Polygonic

That weren't no DJ, that was hazy cosmic jive

Harbinger of doom

Burning out spectacularly in yesterday’s Barnsley byelection, the Liberal Democrats’ worst fears became a shuddering reality. They fell to sixth position from second in May 2010, now garnering just 4.1% of the vote.

Both byelections and polls can be overestimated. Unlike in general elections, voters may tend to hypothesise a bit more relaxedly than they would when burdened by the seriousness of voting for government. But byelections and polls in the UK right now are pointing to the very same patterns – not just the implosion of Cleggism, but a spite for it that makes antipathy to Thatcher look measured. In less than one year!

Barnsley was a safe, south Yorkshire Labour seat to start with, and their victory yesterday is of zero surprise. But Labour have done more than recoup whatever share of the vote they lost to the LDs in May – they’ve eaten deeply into its local base.

Anyone can tell you why – it isn’t “coalition” as a principle. Liberal Democrat voters by and large were enthusiastic about the prospect of coalition government. It would be novel and fairer. It would shake up the established patterns of governance. They’d have a moderating influence on the Conservatives. So, this isn’t punishment for “coaligning” or “soulselling.”

It’s more because people used to think the Liberal Democrats were a social democratic party. Something to the left of New Labour. That was the presumption that led people to believe they could have a moderating influence on the Conservatives. Now we see Nick Clegg properly. He’s no social democrat, he is a John Stuart Mill liberal. Just like David Cameron. Which is to say, he’s a Tory.

It’s painful to watch Nick Clegg these days. He’s our Prometheus, routinely eaten alive in the House of Commons. He’s putting on weight and losing colour. His eyes are glassy and unfocused. He clearly dreams of himself being anywhere but where he is.

Shrugging off polls and byelections as mere half-stories is a small comfort to him, but a comfort that is getting smaller with every fresh example of the party’s collapse.

Another issue of concern is not just the Lib Dems ungracious fall in Barnsley, but that Labour’s majority was not increased by quite the same measure. The far-right BNP made gains, and the anti-Europe UKIP surged ahead to place second, albeit a distant second. Again, that’s the Yorkshire anomaly – they can be to the left on the economy, and to the right on social issues, especially immigration. Ironically, that’s exactly the opposite political configuration of the Liberal Democrats in the first place. So, if there’s a tiny modicum of a silver lining for Clegg, it’s that Barnsley was always hopelessly out of reach, and the party nationally should do much better than 4.1% at the next opportunity. Hope springing eternal and all that.

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