The tragic passing away of former Liberal Democrat leader, Charles Kennedy, which rightly resulted in eulogies from all sides of the political spectrum, also provides a moment for the depleted Liberal Democrats MPs to consider the future of their own party. Under Kennedy’s stewardship, the Lib Dems gained the highest number of Liberal MPs since 1923 but following the disastrous 2015 general election, this legacy of 62 seats has been decimated to a mere 8 seats only a decade on.
Following the election disaster, many prominent Lib Dems, from Vince Cable to Paddy Ashdown have found a wide range of reasons to explain their electoral collapse, except one : The Coalition Agreement (which Kennedy himself didn’t support). Local and European election results from 2010 indicated growing public disaffection for the Liberal Democrats, resulting in their calamitous sixth placed performance in the 2014 European elections. The idea that the SNP, opinion polls or divisive Tory rhetoric killed the Lib Dem’s election chances is ludicrous. More worryingly, if the party continues to live in a parallel political universe, it could turn the Lib Dems into a political irrelevance.
During the five years of the Coalition, the Liberal Democrats, a centre-left party which still, somehow, prides itself on fairness and decency, supported the Bedroom Tax, oversaw cuts to legal aid, cuts to their cherished mental health budget, the introduction of fees for employment tribunals and an explosion in the number of food banks and homelessness. At the same time, they broke promises on tuition fees, VAT increases and the mansion tax. This was a complete dereliction of democratic duty and political suicide. This is the real reason why the Lib Dems lost 85% of their MPs. Squeezed on all sides by the Greens, Labour and the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats ended up in a no-man’s land where they criticised their coalition partners, only taking responsibility for their favoured policies whilst shirking responsibility for their part in a government which ’hit the poorest hardest’
If the next Liberal Democrat leader has a fraction of the political and moral judgement, principles and courage of Charles Kennedy then the party might just rebuild itself from this nadir. Otherwise, the stark alternative is an obsolete or even defunct political party.