Chris Rennard writes… Can we tell what will happen in four years?

Four years ago, David Cameron was on the run.

The Conservatives had ‘thrown the kitchen sink’ into winning the Ealing Southall by-election in the summer of 2007 and they had raised expectations of a Tory victory based on the appointment of a well known local Asian businessman as ‘David Cameron’s Conservative candidate’ in a seat with a lot of Conservative Councillors.

But on polling day, the Conservatives not only failed to win the by-election (or even overtake the Lib Dems), but they fell from second place to third in the parliamentary by-election in Sedgfield following Tony Blair’s resignation from Parliament.

Andrew Grice, here in the Independent, commented on the state of politics then. The press that summer was very hostile to Cameron; his party was split, with the right-wing baying for his blood (some things don’t change) and Conservative MPs were having a major row about the future of grammar schools.

If there had been a General Election in 2007, then, David Cameron would have been an ex-party leader by the end of that year. One Tory peer, now a minister, told me that he advised Cameron that Summer that ‘it just couldn’t get any worse’.

Fortunately for David Cameron, Gordon Brown as the new Prime Minister squandered the only real opportunity for an election victory that he ever had (the opportunity of being ‘new’). The General Election campaign that had been planned by the Labour Party machine for Autumn 2007 was called off. The Labour team in charge of those preparations must have felt hugely frustrated knowing that with the right approach to a potential General Election from their Leader, Labour would have won a fourth term.

My point is simply that much can change over four years. Anyone who thinks that they can predict with confidence what will happen politically in four years time doesn’t understand history. Those of us who remember dramatic changes in political fortunes between say 1979 and 1981 and between 1981 and 1983 should never make the mistake of making four year forecasts.

The events of Summer 2007 did, however, do much to shape the political scene that we see now. Brown blew it. Cameron got lucky. Ming Campbell stood down. These may be considered to be one-off events. They remind us of Harold MacMillan’s advice that the future is not inevitable but is shaped ‘by events’. Who knows what events may shape the next four years?

But for Liberal Democrats wanting to make a success of the next four years, we have to learn what we can from past events. They tell us that the difficulties of coalition were almost entirely predictable. Those of us who can remember the ‘Lib-Lab Pact’ of the 70s are well aware of the damage to our opinion poll ratings when many people perceive us as ‘siding with one or other of our main rivals’.

It is perhaps easy these days to forget that there were times when we were seen as being far too close to Tony Blair’s ‘New’ Labour. People who now forecast our doom forget that, in December 1996, we were at 9.5% in an opinion poll just six months before the 1997 General Election, and that we seemed to be saying little different to Labour.

What got the party out of these difficulties must be studied carefully.

We were still in great difficulty at the start of the 1997 General Election (11% in the polls). But during the campaign we were able to establish clear differences with both other parties and we were able to do so on issues that were the major concerns of the voters — as opposed to the historically important concerns that inspired many of us join the party. We made plain our differences with both other parties on issues like crime, health and education, and said rather less about electoral reform. More importantly, we were able to relate key messages on those issues to the constituencies that we represented, or had a serious chance of representing.

Constituency based polling that I was undertaking at the time was most helpful to this process. It showed how Lib Dems could potentially defy a national trend with the right approach with their local communities. We were squeezed nationally by the clamour to get rid of John Major, but still added 6% to our poll ratings during the course of the national campaign (and finished just 1% down compared to 1992). But more significantly, our number of MPs more than doubled from 18 to 46.

This didn’t happen by chance and nor did subsequent increases in our number of MPs and electoral successes at different levels. The task now for Liberal Democrats is to look again at the lessons of our history and learn from them.

* Chris Rennard was the Liberal Democrats Director of Campaigns & Elections from 1989 to 2003 and Chief Executive 2003 – 2009. He was in charge of the party’s target seat campaign in 1997 when the party more than doubled its number of MPs. He is now a Liberal Democrat peer.

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22 Comments

  • Great article. Something a lot of people need to read and consider before predicting the political future. Some things may seem predictable but we have no idea what is around the corner.

  • Chris, I agree we need to learn from history but surely the party we should be looking at is the SNP. I was looking at the Scottish election results from 1959 looking for where the Tories vote went. What is interesting is that in 66, 70, 74f elections they doubled their vote share and in 74o added an extra 9% to vote share, while we were stuck in the teens. The SNP went from 0.8% in 59 to 30.4% in the october 74 in Scotland.
    Again in the 07 Scottish election, it was an election they only just won and again in the 11 election they managed to gain a majority under a system that is not designed to give majority parliaments.
    Surely we should be trying to learn what they did, and how we can replicate it and apply it nationally. I doubt it was just their policies that won Scotland over.
    I know in my constituency, LDs and SNP started campaigning at the same time or at least stood candidates at the same time yet the SNP are must closer to unseating the Tory from second and Labour from 1st(for Westminster), they almost unseated the Tory MSP in May and leapfrogged Labour into second. The LDs are almost nowhere to be seen.

  • my recollection of the Ealing Southall By election was that the tory candidate was brought down by a photograph of him donating money to the Labour party and shaking hands with Tony Blair. He ended up confusing the electorate by looking like an opportunist and being closely associated with something that people found repellant. I think there is a lesson to be learned here if our MPs would only look at it.

  • One big difference between the Lib-Lab Pact and today is that clearly we got nothing at all out of propping up a failed Labour Govt – except for blame for doing so. Another difference is that today our bigger successes may well be negatives – ie: things that we’ve stopped the Tories from doing. Selling negatives positively on the doorstep may be a challenge, but must be infinitely better than selling nothing!

    The SNP do offer lessons, but I’m not sure that yet the LDs in govt are either ready or willing to listen.

  • Tony Dawson 22nd Aug '11 - 2:40pm

    This is an excellent article by Chris.

    A paradox is that if anyone were to make detailed positive proposals which would be effective in helping to turn around the Lib Dems’ fortunes here then, given that it is in a public forum, opposition teams might take these on board and work out strategies for dealing with them. I would encourage Party members to carry on the discussion within the members’ forum only. Not here.

  • John – good point, and frankly some of the things which we can tangibly point to successes in are things that the average voter has very little interest in (constitutional reform and the like.) And where we’ve tried blowing the trumpet on our ideas, they’ve actually had a directly negative effect on some of our stronghold areas (the oil tax in NE Scotland, for example.) What we actually need is some more Lib Dem policy implemented where we can say “look, that was because of us” – but frankly I can’t see anything which falls into this category (in Scotland, at least.)

  • Jonathan Hunt 22nd Aug '11 - 11:03pm

    If we do try to learn the lessons of history, as Chris Rennard urges us to, we will find that whenever we have been involved in a coalition, our party has always come out worse at the subsequent general election.

    Indeed, most junior partners have. The only party that actually won was Labour in 1945. That was because it promised the most radical, redistributive, left-leaning programme since the Liberal government in 1906.

    Labour’s leaders, like Lloyd George and Asquith, were guided by principle that believed ordinary people who had lived through, fought and won a momentous war deserved a reward. They also saw that it gelled with popular sentiment. Just saying me-too, we were part of it, would have been electoral disaster.

    One thing we can predict with certainty is that should our party go into the 2015 election saying please sir, we were part of it, however succesful the colaition may be, is doomed.

    The single lesson of history we have to learn is that after five years of austerity and falling living standards, voters will want something better. That is why we must develop a programme of radical, redistributive, left-leaning ideas that will offer electors what they want.

    And all the more so of, after a double dip this year or next, the economy suffers a triple tumble before 2015, as seems quite possible. Time is running out, The party should at work on devising those policies now.

  • hmmmm have seen the most dramatic drop in their vote since the early 20th century and it cant be blamed on low public profile. tell yourself it’ll all be okay but then youll never even attempt to regain the vast numbers of voters you have lost. losing the ealing south by election is small fodder compared to the troubles of the liberals at present

  • Daniel Henry 23rd Aug '11 - 2:16am

    What Jonathan said.
    We need an exciting reforming vision to present to the public in 2015.

    In the meantime, the more successes we can claim in government the better.

  • Nick(not Clegg) 23rd Aug '11 - 8:54am

    An excellent exercise in whistling in the dark.

    The main thesis seems to be that no-one can predict the future, so that predictions of electoral disaster are likely to be wrong. The second half of that statement is a complete non-sequitur. The same would apply, of course, to predictions of a miraculous recovery: except that such an outcome is far less probable.

  • Nick (not Clegg) should read Chris’s piece again.
    He is NOT only saying ‘no-one can predict the future’, merely re-iterating the old Wilson line about a week being a long time in politics! He is also saying that we have never succeeded with just a national swing, as some of us who remember the heady days of high poll ratings in the early 70s and 80s know only too well.
    Chris highlights one key lesson, that local work and campaigning can buck the national trend, but he denies the reality that this ‘target seat strategy’ had already hit its glass ceiling by 2005.
    Chris also neglects to mention that after 1997 (especially post-Iraq) and by 2005 we were starting to have a narrative which appealed to a number of sections of society, and not just in localised pockets. For instance university towns and cities, those with post GCSE qualifications, public sector workers, and second generation Asian voters. Tuition fees have hit the first two, Danny Alexander appears to have declared war on public sector workers, and Asian voters have slid back to Labour (and in some cases the Tories). Simon Titley has highlighted this ‘narrative deficit’ in an article in the current issue of Liberator, and we need to think seriously about our overall message and offer, not just get obsessed with the media or manifesto details.

    As Chris implies says we can recover by 2015, but some of us face local elections in the three years prior to then, so the fightback can’t wait. Local by elections since May show we can hold seats and make gains, so we need to work out how we can build the recovery across the country for next May.

  • Tony Dawson 23rd Aug '11 - 1:49pm

    Robert Adamson says:

    “Let’s trust our MP’s, MEP’s, Pers, Assembly Members and so on and assume they are doing the best they can to create and influence decisions based on our shared values and principles!”

    Why should we do this across the board? Some are doing a good job, some mediocre and some are downright appalling. The effects of this last group have grossly-damaged the party as a whole. If we allow them to continue in their ’emperor’s new clothes bought off Cameron’s market stall’ way, they will continue to do more damage.

    Chris’ main point above is to emphasise how powerfully certain individuals have managed to operate in winning Liberal and Lib Dem seats despite what has been happening nationally, and that doing good work locally does not always pay off but it does so a lot more than for those who do not do good work locally.

  • Patrick Smith 27th Aug '11 - 10:30am

    I believe in this analysis by Chris Rennard who is an sage and expert on winning elections over 40 years.He says that the rise and fall factor in British political fortunes is mainly dependent on `events’ and these are always unpredictable for any government or governing party.But that said the post boundary changes in Oct.2011 development and rebuilding of `grass-roots’ membership and new alignment of local Liberal Democrat branches remains crucial.Local L/D group resilience and activity level is the local battering ram to defeat Labour and Tories when all Elections are fought.

    Anyone who travels North of the Watford Gap will note that the Tories are irrevocably unpoplular, especially in cities like Liverpool and Newcastle and Sheffield and in all of Scotland offer no solution or know-how or listening skills to the worst off families on their issues..

    The task is for L/D`s to regroup and reconnect with the electoral working class aspirations in much of the UK and recover lost ground by offering a real alternative through compassionate concern for local issues on health and education and a sound record on human fairness in government.

    I remain optimistic that the Liberal Democrats can shape policy under the DPM and respond to events that could well benefit all candidates electorally over and in 4 years time.

  • Steve Comer says that Chris. . .

    “he denies the reality that this ‘target seat strategy’ had already hit its glass ceiling by 2005.”

    I dispute this assertion. The variation in performance between different Lib Dem seats in 2010 shows primarily the effect of different teams on the ground doing different things in different ways, some with more central assistance than others. The biggest difficulty for target seats, however, is the fact that we are in shared government. However good they are, LibDem MPs and candidates cannot discount the view of some significant sector of the public that our role in government, and that of specific MPs in the governing team, has been ‘net negative’.

  • Chris looks back and seems to draw comfort from the past with a conclusion that ‘if we continue to do what we are already doing’ then things can only get better. There are a number of problems with that. First we are loosing members and support at such a rate that by the time the tide changes there will too small a workforce to take advantage of it. Second this is not a strategy that will attract the young. The average age of our membership grows every year. Lastly things do not always get better. The Torys ran Scotland for generations. 30 years of decline has resulted in them being down to one M.P. We do not want to join them as being irrelevant to the lives of the people of Scotland.

  • A very interesting article and interesting thread. I fully agree that much may happen between now and 2015 but for me the most important task at the moment is to revitalise our activists. This is very much the job of the leadership who I hope recognise that many of us feel that the coalition has not upheld many of our principles. Our ministers must determinably resist anymore attacks on the most vulnerable in our society, the poor, the disabled and the elderly. The fairness agenda must really be that and the electorate must know it is because of us.

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