After a superb Eastleigh result, many Lib Dems will be rightly patting themselves on the back for what was a mammoth effort under the most difficult of circumstances. Happy memories came flooding back of the time we used to win by-elections. My first was volunteering in Dunfermline, winning a Labour heartland seat with a 16.2% swing.
After an unprecedented beating, the Tories will clearly take a long hard look at themselves – and hopefully draw all the wrong conclusions, as to why they are in such dire straits in the popularity stakes, by lurching to the right. However drawing all the wrong conclusions is not unique to the Conservative party alone – although they are spectacularly good at it.
But drawing the wrong conclusions is exactly why this comment from one of Nick’s senior advisors, quoted in the Financial Times (free registration), concerned me:
This puts to bed any chatter about Nick’s leadership which is now secure until 2015. It’s a complete vindication of his strategy and tactics. We won in the most trying of circumstances.
It is natural to expect a senior advisor to any party leader suffering weak poll ratings to use a by-election win to cement his position in the run up to the 2015 election.
But it is not the right time to shut down debate. This party needs to think long and hard about what is best for its long-term future, not only up to 2015, but beyond. Aside from deeply differing views on how the coalition has been handled as a whole, the Rennard issue, the NHS bill and Secret Courts have all been poorly handled by the party leadership, upsetting many members and voters. And all three are very much still live issues.
The warm glow of a by-election win will encourage some to sweep discontent under the carpet – and others to bite their tongue. But I think we still need some soul-searching debate, especially when you consider that the Eastleigh swing was 19.3% against the Lib Dems. That’s three percentage points more than the swing to the Lib Dems that gained us Dunfermline.
All Liberal Democrats appreciate the tough, sometimes impossible job Nick has taken in entering into coalition and bearing the brunt from a vitriolic right wing press. He deserves credit for a number of wins that probably would not have come without coalition: raising the income tax threshold, shared parental leave and gay marriage, in particular. Both classical and social liberals can celebrate these. But the situation is much more complex than trumpeting individual policy wins.
At the risk of sounding like a killjoy, which I really do not want to do, I do think it is important that debate on our direction must be had, while we are far enough out from a general election. But we should not just assume the debate is over. It is only just beginning. With all the talk of tough decisions in coalition, Liberal Democrats need to make the tough decisions to ensure what is best for the party in 2015 and beyond.
* Andy May has been a Liberal Democrat member for 10 years and was a constituency organiser in Dorset between 2006-2008. He is currently a member of Hackney Liberal Democrats.