Interview: The Last Lib Dem MEP

On Sunday evening, Catherine Bearder had a near-death experience. Well, figuratively speaking. The literal part is how her party, the Liberal Democrats, were decimated during Sunday’s European election results. Last week, they had eleven MEPs, this week, just the one: her. Decimated, almost, in the true Roman military sense – a brutal inversion of it.

It was the first thing David Dimbleby commented on after the results for South East England came in. “Just worth noting – that’s the first Liberal Democrat seat held,” he said on the BBC’s late night marathon. “It’s very close,” remarked the relevant expert beside him. “They just crept in there with around 187,000 votes. If they’d got 180,000 they wouldn’t have got it.” 

Decimation was a punishment dished out to groups of Roman soldiers who deserted or mutinied. Some of the charges thrown at Bearder echo with comparable condemnation. You’ve broken ranks with the electorate, haven’t you? She vigorously denies this. “The latest poll I saw said 65% of the British public want to stay in the European Union. Less than 40% of the population voted at the election.

“The more worrying thing is why 60% of people didn’t vote. That is very serious in any democracy. People are so disconnected they didn’t feel it was worth ten minutes of their time walking down to the polling station.”

“We knew we were in for a tough fight, but I didn’t think we were going to be hit badly as we have been.”

Sceptics might hear complacency in these words. Martin Tod, a fellow high-ranking member of the party – and on the federal executive committee that runs it – thinks this is a real risk to the Liberal Democrats’ health. Live on the BBC’s programme, he dressed down Lib Dem Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander, leaving the senior minister nonplussed. “I’m really concerned… with the current strategy,” Tod rebuked. Something had to give. He implied ditching Nick Clegg, since having a national punchbag as party leader is no fun when you’re the one keeping it steady.

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“I don’t agree with Martin on removing Clegg,” said Bearder. “We are a democratic party; we can ask for that if he gets enough support. If so, then we can move forward on that. But I’m confident he won’t find that support.

“We should be concentrating on our message, what we stand for, and delivering it to the electorate in most effective way. We failed in the election; we have to do better next time because we have MPs to defend.” A resolute rallying cry. But it’s easier to make war plans than go over the top. And if the apparatchiks don’t give Clegg the boot, the public might come for him in 2015. A leaked ICM poll commissioned by his own party supporters put the Liberal Democrats on 15% in his own Sheffield constituency, behind both Labour (20%) and the Conservatives (16%).

What of the new disrupters in European politics, UKIP, and their Wat Tyler, Nigel Farage? One thing’s patent: Bearder can’t stand him. Farage has a democratic right to be there, she concedes, but “I find some of the things he says eye-wateringly embarrassing for the UK. He uses [the European Parliament] as a platform for his own self-promotion.

“There is a feeling afoot that the European elections don’t matter, and you can give the government of the day a good kicking. Unfortunately, it does matter, because we’re now left with UKIP MEPs who don’t turn up to do the work.”

Out rolls an unflattering list of blasé UKIP callousness. “In the last Parliament we had a report calling for member states to increase sentencing and police cooperation on human trafficking – they voted against that. We had a report castigating Russia for homophobia – they voted against that. New rules that guarantee British victims of crime when visiting other European countries – they voted against that. Their policy of voting against everything on principle damages British citizens.”

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Bearder holds out hope, however, describing UKIP as just an overrated blip. It’s “scaremongering”, she asserts, citing the absence of emigration figures as part of why it’s been so difficult to fight that argument. Alas though, her allusion to voter apathy in 1930s Germany as the alternative, look-what-happens-if-you-don’t scenario was a rather ironic riposte.

UKIP’s vote will “collapse” at next year’s general election, she insisted. “The academics, and history, tell us that people will swing back after a European election.” History is also cruel, especially to junior coalition partners. Only last year, at Germany’s general election, the Liberals (FDP) were totally eliminated after a one-term love-in with Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU). Comfort in theory and the past alone is a leap of faith. Bearder seems well aware of this.

“We need to say, ‘If you feel there’s too many people, is that because you haven’t got enough housing, jobs, or skills the newcomers have?’ We need to counteract xenophobic arguments with the truth, and address those problems. For students, I will be standing up for Erasmus, postgraduate and research funding as well.”

The Lib Dem package will be a tough sell to a tough crowd, and Bearder knows her life has just got harder. “I’m moving now into a 30-hour day,” she jokes. ‘Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag’ sang British soldiers as they set off for the Continent in bygone times. The Lib Dems’ last trooper, too, keeps her chin up. “At least I won’t have delegation meetings to go to – I just have to meet with myself!”

(published 30-05-14)