14 May 2015
There is a peculiar something about Liberalism. As a political creed, it is frequently derided as neither one thing nor the other, an uneasy fit between the ever-converging forces of the left and the right, and therefore doomed to certain and imminent extinction. The electoral slaughter of Britain’s Liberal Democrats last week is the latest iteration of that. A little while ago, Germany’s equivalent, the Free Democrats, was wiped out of the Bundestag altogether, and UnitedFuture is but an often lonely presence in the New Zealand Parliament. It all looks like no more than a series of political funerals waiting for the celebrant to arrive.
But – and here is the paradox – the reality is not quite like that. Since last week’s election rout Liberal Democrat party membership has surged by about 11,000. When UnitedFuture was temporarily deregistered by the Electoral Commission in 2013, our membership swelled immediately by several hundred and continued to grow afterwards even if that surge was not reflected in the subsequent 2014 election result.
This is where the paradox kicks in. It appears, now in Britain, as in New Zealand, that there is a strand in the community that believes that the political message and position parties like the Liberal Democrats and UnitedFuture promote is a legitimate one that deserves to be heard, even if, when the election crunch comes, those same people feel less inclined to actually vote that way. I frequently hear the comment, as I have no doubt the Liberal Democrats would have heard during their recent campaign too, that “it is important that you be there”, but the point that that will only occur if people actually vote for us seems to be missed.
In Britain, it appears that the spectre of a Labour-led government beholden to the Scottish Nationalists spooked many middle of the road voters in England, particularly, to play it safe and vote Conservative, rather than risk their votes on the Liberal Democrats. In New Zealand in 2014, the prospect of a Labour-led government (not of itself an issue) but one containing in any way members of, or links to, the Mana/Dotcom alliance drove many similar voters straight into National’s arms to make sure there was no risk of that happening. As outgoing Liberal Democrats’ leader Nick Clegg said last week, “Liberalism here and across the world is not faring well against the politics of fear.”
The parallels continue. At its high-water mark after the 2002 election UnitedFuture had just under 7% of the seats in Parliament – today it has just under 1%. In the last British Parliament the Liberal Democrats held just under 9% of the seats, reduced today to just over 1%.
In recent days I have been reminded of the Maori story about Ngai Tahu after the massacres by northern tribes led by Te Rauparaha in the 1820s and 1830s – “The Ngai Tahu will rise again.” And so it has proven to be. Similarly, while Liberal flames now flicker faintly in Britain and New Zealand, they have not been extinguished and will rise again.
Meanwhile, back to the reality of next week’s Budget, forthcoming legislation, and the now forecast colder than usual winter that lies ahead.