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.