I don’t know if you noticed, but the elections on May 5th weren’t all that good for the Liberal Democrats. There was that business of the referendum defeat too. In much of the country we got an absolute pasting.
Journalists and non-political friends keep coming up to me with pained expressions, asking if I’m all right, speaking to me as if I’ve just suffered a bereavement. I smile back and tell them to get stuffed – I’m used to 2 things as a Liberal this last 25 years 1) losing stuff 2) not giving up!
So I for one am not prepared to sit around feeling sorry for myself. Not now, when we have the greatest opportunity in the history of our party before us.
There has never been a more important time to be a Liberal Democrat.
People have understandably spent much of the last year looking at opinion polls and worrying. All the talk has been of the supporters who have left us since the last election.
I’d like to make three observations. The first is that despite everything negative that we have been associated with in the last year, 16% of those who voted put a cross in our box this month. That is 8% fewer than at the General Election. Or put another way, only 8% fewer than after the most high profile and positive campaign in the history of our party.
We all knew this particular set of elections would be the hardest for us. We went into government fully aware we would take a huge hit in the short term and we ended up on 16%. All things considered, that’s… well its certainly not the apocalypse that the media seem to think it is. Rumours of our death have indeed been exaggerated.
And while we’re on polls, let’s dispel this myth that Nick Clegg is now deeply unpopular.
Some people are angry with Nick and the party and they have very loud voices. Let’s not mistake that for the settled view of the wider public.
Just two months ago, Ipsos Mori carried out a poll asking people if they liked the various party leaders. Despite everything he’s been through, 40% said they liked Nick Clegg. Granted, it’s one poll and that’s not 40% of people saying they’ll vote for him, but do not believe the doomsayers and vested interests who go to great lengths to talk Nick down.
By the way, Ed Miliband got 36% in that poll.
The second observation is that our biggest collective failure recently – from the grassroots to the cabinet – has been that too many Lib Dems have drifted from the sort of community politics that we have prided ourselves on in the past, or else been too busy to practice it.
For Liberal Democrats community politics must be both tactic and ideology. Without it, we lose the ability to understand what normal people think.
We all run the risk of spending too much time listening to council officers, Special Advisers and civil servants at the expense of getting our hands dirty out there and talking and listening to the people. That’s why we end up slipping on predictable political banana skins and failing to speak the same language as voters.
That’s not to say we aren’t doing great work in local and national government, we are, but we can clearly do much better. This challenge is something completely fixable. All of us need to become born-again community politicians. That must be our mission as a party now.
Third observation: there has been very little thought of the potential voters we could gain over the next four years.
Every Liberal Democrat who has knocked on doors and canvassed for the party over the years knows the biggest reason that people chose not to vote for us was that we were a wasted vote.
Why even consider voting Lib Dem if we were never going to get into power?
Why even pay attention to our policies if they were never going to happen?
Well, we’ve potentially squashed that one.
There are millions of people who could have added to that 24% last May if only they thought it would make a difference.
We have proved we are a serious party. We have proved we can take difficult decisions and act with authority. And those difficult decisions have earned us the right to get a hearing we have never had before.
That hearing lasts four more years. Let’s spend them making our voice heard – a lot better and more intelligently that we have this last 12 months! Let’s spend them showing people we are more competent than Labour, fairer than the Tories and more radical, green, liberal and progressive than both. That is rich electoral ground – let’s lay claim to it.
So there you are: competence, credibility and community politics. There’s a speech in there somewhere…