The Thick of It


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Lib Dems falling apart at the seams

Ever since propping up the Tories in government I've reported on the Lib Dems plummeting poll ratings and of an increasing number of splits in the party. The Lib Dem bird was flying high after Nick Clegg's first appearance in the pre-election leaders' debates but now appears to be cowering in a corner, waiting for the inevitable as the party falls apart from the seams.

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In their first six months in power since the first world war the Lib Dems have managed to record their worst opinion poll ratings in two decades, hovering around 10%, after their 23% saw them lose 10% of their seats at the last election.

We've had rumours that former leader Charles Kennedy will defect to Labour, councillors in Devon, BirminghamSheffield, six in Rochdale have quit the party and the leader of Liverpool Council Warren Bradley has warned that the party face being wiped out after giving in so weakly to Tory cuts.

Closer to (my) home in Islington, the Lib Dems were once running a 'council of the year' (awarded before they'd even been in power for a year) but were wiped out in May (after presiding over an unpopular cutting frenzy), even before their bigger brothers and sisters turned blue.

There are only 11 Lib Dem councillors left in Islington but even they are now at war with each other over student tuition fees. Highbury East's John Gilbert has excused his party's volte-face after a single issue election campaign to scrap tuition fees by claiming that they were duped into accepting almost every Tory policy in coalition government finances were worse than expected. At the same time one of Gilbert's colleagues, Hillrise councillor Greg Foxsmith hit out at Nick Clegg's lack of credibility following the tuition fees debacle:

"In fact, when you go into an election promising to be straight with people you have to honour that. It is going to be difficult for Mr Clegg, and those in the Coalition, to keep their credibility."

It will be almost impossible for Islington Lib Dems, like those across the country to keep faith with the party under such trying circumstances. I'm not surprised that so many have broken and split from their (old) party. I'm not sure how long committed councillors like Foxsmith will be able to keep faith when the party they joined no longer exists, much as he and many like him left Labour in the 1980s when it lost touch.

A year ago I took part in a Five Live debate with Mark Oaten entitled: "What is the point in the Lib Dems?" Growing up in South West London I used to think it was to provide a local alternative, strong in local government. This has now been undermined. Nick Clegg might not mind as he prepares to follow Ramsay MacDonald's footsteps and become a full-blown Tory.

How long before Islington Lib Dems are down to an even smaller rump than they already are? It seems only a matter of time before some of them follow the lead of their (former) counterparts across the country walk away while there is still the chance of some dignity.

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