I first joined the Liberal Democrats as a fresh-faced 16-year-old in 2002, inspired by the leadership of Charles Kennedy and repelled by the leadership of Tony Blair in equal measure. I thought that the Liberal Democrats were the party of the future on the left; Charles Kennedy said they were, and New Labour were careering into a jargon-jingo land of nonsense, completely removed from their “democratic socialist” constitution. I may have been naïve, or even wrong to do so, but I joined the Liberal Democrats because I believed in democratic socialism. Like nearly everyone else growing up in the UK in the naughties, I thought that liberalism was a matter of course.
The late 2000s brought about a shift in Labour with a more principled leader fighting against the election-winning, but increasingly un-democratic, un-socialist, and un-liberal machine that Labour now was, and that Gordon Brown had been integral in creating. I haven’t read Frankenstein, but what I know of it suggests that the parallel of Gordon Brown as Dr Frankenstein, and the Labour party as the monster would not be wholly inaccurate. With this reality dawning on the electorate, the Liberal Democrat MP numbers reached a zenith in 2005, before Charles Kennedy was unceremoniously dumped. I don’t care what it seemed like from inside the party, I was an outsider at this point who supported the Liberal Democrats because of Charles Kennedy, and his sacking upset me enormously. However, I remained a Liberal Democrat supporter, and like many other peripheral supporters I suspect, I was unaware of the magnitude of the shift in direction of the parliamentary party under Clegg.
By 2010, although I followed politics closely, even having studied it for A-level, I still wasn’t aware of the Orange Book, just that Nick Clegg was more right-wing than me. Nevertheless, Clegg provided a great account of himself in the run up to the 2010 election where the Liberal democrats got the largest number of votes, and biggest vote share since 1983. However, with the luxury of hindsight, perhaps the result should have been scrutinised a bit more closely, and a bit more criticism levelled for the fact that despite all Cleggs’ apparent popularity, and the appetite for “new politics”, the vote share only increased by 1% point on 2005, and MP numbers fell by nearly 10%.
Even just forming a coalition with the Conservatives was offensive to me at first, but I accepted it as I thought that the Liberal Democrats would have some clearly defined red-lines which they would not cross, particularly tuition fees (but I also thought electoral reform might be for some reason), and felt enormously let down when these lines that I had invented were crossed. My view is just my view, but I’m starting to think that it may be more common than I originally thought. The election of Corbyn as Labour leader is bad for the Liberal Democrats because it had a chance to be the main party of the left, and wasted that opportunity under Nick Clegg. The British electorate does not want many parties all saying the same thing, they simply want a clear choice, and Jeremy Corbyn’s election will start Labour on the way to providing some very clear policy differences between Labour and the Conservatives.
From a personal perspective, a Corbyn Labour will be very tempting. I re-joined the Liberal Democrats on 8th May choosing to have Charles Kennedy on my membership card because he represented what I want from politics. A thoughtful, common-sense approach to liberal democracy with a caring socialist bent. I realise that the Liberal Democrat’s want to be a broad church, but I fear that by accommodating the small-state liberals and classical liberals/libertarians under the same banner the party missed a prime opportunity post-Kennedy. Despite this, I think that a “turn to the left” under Tim Farron, with his focus on his key campaign issues is the best way forward. But I would say that, joining as a Social Democrat!
Until Charles Kennedy’s death it appeared that he had been side-lined, not just in terms of actual function, but also in terms of his views. As Alastair Campbell disclosed in his tribute to Charles Kennedy, Charles Kennedy texted:
fancy starting a new Scottish left-leaning party? I joke not
As the tributes to Charles Kennedy showed, he was probably the most liked Liberal Democrat politician of the recent era, and perhaps the Liberal Democrat party should think seriously about re-appropriating some of his more common-sense left-wing views and rhetoric. Perhaps it could even become that that new left-leaning party?! The Lib Dems may have missed that earlier opportunity to become the nations’ second party, but that doesn’t mean that there won’t be more opportunities to re-grow. Corbyn’s popularity is bound to have changed the political landscape whatever the result of the Labour leadership election.