidized degrees, the straightened times could well claim another victim – the Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in Britain’s new, Conservative-led government.
In the half year since they formed a coalition government with the Conservatives, the Lib Dems have shed support at an alarming rate. In the BBC’s latest ‘poll of polls’, the Lib Dems are down to 10% from an election campaign peak of 31%. This puts the Lib Dems in a dead heat; not with Labour – which the party aspires to replace as the main centre-left force – but with ‘Other’. The Independent’s ComRes poll has support for Lib Dems at its lowest level in two years. Just as they have entered government for the first time in nearly eighty years, the Lib Dems are haemorrhaging support.
Immediately propelling the party’s strange, upward fall is its broken pledge on university tuition fees. The Lib Dems went to the May elections promising to abolish fees for British students altogether.
It was a rash promise, and it proved unable to navigate between the Scylla of fiscal retrenchment and the Charybdis of junior status in a coalition. This week, Parliament is set to vote on a government bill to nearly triple the cap on annual tuition fees which can be charged by English universities to £9,000.
The Lib Dem ‘betrayal’ has been a focus of student protesters, who have targeted the party’s Westminster headquarters. Their chant bespoke the dwindling of the idealistic student support that Lib Dems long counted on: ‘Nick Clegg, we know you, you’re a f—king Tory too.’ Effigies of Clegg – which Lib Dem leaders past might have accepted as signs that they had at least been recognised – have hanged and burned in the pre-winter frost.
But the cause of the party’s problems is broader than one issue. The poll spiral began long before the fees promise was broken in October.
Essentially, the Lib Dems have long drawn support as a party of protest – a sort of one-stop repository for various soft left and libertarian causes. At national elections, people voted for them on the understanding that their policies (some sensible, some not) would never be implemented – at least not by the Lib Dems.
‘They [the voters] know there isn’t some fantasy government where nothing difficult ever happens’, Tony Blair once quipped. ‘They’ve got the Lib Dems for that.’ But now they don’t even have that. Tried in the fire of government for the first time in living memory, the Lib Dems are being weighed by once-loyal supporters and found wanting.
Few Lib Dem voters would have expected the generally left-leaning party to go into government with the Conservatives. They did not vote for the Tory agenda of public sector cuts and private volunteerism now being implemented with Lib Dem support.
It all feels much more than half a year since the election campaign that Nick Clegg starred in. Back then, Clegg tapped into public anger over politics as usual in the wake of the MPs expenses scandal.
He repeatedly condemned the ‘two old parties’ for running a self-serving political duopoly. This was something of a conceit. Of the movements that united to form the Lib Dems, the Liberals were William Gladstone’s party and the Social Democrats were disaffected Labour members (‘splitters’, as Reg from the People’s Front of Judea would put it).
Hailed as the ‘British Obama’ and found by one poll to be the most popular party leader since Winston Churchill, Clegg parlayed a creditable debate performance into remarkable popularity. ‘I agree with Nick’, said Gordon Brown, the beleaguered prime minister, repeatedly. So, according to the polls, did much of the country. T-shirts were quickly rushed out to prove it.
There was talk of the Lib Dems relegating Labour to third place in the popular vote. Reports had Clegg preparing to demand the prime ministership as the price of any post-election deal with Labour.
But when the votes were counted, the Lib Dems came their usual, distant third and actually lost seats. Deprived of an electoral breakthrough, the party’s leaders opted to govern in tandem with the Conservatives. So office gained, but in tough times and tough circumstances.
‘A new dawn has broken, has it not?’, Tony Blair asked the gathered Labour Party faithful as the sun rose on the 2nd of May, 1997. Eighteen years of Tory rule had just been emphatically ended.
For much of this year’s election campaign, the Lib Dems seemed on the cusp of an equally dramatic breakthrough. Just now, however, there is a sense that the much-heralded new dawn of Liberal Democracy came unexpectedly early, and it may already be dusk.
‘There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things’.
Nick Clegg is probably with Machiavelli on that one.
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