This weekend has seen the conference of the Liberal Democrats held in Birmingham. Of course as the junior coalition partner in government one might think it is a chance to celebrate success - which is, actually, what those who are Ministers have been doing. Yet it is all in the shadow of record low polling results, as hoards of Liberal Democrat voters have abandoned the party they supported - whatever reason it was that they supported it.
Indeed, that is the crux of the problem for this party. Having been the third party in one form or another for over 80 years, government was almost always never on the cards since Labour usurped the Liberal Party as the major second party. However, the Liberal Democratic Party is not the Liberal Party, it is a slut of a mongrel that has hobbled from election to election in the last 30 or so years finding whatever gap it could see in the market, bringing along its disparate parts to heel.
When it was the Liberal Party, it had a market. It rejected the social conservatism of the Conservative Party that had resisted the social revolution of the 1960s, but also rejected the Marxist planned economy approach of Labour. It supported the EEC as a means to reduce barriers to trade with Europe. Bear in mind that until Thatcher, the status quo was socialism, with the Conservatives hoping to contain industrial action whilst the unions made mischief when Labour wasn't in power. In fact, in that ossified climate, there was a period when the Liberal Party looked like it was in revival, getting 19% of the vote in the first of two elections in 1974 under Jeremy Thorpe (who was easily the best performing party leader at the time, until scandal ended his career). The election of Thatcher changed all that.
The Liberals merged with a breakaway wing of Labour - because Labour in the early 1980s was a party of neo-Marxism, with policies such as withdrawal from NATO and nationalisation of industries and unilateral nuclear disarmament. The SDP comprised Labour MPs who wanted none of that, and they took the Alliance, later the Liberal Democrats on a slalom ride over the years. Initially it was easy, while Labour was old Labour and the Conservatives were the party of Thatcher, but then New Labour came along and the Liberal Democrats took a swing to the left. Free university education, abolishing taxes for the poor came along with hopping aboard the environmentalism agenda, supporting interventions to address global warming, and so being part of the movement against fossil fuels, in favour of wind and solar power, against aviation and roads, and in favour of trains. It opposed replacing Britain's nuclear deterrent.
The Liberal Democrats became the party of the left. On domestic policy it was all about having more for free, for more regulation of businesses, for more spending on education and higher taxes on the wealthy and no taxes on the poorest. On foreign policy the biggest boost was opposition to the invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussein, and a high profile given to human rights, as well as enthusiasm for the EU. The Liberal Democrats once advocated Britain joining the EURO for instance.
So in the 2010 election, Liberal Democrat voters were comprised of a lot of people for whom New Labour wasn't leftwing enough. Refugees from New Labour who would never vote Conservative. Some Liberal Democrats float between the three parties, but the party built itself up as a party of protest. No to tuition fees, no to war in Iraq, no to Trident, no to Heathrow expansion, no to Euroscepticism, no to climate change.
Most Liberal Democrat voters don't expect the party to be in power, so when it chose to go with the Conservatives, it burned off its protest vote credentials, and for many its leftwing credentials.
Meanwhile with New Labour buried along with Gordon Brown's political career, "Red" Ed Miliband reclaims the left back for Labour. So where do the Liberal Democrats go?
As they have hitched their wagon to the Conservatives, they believe in addressing the budget deficit. They believe in having a reduced burden for business, and have gone along with the "free schools" idea. Yet they have also stymied modest reforms for the NHS, effectively delayed the renewal of Trident and are now vetoing a cut in the top income tax rate.
The Liberal Democrats are seeking a middle ground, which doesn't really exist. While Ed Miliband has turned Labour back to the left, it is not the days of Foot and Kinnock, but looks more like the Liberal Democrats. Rejecting the war on Iraq, supporting a green agenda. supporting more money on the state sector, Labour as the party of opposition with no competition, can now accumulate all opposition to the government. The Conservative Party, having swung to the centre under David Cameron is now fighting in the middle ground, which despite the shrill rhetoric of the unions and Labour, is not engaging in some major culling of the state, nor radical reforms on any scale. What do and can the Liberal Democrats stand for?
The quasi-religious environmentalism doesn't get much support in a time of economic malaise, especially with some households harassed by the recycling police and motorists fed up with punitive fuel taxes. The anti-war rhetoric is worth little now that there has been withdrawal from Iraq and military spending cuts are more an embarrassment than a source of pride. Claims for spending more money on the state don't wash at a time of modest austerity. The past EURO enthusiasm is not something Liberal Democrats want reminders of.
Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, spoke at the conference of cracking down on tax evasion, he told of a half billion pound "infrastructure fund" to "create" jobs and support infrastructure projects in financial difficulty, whatever that means. Does he mean projects council have cut back on, or those that have gone wrong - like Edinburgh's tram abortion?
There was a project at the beginning of the coalition to cut unnecessary laws - a "Freedom Bill" - of which there has been little heard, primarily because when the public were asked what laws to abolish, they responded in droves. The Liberal part of the Liberal Democrats is rarely heard of.
Having opposed serious reform of the NHS, the Liberal Democrats cannot be seen as a party of rational reform. Having continued to push the green agenda, with calls to limit executive pay and a shrill line of banker bashing and blaming, it is hardly a party that is pro-business. It can't hope to reclaim its Liberal credentials when it happily supports more government in so many areas. Yet, it can't be a party of the left while tied to a party of the right.
There could be a future for a Liberal Party that embraced smaller government, free market reforms and social liberalism, but not much of one. There isn't a future for the Social Democrats, who are indistinguishable from old Labour - the party of envy, arrogance, belief in the state, belief in forever taxing the successful, and delivering monopoly social services.
It's rather simple after all - the gap the Liberal Democrats once filled were as the "other" protest party against government. As part of it, they don't stand for anything other than restraining the ruling party. Yet when 2015 comes along as people want to support the government, why vote Liberal Democrat instead of Conservative? Whereas if you oppose it, why would you vote for a party that supported it the whole time?
The ONLY future for the Liberal Democrats is if Labour makes itself so unelectable that Labour voters choose Liberal Democrats to constrain the Conservatives. Yet that would be self-defeating for them. For it would simply result in Labour winning less seats and in more cases than not, it would mean MORE seats for the Conservatives, increasing the likelihood of being able to govern in their own right.
Given that electoral reform as a saviour wont be on offer again for many many years, the future is bleak for a party without a coherent philosophy or an identifiable market. As a libertarian I hope it splits, and a Liberal Party can once again assert less regulation, social liberalism (including drug law reform), less government overall and lower taxes. It would also mean rejecting EUphilia.
Both major parties will be helping to give the impression that the Liberal Democrats are a third wheel. They'd be right. It is. The Greens and UKIP both fill gaps in the market. The Greens for the far left and UKIP for the Thatcherite Eurosceptic/somewhat libertarian right.
The Liberal Democrats fill no gaps any more, and if they stay on their present course, face year after year of decline.