Will the Lib Dems split?
So, the Liberal Democrat conference managed to perform the quite amazing feat of both opposing and endorsing the Health Bill in the space of two days and the same conference. This undoubtedly reflects the deeper schism that his existed in the Lib Dem psyche ever since they entered the Coalition. Politically, this is best, albeit a little roughly, expressed by the opposed Orange Book and Social Liberal tendencies. In and of itself this reflects inherent tensions within liberal thought that have existed since its inception because liberalism is both socially aware and socially activist and generally anti such things as inequality but also supportive of a social system, ie, capitalism which depends on inequality for its very existence.
In the here and now though, the Liberal Democrats have always nurtured this natural schism but been able to contain it; as accept locally, they have never held power. It has thus been relatively speaking, possible to face both ways and paper over the cracks. However, that is no longer possible so this struggle will have to be resolved one way or another.
Already, there has been something of a de facto split – those amoung the Lib Dems supporters who are Labour inclined have generally returned to the fold as voters or members. The left-wing of the Lib Dems has thus been vastly weakened and is now a marginal force within the Party. This is not to say it’s not capable of flexing its muscles still but it is relatively impotent. Naturally, the orange bookers, have been much strengthened by the close orbit to their natural moon, the Conservatives. Also, those now inclined to support the Lib Dems come from that trajectory as are those who are more likely to stick around. A substantial proportion of Lib Dems are quite contented where they are and are closer to the Party now than they ever were.
What will pose the question starkly is a general election, however, since one of those is not immediately on the horizon I would suggest there will be less a dramatic split and more a gradual disintegration. Activists of the social liberal bent will gradually flake away and either come into Labour’s orbit or eventually coalesce around a new partyist project. Labour needs to do nothing to encourage this process for it will happen largely naturally as a result of internal government and inner-party Lib Dem dynamics. However, some within the leadership want to hurry the process along because they still want to reforge Labour as a refounded Liberal Party (it is a complete mistake to view Labour right-wingers as ‘blue’, crypto-Conservatives, they are in fact the modern-day ancestors of Asquith etc) and obviously those escaping from the yellow peril would generally be natural allies in that ambition. We should therefore be weary of adapting our politics too much to meet these people because this adaptation wont benefit the left. The danger is that this process will eventually exacerbate Labour’s own internal contradictions and bring the battle for Labour’s soul and purpose to a head – so, while we should welcome the demise of the Lib Dems, we should also beware its consequences for us.