We have played the waiting game before. It didn’t work in the 1980s, and it won’t work now.
In the 1983 Election, the Alliance reached a high water mark with a 26% vote. But there was discord. The Liberals, who won most seats, felt they should take the lead. The SDP, with their heavyweight experience, saw things differently. Problems grew when Owen took over, refused to collaborate properly, and set out to undermine theAlliancefrom within. A stalemate developed, and a waiting game began.
The Alliance announced to a stunned public that two-headed leadership was the new future. Their slogan “Not Left, Not Right, But Forward” neatly demonstrated a wish to paper over internal differences. Spitting Image mercilessly lampooned us with the “Owen with Steel in his pocket” puppet. The Alliance put on their trusty rose-tinted spectacles and comforted themselves in the belief that a puppet show could not be serious politics. So on we drifted, waiting for something to turn up.
Owen thought his command of the issues would gradually establish his dominance. It did not. The Liberals thought their stronger campaigning would establish their dominance. It did not. Nothing turned up that would break the stalemate.
Finally, we reached the 1987 Election, when we had promised we would finally knock Labour off their perch for good and all. It did not happen. Our disunited campaign fell apart, and we went – Not Forward, But Backward.
Paradoxically, electoral defeat proved liberating. Owen broke free from the Liberal embrace and marched off as undisputed leader of what, sadly for him, became a diminished splinter group. Meanwhile, SDP advocates of Alliance merger like myself, who had been marginalised for years, suddenly found themselves part of an unstoppable movement for change. Of course, it then took many more years to recover from the trauma and damage. The Owenite SDP disappeared, and for a while it looked as if the merged Lib Dems might do likewise.
In hindsight, a showdown was unavoidable. What did we gain by waiting, from 1983 to 1987, before having the showdown? Why on earth did it help us to throw an election away first? Why exactly did we find defeat so liberating? Did we really need the defeat?
I think the answer is that we did indeed use defeat to liberate us. Defeat allowed people to do things which in “peace time” would have been outlawed as “bad behaviou r”. In peacetime, people felt constrained to maintain the polite fiction that everything is always going swimmingly, and that self-criticism is wrong. Instead, problems should be swept under the carpet, where they will fester and grow.
In other words, we embraced dysfunctional behaviour.
Now, thirty years later, will we do better?
* David Allen is a member of the Rushcliffe Local Party and has been a member of the Lib Dems or its (SDP) predecessor since 1981