As a member of the Liberal Democrats, I’d long earmarked May 7th as a potentially difficult day. However with most opinion polls having concurred that the party was set to retain up to 31 of its parliamentary seats after a positive campaign, it was in a fairly relaxed mood that I settled down to watch the results roll in.
Then came the shocking moment when the BBC/ITV/Sky exit poll put forth the view that the Liberal Democrats would go on to win in just ten constituencies, an eventuality that not even the most pessimistic of doom-mongers could have predicted.
The initial reaction, of course, was to dismiss this result as an anomaly. The venerable Paddy Ashdown soon took to the airwaves to dismiss it as claptrap, even offering to ‘eat his hat’ should it come to pass.
And yet, despite having stocked up on highly-caffeinated drinks to see me through the night, they were wholly unnecessary as the massacre unfolded, and I was left wide-eyed with amazement as what looked to be a nonsensical forecast quickly turned into reality.
Giants of our party tumbled at every turn. A shell-shocked Simon Hughes was ousted after 30 years. Ed Davey, who did so much to promote that the environmental agenda within the coalition, followed suit.
The towering Jo Swinson, whose compelling brand of progressive feminism provided a refreshing antidote to the Westminster status quo also fell by the wayside. And perhaps most shockingly of all, the hugely popular Vince Cable, whose astute ideas and policies did so much to help businesses drive the economic recovery, was sensationally ejected from his Twickenham seat.
It was with some irony that the intended recipient of much of the electorate’s ire, Nick Clegg, was among the handful of Lib Dems to cling on to their seats. But, as his speech clearly indicated, there was no cause for celebration, no reason for optimism.
For the party, this was a disaster on a quite colossal, not to mention wholly unpredictable scale.
And so here I am, on the back of two hours sleep (yet feeling wide awake), trying to turn a head full of thoughts into something coherent in the half-hour I have before I’m due to begin my day’s work.
It may seem strange, but I’m certainly not regretting the decision to go into Government five years ago. Many of our detractors dismiss Clegg as a spineless character who sold his soul for a whiff of power.
What I see is a man who had such conviction in his party’s philosophies that he simply felt that the opportunity to implement them was one that could not be missed. Far from being spineless, it was brave, a calculated risk that was worth taking, but one which, ultimately, backfired.
By and large, I think the party can be proud of what it achieved and, in time, I think history will look back kindly on the Lib Dems in Government. To those who have knocked our contribution, I’ve always said “You’ll miss us when we’re gone”, and I’m sure that will bear out in the months and years to come, with the true nastiness of Conservative policy now certain to be allowed to go unchallenged by a coalition partner.
That said, I can certainly understand much of the anger shown towards the Lib Dems. The tuition fees saga was excruciating for all involved, while issues such as food banks and the bedroom tax can’t be a source of pride for any liberally minded person. Indeed, this explains why, for much of the five years we spent in Government, I allowed my party membership to lapse.
However, I came back into the fold a year ago as I was seeing a growing tendency for the noble virtue of liberalism to be cast aside and marginalised in favour of nationalism, which in my view is the smallest form of politics.
The American talk-show host, Conan O’Brien, once said “there is nothing more liberating than having your worst fear realised”, whilst discussing how even the most unexpected of setbacks can be the catalyst for profound reinvention.
And reinvention will be key in terms of preserving a credible Liberal presence in British politics as we move forward in this ever changing landscape. For the Liberal Democrats, there will inevitably be a new leader and new structure, I certainly hope there will be a new attitude, and there could even prove to be a new identity for the party altogether.
The most important thing, now, is to ensure, despite our presence being smaller than it has been in generations, that our voice remains strong, and that we remain unshakable in endeavouring to ensure that our society is built on fairness.
A Government which panders to the powerful and marginalises the weak cannot be tolerated. And the emphasis, now, is on us to ensure that this cannot happen. Despite the disappointment of last night, I’m somehow feeling more fired-up for the fight than ever before.
And with that, seeing as it’s 9.15, I’d better do some work.
You know I should. I really should.