The Barnsley by-election was caused by the conviction of former Labour MP Eric Illsley for dishonestly claiming parliamentary expenses. It has been a safe Labour seat for almost a century but one might have expected a bit of a back lash. Of course there was a back lash: against the Liberal Democrats. The Liberal democrats once the specialists at winning by elections were heavily defeated. In the Oldham East and Saddleworth by election (again called over shenanigans by a Labour politician) despite the Tories effectively leaving the filed open to them, the Liberal Democrats were again easily beaten by Labour. Clearly it is extremely early in the parliament but there are worrying signs for the LDs in these straws in the wind.
The abrupt 180 degree U turn by the Liberal democrats over tuition fees is seen as the single most important cause of their current problems. However, it is merely the most public example of a dangerous disconnect which seems to be opening up between the Liberal Democrats and a large number of their supporters and indeed between their leadership and many within their party.
The BBC’s Analysis programme had an excellent article on the way in which the Orange Book liberals have taken over the party. Orange Book liberalism in many ways hark back to the classical Laissez faire Liberalism of Gladstone and those prior to him rather than the Liberalism of Lloyd George and the more recent direction of the party.
Much of the problem seems to be that although the economically right wing took over the party after Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell left the leadership, relatively few of the voters or even the activists seemed to notice. It is an unfair simplification to regard Liberal Democrats as sandal wearing, bearded hippies but most of the party membership is more Labour-lite than Tories with solid colour rather than pinstripe suits. The hope of the current leadership must of course be that the allure of power will keep the grass roots of the party (and the old leadership still in the Commons) happy or at least only passively irritated. The problem with that hope is, however, that many of those people are fairly principled social liberals: they joined the Liberal Democrats knowing that it would very probably never give them power at a Westminster level. Hence, to expect them to be bought by the prospects of their leaders (who are busy leading them in a direction they oppose) having power is likely to be somewhat optimistic.
The one prospect which has thus far kept the Liberal Democrat grass roots and the dissidents in parliament happy has been the prospect of proportional representation. Although the Liberal Democrats really wanted STV rather than AV the prospect of any form of PR (and hence, their likely continual position in power) has been enough to buy the souls of the left leaning Liberals.
However, the U turns and compromises that the Liberal Democrats made and the subsequent political back lash may well be enough to help sink AV. In that case the left leaning Liberal Democrats will discover that their Faustian pact was completely flawed and they do not even get Gretchen in exchange for their political souls
Those who vote Liberal Democrat are probably even less likely to be content with the sale. In the North of England and Scotland those who vote Liberal Democrat against Labour are unlikely to forgive quickly. Even in the South West there are likely to be major problems. There the voting dynamic is often different with the Liberal Democrats being helped by naturally Labour inclined voters who vote LD to keep the Tories out. Now with the Tories so clearly in possession of the Liberal Democrats souls (to the extent that their leadership seem little more than Sauron’s Nazgul, so closely bound are they to David Cameron’s will) it is unlikely that many Labour supporters will be rushing to save the Liberals.
Of course like the Nazgul the Liberal Democrat leaders have gained great power from their position and were more than willing partakers in the bargain. They may have to hope that they can become the National Liberal Party of the twenty first century and gradually become one and the same thing as the Tories. For the likes of Clegg one suspects that his position as the Witch King of Angmar is preferable both politically and personally to the cheering of the sandal wearing beards. Whether or not David Cameron is as charitable as Sauron the Black is another matter.