Our starters for 2009 – how did we do? (Part II)

A year ago, Lib Dem Voice posed 10 questions, the answers to which we believed might shape the Lib Dem year – time to revisit them, wethinks. To read Part I dealing with Qs 1-5, click here.

6. Will Nick Clegg more fully establish himself as party leader, recognised both by the public and media as someone to be listened to?

Even Nick’s fiercest critics, inside and outside the party, would have to admit that the Lib Dem leader enjoyed a pretty good 2009. First, Nick found an issue that he was able to make his own – justice for the British Gurkhas – and then he raised its profile at Prime Minister’s Questions to devastating effect, before leading a Parliamentary defeat of the Government with Tory support. Perhaps even more important than the public perception of Nick’s role was the media perception: this was the moment they realised Nick was a political figure to take notice of. There has been little mocking of Nick since, and far fewer suggestions that the party was foolish not to pick Vince.

Nick also performed well as leader on the story of the year, MPs’ expenses, acting swiftly to ensure both the public and Parliamentary party realised that he ‘got it’, that he understood voters’ disgust at MPs approving extravagent expenses for themselves which – in the case of Labour and Tory MPs ‘flipping’ their homes to avoid capital gains tax and claiming ‘phantom’ mortgages – teetered on the illegal. Nick also led the way in calling for the House of Commons Speaker Michael Martin to quit, following his botched handling of the issue.

Nick’s personal poll ratings have been considerably boosted as a result. This time last year, Nick’s personal net satisfaction ratings, as measured by YouGov and Mori (which use different question wording, producing different results for each of the main party leaders), stood at -6% and +7% respectively. Spool forward 12 months, and both companies give Nick positive ratings, +15% and +13%. In each case, that’s better than David Cameron’s personal ratings.

7. Will the Lib Dem Spring 2009 conference decide to scrap the party’s current policy of abolishing university tuition fees?

Ah, tuition fees. Just a week into January, and it looked as if this question might become redundant, after the Lib Dems’ Federal Policy Committee voted 14 to 5 to keep the party’s policy to scrap university tuition fees. As a result, there was no vote on the issue at the spring conference. But, as we all know, the party leadership did not leave it there.

On the eve of the autumn conference, Nick decided to go a little off-piste, and raise the prospect of the Lib Dems back-tracking, much to the chagrin of many party activists. After a bit of a row, the party decided in December to phase in the abolition of tuition fees by 2015.

It was, to be blunt, a rather unhappy and messy way to come full circle. (And, for the record, I still think the party is focusing on the wrong barriers to educational equality.)

8. Will Tavish Scott re-establish the Lib Dems as a major force in Scottish politics, vying with Labour and the SNP?

It’s been a busy and at times difficult year for Tavish. In February, he leveraged the Lib Dems’ voting power to wring extra concessions from the SNP minority administration before a budget could be set. Meanwhile Tavish continues to take a firm line that the Scottish Lib Dems will not back a referendum on independence, a policy supported by the party’s Scottish members.

The party’s poll ratings north of the border continue to disappoint, though, with both the Lib Dems and Tories seemingly squeezed as Labour and the SNP tussle for power. In the only real electoral test in Scotland, the Glasgow North East by-election, the party finished with a disappointing 474 votes. Fraser Macpherson’s assessment struck a realistically upbeat note:

Our priority must be to hold our current 12 Scottish Westminster seats and if that is achieved – and further gains are possible – there’s a good chance we’ll be second in terms of Scottish seats at Westminster after the General Election.

9. Will Kirsty Williams revitalise the Welsh Lib Dems, and establish herself and the party as the major opposition to Labour and Plaid?

A work in progress, seems the fairest summary of Year 1 of Kirsty’s leadership. The party suffered the disappointment in June of not achieving their target of electing a Welsh Lib Dem to the European Parliament; though the constituency breakdowns showed the party continuing to poll well in its strongholds (Cardiff, Newport, Swansea, Ceredigion).

Kirsty herself has said that her greatest achievement of 2009 was to ensure the six-strong Welsh Assembly group becomes a cohesive, performing bloc. There is little polling data to indicate how the party is doing, though a poll in October indicated the Welsh Lib Dems’ support has dropped since the 2005 general election, at 12% (down from 18%).

10. Who will be crowned Lib Dem Blogger of the Year in 2009? And will we have to set up a new award for Twitterer of the Year?

The pseudonymous ‘Costigan Quist’, who dwelled permanently at his Himmelgarten Cafe blog, took the main prize at this Blog of the Year awards – and promptly closed down his gaff, lending further credence to the alleged ‘Curse of the BOTYs’. Mark Thompson (of Mark Reckons fame) won the best new blogger award, not least thanks to his seminal post proving a statistical link between MPs with safe seats and the likelihood of their being implicated in the MPs’ expenses scandal.

We didn’t – quite – launch a new award for Twitterer of the Year, but the winner of of our award for ‘Best use of blogging/social networking/e-campaigning by a Liberal Democrat’ was indeed Jo Swinson MP for her live-tweeting from Parliament, plus engaging with the public through Facebook and her website.

The essential Lib Dem Blogs Aggregator listed 176 active blogs at the end of 2008; we finish this year with 226 blogs. Some have disappeared, or at least gone into abeyance; others have been started afresh or re-invigorated. All are welcome at the blogging party.

And what of Lib Dem Voice itself? Well, in the final month of 2008 we welcomed over 19,000 ‘absolute unique’ readers; in the final month of 2009, we’ve been read by over 25,000 of you so far. We loook forward to seeing you back here in 2010.

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6 Comments

  • Matthew Huntbach 31st Dec '09 - 8:56am


    Even Nick’s fiercest critics, inside and outside the party, would have to admit that the Lib Dem leader enjoyed a pretty good 2009.

    Sorry, no, I don’t admit this at all. We have a government which is despised, the main opposition party is disliked and many people are only going for it because the think the government is so bad. It is patently clear that much of what the politicians from those two parties have been telling us – for 30 years in the case of the opposition, for 12 in the case of the government – has been complete rubbish, and the downside of the policies they have put this country through, even those that looked good at the time, is now stark-staringly obvious. Yet we are gaining very little from this – we’re bumbling about in the opinion polls where we were before Mr Clegg became leader and before the economic crisis. Very few peopel are thiking “Ah, yes – the Liberal Democrats have the solutiobns the other parties lack”.

    Mr Clegg has made error after error in judgment. He has not shown that huge communicative power we were promised when he wasa put forward to us as the obvious next leader. The only thing I can think to say in his favour is that he has not made a complete and utter hash of it. He deserves the chance to lead the party into the general election and show what he’s worth.


    First, Nick found an issue that he was able to make his own – justice for the British Gurkhas

    Well, doesn’t that illustrate much that is the problem for the Liberal Democrats? We’re seen as a party which occasionally makes good points about minor issues. Our place is seen as being a tiny party dealing with little things like this rather than a prospective party leadinbg the government.

  • I think this year has demonstrated an unfortunate major success by the Liberal Democrats.

    Since 2005, we have been trying to reposition ourselves from a party of protest votes into a third mainstream party. We’ve all heard Lib Dems stating that the age of two-party politics is over etc. etc. Our vote share may not have increased as a result of this, but it has changed – a lot of the protest voters have drifted away from us, but a lot of our new supporters see us as a credible political force. This is a painful manoeuvre but one which is essential if we’re to grow our support beyond the protest vote.

    With the expenses scandal, this backfired horribly. The 2005 protest-vote Lib Dems would have ridden that wave easily, but the 2009 credible-force Lib Dems were just in place to be written off as one of the “big three” who are “all as bad as each other”. In a way, the amount of (largely undeserved) flak we took over the expenses scandal is the sign of a job well done by our media team at repositioning the party’s narrative!

  • Your appraisal of Tavish Scott is laughably sympathetic. That the Lib Dems are now an irrelevance in Scotland is entirely his doing, and the fact that he got the Scottish party to affirm his bone-headed policies after the damage was already done does nothing to change that.

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Jan '10 - 9:01am

    Dave Page


    Since 2005, we have been trying to reposition ourselves from a party of protest votes into a third mainstream party.

    Since 2005? No, since 1974.

    In 1974 the Liberal Party showed fairly convincingly that it was not a dwindling historical relic by coming back with a share of the vote not dissimilar to that it is getting in the opinion polls today. Fair enough, however, one could say that most of that was “protest vote”, people didn’t like either of the other two parties much, and an analysis of the Liberal vote showed it didn’t really clump around any position and didn’t have any deep commitment. The only slight clumping one could see was working class people in those parts of the country which didn’t have a strong labour-movement tradition were tending in particular to go Liberal – it established a pattern that in significant parts of the country, particularly southern England, politics was Conservative v. Liberal rather than Conservative v. Labour.

    The Lib-Lab pact was the first attempt to move from being a “protest vote” to being a third mainstream party – the idea was that supporting a government struggling to get the economy back in shape (which Callaghan’s government was doing then, more successfully than it now gets credit for) was a serious thing to do, whereas bringing it down would be protest. The formation of the SDP was the second attempt – reposition the party by bringing in some Labour big-hitters, and give it a new serious image with a centralised presentation style, centralised policy-making, abandoning all that Liberal Party history by keeping the “Liberal” brand as only used for obscure parts of the country where it might still have some value. The formation of the Social and Liberal Democrats was the third attempt – trying to do exactly the same as what worked (briefly) with the formation of the SDP, and more thoroughly excise the “Liberal” brand which was blamed for our failing to make progress.

    The “project” in which the party would work closely with New Labour was the fourth attempt. The election of Chalres Kennedy as leader with his “serious” SDP background was the fifth attempt. The election of Nick Clegg with his dismissal of “dog whistle appeal to activists” was the sixth.

    A common theme can be seen here, can’t it? But, apart from this, attempting to get the party a serious coherent position seems to me to have been a fairly constant theme, and to suggest, as Dave Page has, that it really wasn’t attempted until 2005 is nonsense. Charles Kennedy actually managed it fairly well, though accidentally, by being a laid-back drunkard meaning other leading members of the party gained a higher profile, and the party was seen more as a team of able people than the one-man band it tended to be seen as (in its national image) previously.

    An analysis of the Liberal Democrat vote now shows it does tend to clump around distinctive positions which are broadly the liberal side of things. This is an advance from the past when it was just “centre”, reflecting the average position of the country becvause it attracted people from all over the place politically. But this clumping of our vote could already be observed as developing well before 2005.

    Where we have failed in particular is to build an image which is both protest and serious. It is possible to have a serious coherent position, and yet clearly be in a position of protest against politics as it is now. We have, perhaps, been too willing to think of “serious” as being “just like the Labour and Conservative parties”, doing things the way they do, Westminster-based, part of the political establishment, oriented around a leader and central party establishment directing downwards rather than ordinary party emmbers getting together and pushing upwards.

    But, as I’ve said, the Gurkha thing, which so many people seem to think is such a mark of success for our party, really does illustrate a thorough “protest” mentality. It’s picking up a little (but perfectly valid) issue and making a big protest about it rather than establishing a big picture position on everything this country faces.

    We could carry on in this manner, and it would be very tempting if we had proportional representation. We could be a small party which sees its job as jumping up and down and making a fuss on little liberal issues. We could get along with a small elite class liberal vote which would be attracted to this. We could be in and out of coalition like the German FDP, our top people getting nice cosy government positions, and occasionally making a fuss form a liberal viewpoint to show what we are there for.

    At the moment it does indeed look like our leadership is aiming us for this role. But I do not think it is inevitably the way we have to go.

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