It’s almost a month since I wrote about my experiences campaigning for Liberal Democrat candidates in the General Election.
In little over a month my party has been ejected from power. We are now officially, according to the pervading narrative, ‘in the doldrums’.
Pop music is so much better than politics for expressing heartfelt emotion. If the Lib Dems current status was a song title it would surely be ‘From Despair to Where’? (Manic Street Preachers (1993) or perhaps ‘Stuck in a moment you can’t get out of’ (U2, 2002). I could go on. In fact I went the whole hog and created a collaborative Spotify playlist.
Except it’s not that simple. Politics, much like life, never is.
Since I wrote that blog – depressed, angry and most definitely suffering from post-traumatic shock brought on by our massive defeat at the general election, something crazy happened.
More than 15,000 people have joined the Liberal Democrats.
Our total membership now stands at 61456 (and counting, as the ticker on the Lib Dem website proudly proclaims)
I’ve already written about my impressions on meeting some of our new members in London shortly after the election.
Now the dust is settled since the election I wanted to take some time to reflect on my impressions since.
- After our recent near death experience the Liberal Democrats are still on a life support machine.
While outwardly I may project the air of your archetypal Lib Dem cockroach or ‘die-hard Lib Dem’ as I was recently introduced at a party the other day, reader, I have my fair share of doubts about the future of my party.
Reading this article by Danny Finkelstein cheerily titled ‘RIP Liberal Democrats. It’s all over for you.‘ in The Times prompted one of such fit of insecurity.
Reading that article felt like looking over the edge of the electoral cliff, into the abyss:
‘Well it’s happened now. They have hit the ground. So now, what next? Nothing, that’s what. It’s over. It is so over that “what next” isn’t even the right question. The Liberal Democrats are about to choose a leader, asking themselves “who?” and “how?” and “when?”. But what they should really do is get Vince to take out his whiteboard again and in big letters write: “WHY?”
It is not impossible to imagine the Lib Dems surviving as a tiny parliamentary force, perhaps (very perhaps) winning by-elections, even finding a suitor in a hung parliament. What is less easy to see is why the effort to do this would be worthwhile.’
I was angry when I first read this article. Bloody arrogant Tory columnists, I thought. Why do I subscribe to this right-wing rag again? I raged. ‘He’s a Tory. No-one outside the Westminster bubble cares about this stuff’ soothed a friend.
But what followed was worse than the anger I felt initially . It was the feeling of despair. What if Danny was right and we really are finished as an electoral force let alone as a political party? But we Lib Dems have got used to smiling through the pain. ‘I’ll print out that article and use it for extra motivation’ the hardened political activist inside of me said.
I was left with the nagging feeling that Danny Finkelstein asked precisely the right questions in the article. Questions that many of us (me included) would probably rather avoid particularly after suffering such a drubbing. Questions that we need to face up to this Parliament and fast.
We are fighting for our political survival alright. As an American right say: yo’ shit just got real.
Political parties come and go. We Liberal Democrats have not earned an inalienable right to exist. We need to justify our existence every day between now and the election. Or we might as well give up and go home. Or join Labour, or the Tories. Liberalism has been around far longer than the Liberal Democrats and it may well outlive the Liberal Democrats.
On reading that article by Danny Finkelstein I was forced to confront a future without the Lib Dems in it. It could happen, but obviously I hope it won’t.
2. We are in a hole but it could be worse, we could be the Labour party.
For all of my worries about the future of the Lib Dems I console myself regularly with the thought that Labour are in a far worse position. Not only have they failed to win the election and convince voters they are a serious alternative to a Conservative government, what little credibility they had accrued from being in government 1997-2010 has been washed away leaving zero credibility where it matters – on the economy.
The Labour leadership election is the dullest I can remember. Labour as a political force feels to me to be totally moribund . New Labour is dead. Milibandism is dead. Long live….what? The best candidate by a mile seems to be Liz Kendall and yet we hear every day the mantra ‘she can’t win’.
For all the criticism of Ryan Coetzee’s slogan: ‘stronger economy, fairer society’ we need to own this phrase. We Lib Dems are the only party that can truly say we delivered a stronger economy and a fairer society in the last Parliament, in government. Now is not the time to disown our own legacy and with it our credibility in the eyes of the electorate.
3. Diversity. Battle won?
Shortly after the election I wrote about my ongoing frustrations with my party for its failure to take action to improve diversity. I wrote this post against a backdrop of years of over-promising and under-delivering by senior figures – not least Nick Clegg – on this issue. I’m pleased to say that diversity has featured very prominently in both Tim Farron and Norman Lamb’s campaigns to be the next leader of the Liberal Democrats.
I’m by no means the only one to have raised this issues regularly and I’m particularly grateful to my friend Daisy Cooper (who I backed for Party President) who put both candidates on the spot publicly on this whole question. Tim and Norman’s responses can be found here.
I now do have confidence that whoever wins the race to be next leader of our party will take action to address the disgracefully unrepresentative aspects of our party – not only in terms of our parliamentary candidates but in selecting who will advise them and who will speak for the Lib Dems outside Parliament as well as in over the next five years.
I’m also reasonably reassured that both candidates will act to shake up our party so that things like our party committees are no longer personal fiefdoms for the long in the tooth.
However, as I’ve tweeted and blogged many times changing the way we do things is one thing, changing our culture and the way our members select candidates is another. I hope that whoever wins will address this both explicitly and implicitly over the coming months and years.
4. We may be out of government but our legacy lives on
We have lost all our ministers and by extension all our influence in government. So goes the conventional wisdom. Except it isn’t actually true. Many of our policies and initiatives continue beyond the political grave particularly in areas where we had Liberal Democrat ministers for example in health and business for example in reforms to zero-hours contracts.
I was particularly heartened on speaking to two senior civil servants working in mental health this week who remarked on the long lasting influence Norman Lamb has had in relation to mental health policy at the Department of Health. This was a timely reminder for me that civil servants absolutely can tell the difference between the excellent and the indifferent when it comes to ministers.
It was exactly the same when I was a councillor and it was some consolation when we lost control of Reading Borough Council after running it for a year in 2010-11 to hear officers say to me how they had noticed the things that I and others had tried to do both in terms of our policy agendas and our leadership style.
There will be plenty more policies that Lib Dems led in government that will continue under the Tories. We need to continue celebrate our ongoing achievements in government, because you bet if we don’t, the Tories will.
5. I’m still unsure who to vote for to be next Lib Dem leader
The choice this election between Norman Lamb and Tim Farron has been presented in the media and in various places as a choice between continuity and change and charisma/communications skills vs credibility in government. Put simply, a vote for Norman Lamb is a vote for what we did in coalition and a vote for Tim Farron is a vote against it. Plenty of people I hold in high regard are backing Norman and others are supporting Tim.
Endorsements have not had the effect on me I thought they would and I find myself not much further forward.
I must admit that neither campaign has set my world on fire. I am confident both candidates would make competent leaders. Social media, ironically, has become a barrier to communication in my opinion with both sides frenetically posting on Facebook and Twitter in an attempt to engage members. Laudable, yes, but not terribly inspiring. I’m actually starting to see the social media outpourings of both campaigns as something of a distraction, particularly when it seems as though the content is coming from people around the candidate rather than the candidate.
The longer the campaign has gone on the less sure I have been out who to vote for. I know Tim Farron best of the two candidates and favour his ability to communicate with the public but am also impressed by Norman Lamb’s record in government as a minister and have liked some of the things he has said about us living in a liberal age and needing to turn this into solid support for Liberal Democrats.
My gut feeling is that Tim Farron will win by a comfortable margin. He started the race well ahead having won two Presidential elections. I suppose the question then becomes what is it that’s stopping me from voting for Tim, leader-in-waiting.
Overall, my lack of certainty about who to support stems mainly from questions relating to party strategy. And being a (typical) Lib Dem I can see arguments on both sides as to which direction we should go.
The recent article on Charles Kennedy’s legacy by Phil Collins in The Times summed up my dilemma best
‘Mr Farron might assemble enough protest votes to make his party a viable contender for the balance of power. But, on balance, he does not want power. Charles Kennedy did what he did rather brilliantly, with style, wit and warmth and politics would be better for more people of his stamp. But what he did can only take you so far. Mr Kennedy’s Liberal Democrats climbed all the way to the summit of the mountain he set out to climb. The trouble with that is that when you reach the top you cannot help but wonder at the point.’
I have a confession to make, which in light of recent events is a little embarrassing. I nearly didn’t join the Liberal Democrats because of Charles Kennedy’s leadership.
I voted Labour in 1997, but after initial enthusiasm for Blairism (inspired by decades growing up under seemingly endless and unbeatable Tory governments), I grew tired of Labour in government. This happened a couple of years before the Iraq War (which I marched against under no political banner) when Labour started doing things like penalising single mothers.
There were a couple of years from this point on when I was not affiliated to any party before I eventually joined the Lib Dems in 2005. What put me off joining earlier was what I saw as Charles Kennedy’s lack of desire to build a party of government that could beat the Tories and present a credible alternative to Labour. This, bearing in mind the Tories had been in government every year since I was born until 1997.
So this question about the purpose of the Liberal Democrats goes way back for me. Phil Collins has written a couple of times about people who voted Lib Dem in 2010:
‘These people were furious to wake up and find they had accidentally voted for the government.’
As you may have guessed, I am not one of those people. That said I do agree with Lib Dem Strategy Director Ryan Coetzee’s post-election analysis that ‘getting into bed’ with the Tories in 2010 effectively ruined our electoral chances in 2015. In particular when he says:
‘I have no doubt that going into coalition was the right thing to do for the country, but I can’t help feeling it is the root cause of our current woes.’
I agree very strongly with this statement.
Our current position is highly paradoxical: we recently suffered our worst electoral defeat and yet we are also experiencing one of the fastest periods of growth in our membership in our history.
All I know is there are no easy answers to questions about what we do next.
As Einstein once said
“The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.”
I feel like this about politics more and more, despite a decade of active involvement and campaigning in three general elections.
I would like to think that we can learn not only from our time in government, but also from our defeat and also our time in opposition.
David Miliband said this about the Labour party in The Times today, but I think it applies to the Liberal Democrats just as well:
‘The only guide to the future is the past, I’m afraid’