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Thursday, May 08, 2014 

The curious state of the Liberal Democrats.

On one solitary score, you have to give the Liberal Democrats credit. Compared to both Labour and the Tories, whose respective right-wingers are convinced they are being led towards electoral doom, there are almost no such murmurings within the Lib Dems whether at parliamentary or grassroots level. This is especially curious considering how quick they were before to get rid of Ming Campbell, felt incapable of leading a hip n' happening, designed to appeal to students and lefties in general party.

Compared to Nick Clegg now, Campbell looks as dynamic as he was back in 1964. There's a distinct possibility the party could come 5th in the European elections, behind the Greens and with no MEPs whatsoever. Is the party worried about the damage such a disastrous performance could do? Apparently not. Clegg's masterstroke is to run a campaign based around our place and role in Europe, an admirable concept it must be said, but to judge by the reception he received doing just that in the debates with Farage, it's not exacfly a guaranteed vote winner.

For all the occasions the other two main parties have been accused of running a core vote strategy, neither have taken it to the extremes decided upon by the Lib Dems. Faced with the problem of their 2010 supporters deserting them due to the various betrayals and broken promises of going into coalition with the Tories, the only response has been to double down. We're in government! Look at what we've achieved! It might not be much and we've sacrificed our principles on a number of policies, but we did it! The economy couldn't have flatlined for three years without our going along with the cuts to frontline investment! Only we could have allowed George Osborne to set off another housing bubble in a desperate bid to get growth of any kind! Vote Lib Dem, the only party that wants Europe to stay broadly the same!

And so on. To be fair, it is somewhat down to the party deciding it's still too far away from the general election itself for most of those who've gone elsewhere to think seriously about coming back. The hope is, faced with the march of the Ukips, the likelihood of the Tories coming out with a ridiculously right-wing manifesto, already certain to offer a referendum on EU membership with a likely side order of withdrawal from the European Court of Human Rights, and the sheer rubber-faced goonery of the two Eds, Clegg and his constantly sad expression might seem not so bad after all.  It sounds and frankly is a rather forlorn hope right now, but when there's so little else to work with, amounting to over-hyping the pupil premium and ignoring how the rise in the personal allowance helps the middle far more than it does the lowest paid, there's not much other than promising not to prop up a Tory government next time, a strategy itself suffused with risks, to try.

This still doesn't explain however why of all the things Clegg could have chose to make a stand on, he's done so on those caught carrying a knife for a second time.  Again, it's a perfectly reasonable, decent liberal stance to take: judges should have the discretion to take extenuating circumstances into account when passing sentence.  Putting mandatory terms into law except for the most serious offences is an unbelievably bad idea, as demonstrated by the widespread misuse of indeterminate sentences, with many of those given them still trapped in prison, unable to access the courses necessary to prove they are safe to be released.  All the same, regardless of the reasons behind it, those caught for a second time with a blade in their possession aren't the easiest people for most to sympathise with.  Clegg also undermines his argument in his Graun article by criticising Labour for letting the "prison population spiral out of control".  The number in prison at the end of May 2010 was 85,500 (PDF). The number now? 84,697 (XLS).

It further boggles the mind considering the party's climbdown on removing the citizenship of naturalised citizens should they be accused of going overseas to fight alongside jihadists.  As is so often the case, and as the Home Office minister Norman Baker himself wrote to MPs, the promise of the home secretary not taking away the citizenship of someone "reasonably believed" unable to get an alternative passport, and a review system, by which point it will be too late, was enough to override "a point of principle".  Considering the ridiculous case currently being pursued against Mashudur Choudhury, who went to Syria with the intention of fighting only to return, unlike the others he travelled with, the amount of faith anyone should have that the removal of citizenship will be fair and justified ought to be around nil.  The irony and shameless hypocrisy of supporting the rebels fighting alongside the jihadists and then charging those who do go to fight with terrorism should not be lost on anyone, let alone the Lib Dems.  Baker's plea that "if we demand major concessions from the Tories and get them, that should affect how we vote" would be a respectable sentiment were Clegg not manufacturing a falling out over knives at exactly the same time.

You could call it choosing which battles to fight and which to not, or you could put it down to how confused in general the party seems to be right now.  Whether it's simply projected confidence, activists genuinely don't seem bothered by the colossal hammering coming their way.  They imagine their local organisation will save them from complete collapse, as evidenced by the Eastleigh by-election.  They could be right.  If they're not, we might find ourselves in the distinctly odd situation of having four parties getting media attention when there are only two properly represented at Westminster.

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