As we see disarray in so many aspects of public life, do the Lib Dems need to ask themselves some very tough questions?

As I read the news, probably like you, I am astonished at the almost unending stream of bad news in the UK – before we even get to Brexit.

Over just the past few weeks we’ve seen debilitating and potentially life-threatening patient logjams in A&E Departments, not to mention non-urgent surgery being cancelled across the NHS in England during January. Rail transport is becoming dire with constant delays for commuters, despite rail fares in the UK being amongst the highest in the world. And what of crime? Law and order may not always have been a top policy priority for the Lib Dems, but Caroline Pidgeon has done much to highlight knife crime in the capital over the past couple of years; nonetheless there were a staggering 80 fatal stabbings in London last year.

Random, incomprehensible, inequalities also abound across the UK. Why is it in England that students pay tuition fees, when in Scotland no such fees apply? Also, how can it be that students are having to repay their loans at extortionate 6% interest rates? There are also no prescription charges in Scotland and Wales, only in England. How can that be right and fair? Don’t get me wrong, I am neither in favour of tuition fees or prescription charges, but it’s the blatant lack of a level playing field in different parts of the UK which is astonishing.

Other stories continue to paint the picture of a society in a state of degeneration: just one such item caught my eye in the Guardian this week: educational support for England’s 45,000 deaf children is reported to be “in complete disarray” by the National Deaf Children’s Society with a dwindling number of specialist teachers in mainstream schools. Such losses of essential services point to a degradation of our public life and values. The inhumane conditions in some prisons, reflected in high prisoner suicide rates, is another example of decline and disarray in the public sector. On and on it goes.

With such mounting bad news and the Government’s faltering and chaotic handling of Brexit, one would expect the population to be up in arms. How can it be then, that the Lib Dems are still at only 7% in the polls? A recent You Gov poll on 11th December put the Tories on 42 per cent, Labour on 41 per cent – and the Lib Dems on 7%. I know we have had some recent local lection gains, but these figures are still fairly incomprehensible. Can it really be that six times more people want to vote Tory than Lib Dem, with all that is going on?

Is it because we don’t have the policies – or because we are not getting our message across? I’m no political expert, but my suspicion is that it is not more media attention we need (although that would be good!) – but a clearer and stronger policy identity that people can understand and relate to. Like them or not, people know what the Tories and Labour stand for – the same still cannot really be said of the Lib Dems. To retain anything like a compassionate and decent society, we have to develop a USP, a brand, which acknowledges and reflects the priorities of the average person in the street.

* Judy Abel has worked in the health policy field for around 15 years, including at the British Medical Association, for the All-Party Parliamentary Health Group, and in policy roles at Asthma UK, the Neurological Alliance and Versus Arthritis until the end of 2021. She was also the Constituency Office Manager and Senior Caseworker for former Lib Dem MP, Sir Simon Hughes from 2012 to 2014. All views are her own.

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  • David Becket 12th Jan '18 - 4:48pm

    The first thing we can do is to stop raking up the past and engaging in convoluted discussions about our former leaders. In the last few days a total of 101 comments on Tim Farron and his beliefs and 3 on Robin Teverson’s article on plastic waste (and one of those was mine)
    Plastic waste is a major issue affecting our lives and environment, Tim’s views are mainly of interest to those who wish to harm us.
    Stop discussing trivia, stop analysing in depth the past and get down to the real issues of now.

  • Paul Weaver 12th Jan '18 - 5:05pm

    No students pay tuition fees. Unlike under Labour’s first scheme – where if you didn’t pay your fees in the first week of September, you didn’t get to do the course, today the only students paying fees are those who want to.

    Some graduates pay tuition fees and are affected by higher-than-inflation interest rates on cost of living loans, but these are graduates earning a lot of money.

    I can’t post a long enough comment to show working, but its at

    Inflation linked interest, coupled with zero tuition fees, gives someone earning an average £32k in 2018 pounds – 20% above average for full time workers – a £4,000 (in 2018 pounds) tax break when they reach about 50 years old.

    In summary, reducing interest rates and offering free tuition are tax breaks for middle aged high earners. As a middle aged high earner I’m all for this, but personally I’d rather the money be spent somewhere more useful – like improving the NHS, which is about £20b a year underfunded, and has been for the last 40 years.

  • Judy. I don’t disagree with the need for stronger LD policies. You make that point very well. But you ask why tuition fees and prescription charges are different in different parts of the UK? That’s easy. We have devolved administrations now which are empowered to make their own decisions. That’s a policy that we LibDems believe in – and indeed we helped to make happen. So these are not ‘random, incomprehensible, inequalities.’ They are the natural consequence of devolving power, which is a key Liberal principle. People in Scotland and Wales (using PR incidentally) have voted for progressive parties who have implemented different policies on tuition fees and prescription charges. Unfortunately people in England keep voting Tory, so you get Tory governments and Tory policies. If it’s unfair the answer is to fight for change in England – as we did in Scotland and Wales. Or would you go back to a time when there was no Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly so we all had to live with monolithic FPTP Westminster rule?

  • “Why is it in England that students pay tuition fees, when in Scotland no such fees apply? Also, how can it be that students are having to repay their loans at extortionate 6% interest rates? There are also no prescription charges in Scotland and Wales, only in England. How can that be right and fair?”

    How can a member of the Lib Dems, who champion localism, with decisions being made as close to the people as possible, complain about this?

    There are no tuition fees in Scotland because tuition fees are a devolved matter, and the people of Scotland voted for a government who got rid of tuition fees.

    There are no prescription fees in Scotland or Wales because that is also a devolved mattter, and the people of Scotland and Wales both voted for governments who got rid of prescription fees.

    You can argue whether those were the right decisions, but I am _totally_ in favour of different parts of the country being run differently, according to the will of the people living in each area.

    That’s the liberal approach.

  • The reason some things are different in Wales, England or Scotland is devolution.
    Liberals have always supported devolution.
    What is the point of devolution if you permit no differences?

  • Only point was trying to make really
    was that with public services in such crisis and inequalities across the board why do six time more people want to vote Tory – and Labour – than Lib Dem if poll results to be believed?

  • paul barker 12th Jan '18 - 7:42pm

    To answer the basic question “Why arent we doing better” ? we have to grasp just how little time or energy most Voters devote to thinking about Politics. For people like us its very hard to make that imaginative leap. Its more than simple lack of interest, theres a widespread reluctance to get involved – to the point where many Voters, having done their unpleasant duty last June, feel they deserve a nice, long rest from Politics, a Year at least.
    For most people, nothing much has happened since June so its not surprising that VI Polls havent shifted.
    However if we look below the surface, things have been moving, Polls about Brexit show a definite shift against, the latest puts Remain at 55%.
    Above all, in Local Byelections our support has been a long way from static. Last Year we went up gently to April, fell sharply to July & since then we have been rising again, by at least 2% a Month. Currently we are around 22%, 3 times our National Polling which I believe will start to catch up soon. If we can do well in May then the Media & the Voters will sit up & begin to take notice of us again.

  • Arnold Kiel 12th Jan '18 - 7:57pm

    Brexit is a disaster because it compounds an already disastrous situation caused by the absence of a valid national business model. If a large proportion of the population, and large areas of the country , are unproductive and add little economic value, decent living standards for everyone are unaffordable. Decaying healthcare is just one symptom.

    The conservatives acknowledge this, and pursue Brexit to effectively disenfranchise the unproductive 80% of Britons. Labour wants to fight this by sharing wealth the country does not generate. The Tory way will run its course until the next GE, and then Labour will take over, probably for several terms.

    A small party is functionless, unless in coalition, especially in a FPTP-system. As it will be Labour’s turn, a coalition with them is the only platform for promoting LibDem policies in practice. The sooner the party announces this direction, the more moderate votes it can win, in order to temper Corbyn and McDonnell. This is the party’s role, if it wants one. A pledge not to go in coalition is a pledge to be obsolete.

  • The problem is too many people believe “We can do more with less, and eventually we can do everything with nothing”, the truth is “You get what you pay for” and until the mindset of the population changes we will struggle. We need to get away from the cost defining everything and accept you have to pay for good services, good education and if you don’t, don’t be surprised if people are uneducated and services fail.

    I suppose you could sum it up as “The something for nothing society”, the problem is the something you get smells bad and tastes worse (especially when the bread round it is thinner than paper).

  • I believe in localism on most things, but I also believe in fairness and equality. You could say these things don’t matter – Government clearly does – but I don’t see why this level of inequality is acceptable. Some things should be determined nationally particularly where they allow for the free movement of young people. EU citizens studying in Scotland don’t pay fees, only English students. How can this really be defended? We are capitulating with injustice if we say this is fine. In Germany the Lander have a lot of autonomy, but there are no fees anywhere in Germany. We drew the autonomy line in the wrong place on this – also on prescriptions and personal care. Maybe the real problem is our Givernment doesn’t care about the people in the way Nicola Sturgeon does ; she fights for the wellbeing of the Scots people aling the lines of the Scandinavian model.

    Our stance on tuition fees almost destroyed the party so we should also be a bit careful about defending it too vigorously.

  • @frankie Couldn’t agree more but Labour are at 40% in the polls even though they want to raise taxes. No one is listening to us. I’m trying to work out why.

  • nvelope2003 12th Jan '18 - 9:11pm

    Arnold Kiel: You may be right but the problem for the Liberals is that on every single occasion that they joined in a coalition or even gave support to another party they were destroyed – in1929 for decades. Why would they want to repeat that ?

  • David Cameron and now Theresa may following him only speak about Wales in Westminster when attacking labours record over the NHS (Cameron suggesting Offa’s dyke is the difference between life and death), the Tories made the idea of Scotland having a greater say over direction of the UK equilavent to the bogey man which scared many English voters into voting Tory, and who had any idea about northern Ireland before the dup hired themselves out to the expense of the rest of the UK. The lib Dems support the UK but perhaps the usp could be redefining the UK to promote greater equality where there is too great a focus on England? Especially as brexit will hit Celtic nations greater than the majority of England?

  • @ Judy Abel “Our stance on tuition fees almost destroyed the party so we should also be a bit careful about defending it too vigorously.”

    Yes, – but it’s more than just that, Judy. It’s a combination of lack of trust and folk remembering some of the stuff they went along with such as the bedroom tax, the so called welfare reforms resulting in PIP, Universal Credit, the NHS “reforms”, the public sector pay freeze and all the other mean spirited ‘austerity stuff’ that is counter-intuitive to anyone who has a shred of understanding of Beveridge and Keynes in their blood.

    93% of the electorate can’ t be written off as both illiberal and lacking in judgement and intelligence. I don’t believe the party will get anywhere – indeed it may well expire – until the day Vince (or whoever) finally says “Mea Culpa” – We got it wrong.

  • ‘No one is listening to us. I’m trying to work out why’. You said it yourself in another post, when you said ‘Tuition fees nearly destroyed us.’
    The 7% trough we are in now is a direct result of the coalition years and the way the party was led in that period. From 2010-15 the leadership (all of whom were ministers) believed that people are basically fair-minded and so if we delivered some good policies in government the voters and the media would give us credit for that and forgive us the compromises. It was a hopelessly naïve strategy. Also, our communications at that time were abysmal: we never made any serious attempts to tell people what we had achieved, or to distance ourselves from the Tories. If you don’t believe me, do a quick poll of your friends and family: ask them to name 3 things the LDs achieved in the coalition…. and listen to the perfect silence! As Paul Barker says, voters spend hardly any time thinking about politics at that kind of granular level. So most people just think we abandoned our principles, U-turned on tuition fees, and that’s all there is to it. Frankly, the fact we are not being listened to is hardly surprising!
    I’ve said many times on here that we have to go through a period of purgatory for the coalition. It may be 10 or 15 years or more before people really start to take us seriously again. That’s gloomy I know. But the bright side is that we are – very slowly – starting to break through and make progress in our heavily targeted areas, and that is how we must keep going. Also yes, as you say, developing some good solid policies on the big issues that matter. (But not abandoning our commitment to devolution!!)
    We screwed up in 2010-15. Our natural supporters felt burned and betrayed. We can’t just expect them to come straight back to us. It’ll take time. More than 3 years.

  • Regional devolution is good, but to create fairness on a per capita basis, it is well past time to scrap the Barnett formula?

  • Katharine Pindar 12th Jan '18 - 11:40pm

    Helpful article, Judy, and I think you are right to want ‘a clearer and stronger policy identity’ for us (I’m assuming you are a member), though I oppose any attempt to employ the marketing term of ‘branding’ . It seems to me we shall need to use the Spring Conference to define the strong economic and industrial strategy that we favour, our priorities of reducing inequality and poverty especially child poverty, and our aims to provide sufficient resources for health and social care, education, and social housing. We need to refresh our environmental focus, and our commitment to devolution, including empowering the poorer English regions. With a defined platform we can campaign confidently in the May elections, at the same time energising our voters to add their voices to the national movement to stop Brexit.

    I am not especially worried at the 7% continuing poll rating, because the voters haven’t yet been given sufficient reasons to change, as Paul Barker says. Arnold Kiel, though I usually agree with your standpoint, I think you are too absolute in counting 80% of Britons as unproductive, and I can see no benefit to our party, unlike Mrs Merkel’s, in declaring for coalition with any other party at this stage. We have much more that is productive to undertake in this crucial year.

  • Andrew Melmoth 13th Jan '18 - 1:39am

    People who think it a terrible injustice that English students attending Scottish universities have to pay fees seem to forget that Scottish students attending English universities also have to pay fees.

  • Malcolm Todd 13th Jan '18 - 1:43am

    Do you only believe in devolution when it produces policies you want? Because that’s not the point of it.
    Sheila Gee
    Can you actually explain the Barnett formula? Do you know how it works?

  • The basic problem is that what is loosely called Left/progressive politics in England became very technocratic. Thus the electorate came to be seen as part of the mechanism rather than voters who expected to be represented. For the LDs the purpose of the coalition was to offer political stability and the job of the electorate was to endorse it. However, the disproportionate number of students, disabled, public sector workers and so on who voted Lib Dem did not see themselves as partners in a political enterprise. This technocratic thinking still continues in “centrist” politics and is why there’s much stuff about populism.
    The reason Scotland has no tuition fees and free prescription is because the MPs represent their voters better and the English establishment fears the break-up of the union. They in short are suitably scared of losing. Voters are not partners or a part of amechanism. They are closer to customers and if you do not please your customers they take their custom elsewhere.

  • William Fowler 13th Jan '18 - 8:46am

    The more money spent on public services the worse things become! Outrageous, I know, but that seems to be what is happening in the UK. Labour’s solution is another million govn employees, 99 percent totally unproductive and paid for either by bankrupting the country or overtaxing the few remaining productive industries who mostly already have overseas offshoots where they can make all the profits disappear into the ether of Swiss bank accounts if it becomes necessary due to high taxes. If a Tory Brexit actually works we will end up a low tax country with free trade around the world with a slimmed down govn that will make Labour politicians weep but leave the working population with more money in their pockets and endless possibilities of wealth creation (or at least the illusion of it)… if it doesn’t work and Labour gets in it will be a total mess of intrusive govn/council employees and very high tax takes from normal working people (everyone else will have done a disappearing act). Enjoy!

  • Arnold Kiel 13th Jan '18 - 9:36am


    I have no qualified opinion of the LibDem’s varying fate since 2010, but I can offer a German analogy: our small FDP was always viewed as an add-on, i.e. a corrective factor, and its success largely depended on how much correction to the prevailing political direction the electorate wished. 2015, the Torys seemed non-toxic, and Miliband was unelectable; there was not much desire for correction. For 2017, I cannot add new insights. Next time, I could imagine that, just like 2010, people will have had enough of the current Government, but are apprehensive about the alternative. Qualified support for the alternative could be a successful formula. This time, by forcing another referendum or an outright remain-decision, a corrective LibDem-influence would be beyond doubt.

    Katharine Pindar,

    Jeremy Corbyn would subscribe to most of your policy-proposals, but he can campaign for these things as the original. Nobody would perceive a need to vote LibDem for these; to the contrary: giving the seat to Labour is safer than support a 3-party play.

    Less than 50% of the UK population are in the active workforce, more than 60% of them have an after-tax income of less than GBP 25,000 p.a. The median income of this group (at the 30% point) is around 15.000. Therefore, 80% of people achieve a household income at or below subsistence-level and/or live from some kind of social transfer and/or accumulated wealth.

  • @Malcolm Localism only works on this scale when those who decide to provide a certain benefit such as free higher education also broadly pay for it – much as I love Scotland! It’s about fairness. Also we still are one country – just about – so things such as access to health and higher education benefits should be the same across the UK in my view.

    @David. I agree, trust is everything. “93% of the electorate can’ t be written off as both illiberal and lacking in judgement and intelligence”: exactly. So we both have to apologise for our role in austerity and mean it – and present our policies in a way that makes sense and appeals to the electorate.

    @Katherine. A member for the past two years, but need to renew! I agree branding is a rather ugly concept for a political party which should be about ideas, but I still think people struggle with the idea of what the Lib Dems stand for, apart from being liberal on things like drug laws. To put it very simplistically, If I produce a good product, but my competitor down the road sells six times more of the product than me, I would try to do something radical about my design and packaging!

    @TonyH Yes you are right. It takes a long time for people who feel betrayed to put their trust in the same institution/organisation again, but 10-15 years is a long time. With perhaps a leader who wasn’t part of the Coalition – a new MP since 2015 – and a more upbeat, positive message, I think people would forgive more quickly. Looking at public services now, people are desperate for something better – especially if they are personally affected by the health, transport, social care situation.

  • @Andrew. Also, £ 9,250 a year for 24 weeks of lectures with say 5/6 hours of contact time a week (common for humanities subjects) amounts to around £70/80 a lecture. That is a complete rip off.

  • I don’t see the issue with Scotland dropping tuition fees. All the English need to do is to only vote for MP’s who pledge to vote against raising them and work toward scrapping them altogether. Because politicians always keep their pledges. I mean it’s not like someone who signed such a pledge would engineer tripling them and then be rewarded with the Leadership of his party is it…..

    Apologies for the irony, but some still don’t get that the single issue that has destroyed trust in the Lib Dem’s will not be overcome all the time those that broke the trust are no longer the face of the Party.

    Tim’s most recent, and entirely avoidable revelations will not help either.

  • Why is it in England that students pay tuition fees, when in Scotland no such fees apply?

    Putting to one side Paul Weaver’s comment, this is one of those things I don’t really understand. Yes, this matter was devolved, however Scotland, like England is in the UK and hence in the EU and thus subject to the rules of the EU… Hence someone needs to explain how Scotland (and other devolved assemblies) can have policies that discriminate against EU citizens that happen to be resident in England.

  • @ Exactly my view Roland but you said it better than me!

  • @ Glenn – agree Scottish MPs represent their constituents better. They actually care about them – they like them. I don’t get the impression that politicians in England, certainly those in Government, like us or care about our wellbeing. We are just problems to be solved – preferably as cheaply as possible.

  • “Why is it in England that students pay tuition fees, when in Scotland no such fees apply?”

    Because the Scottish Government stuck to a policy that the Lib Dems abandoned when in Coalition.

  • Sue Sutherland 13th Jan '18 - 12:10pm

    I think Judy has raised a valid point about the problem with devolution. It does result in inequalities. As someone who supports devolving as much power as possible to the smallest possible unit, I think we should be considering how to ameliorate this. Voters can be told more about what’s on offer in other areas and there could be a best practice unit to offer advice, for example. I don’t think we should just accept inequality as the price of localism.

  • Judy, the reason we are have been stuck at 7% for a long time and will be for a long time to come, is because so many of us are totally unwilling to face up to the fact that we had our big chance and we let our party make a total mess of it.

    First we broke promises. That lost us trust. Then we supported the Tories while they turned their fire on the NHS, the young, the poor, our communities and finally our liberties and our values. That cost us our integrity. Then we lost seats hand over fist – in Scotland, in Wales and in local government year after year. That cost us our power and our relevance.

    But no-one in any senior position did a thing. MPs, Lords, MSPs, AMs etc just sat and twiddled their thumbs.

    There were chances to turn it around – 2012 the vote on NHS reforms at Gateshead; 2014 after the EU elections disaster; 2015 a new leader and 2017, another new leader. But every senior figure is still in total denial. They can’t accept that the problems arose because they chose to do nothing about it. ‘It was inevitable’ or ‘You are totally wrong’ they say – Though what is wrong about saying we lost over 2,000 councillors, all but one of our MEPs etc. at a time when our MPs, ministers and leader were in the national showcase.

    I can understand exactly why you say ‘Is it because we don’t have the policies – or because we are not getting our message across …” But the problem to the public isn’t lack of good policy, a poor message or even being wrong on the important issues of the day; but much more fundamentally “You had your chance. You totally let us down and you blew it. What’s changed?”

  • “Sheila Gee – Can you actually explain the Barnett formula? Do you know how it works?”

    Yes I can explain it Malcolm. Thanks for asking.
    I also know that the originator Joel Barnett MP, expected it to be a temporary measure, but after some 39 years, it’s time to scrap it.
    Joel Barnett also recognised that the regional payment levels were being used [abused?], as a kind ransom demand, for the purposes of keeping Scotland ‘sweet’ and a ‘pacifier’ to dissuade Scottish independence.

    If we had a more equal ‘per capita’ sharing of the ‘financial pie’, then maybe the English portion of the UK could also ‘boast’ zero prescription fees, and zero tuition fees?

    In the article, Judy Abel writes of : “Random, incomprehensible, inequalities”

    Well, the solution as ever, is *money*. Those inequalities can only be ‘levelled’, by new radical policies designed to create a fairer ‘per capita’ share of the financial resources available.

    It is arguable that this resource unfairness is the root of most of society’s ills. I guess, it will also explain, why the political class will be shocked to its core, when we arrive at the doors of a Corbyn government and a McDonnell promised ‘peoples QE’ money machine?
    Occam’s razor tells us that the simplest solution is the best likely path, so, if the present crop of ‘deaf’ politicians only offer a future of yet more unfairness in resource allocation, why would a constantly ignored and forgotten underclass, NOT vote for a ‘people’s money machine’?
    And before you ask, Yes I understand the consequences of a ‘people’s QE money machine’, but that won’t deter ‘the people’ voting for it.

  • Andrew Melmoth 13th Jan '18 - 2:25pm

    I don’t remember people complaining in 2013 about the unfairness of student maintenance grants being abolished for Scottish students while they were still available to English students. The Scottish government’s tuition fees policy has negative consequences for other areas of the budget. For instance spending on secondary education has fallen in Scotland over the last few years while it has remained more or less steady in England. Devolution means different regions choosing different sets of trade-offs.

  • @Sobering comments David and a spot on analysis now you put it that way, so what now? Do we just have to wait until the memories fade?

  • David Evans 13th Jan '18 - 3:28pm

    No Judy, we don’t *have* to wait, but we have to admit it: firstly to ourselves; then among ourselves; and finally (and as part of a coherent strategy for recovery) to the wider world. The problem is that so many of us don’t want to admit it even to ourselves (especially those at the top), and the longer it is left, the easier it is to do nothing. Then we are left with waiting for people to forget, and that will take a long, long time.

    Liberal Democracy is too important to wait in limbo for that long. Indeed I think we would run out of MPs before that happens.

  • @David. Yes it is too important. We were tempted by the opportunity of power – perhaps an easy mistake to make – and then not big enough to say no to much of what we disagreed with. It’s easy to judge / I’m far from perfect!- but it is time for a reckoning. There needs to be a full and honest apology, new policy ideas and a fresh start. My next article, if anyone can bear to read it – will be 10 policy priorities for a better future. Maybe not carved in stone a la Ed Milliband though!

  • “Naught for your comfort”.

    @ David Evans A completely accurate analysis, David . I have repeatedly called for Sir Vincnte Cable to make a public statement of “We got it wrong and understand your anger”…… but he hasn’t.

    It seems to me (after 57 years as a paid up member) there is a collective state of denial by MP’s, Lords, and the party’s “great and good”. Until they acknowledge this the great British public (who aren’t daft) will continue to treat the party as a dissembling joke. The rush for knighthoods and peerages compounded incredulity at the state of things. Sorry folks, but outside the ‘in crowd bubble’ that’s how it is in the real world.

    Whether it be a business, a football club or a political party, unless there is a wish to look reality in the face then ultimate failure and probable extinction is the result. Huddling together with a comfort blanket called denial is the path to extinction.

    People respond to honesty – and that is a commodity in short supply amongst all the self-justification and excuses.

  • @David Raw so much of what you say resonates. We need a new Charles Kennedy. It’s about leadership and vision. Amongst the new MPs I think Wera Hobhouse is excellent. She would probably be horrified if she saw me suggesting her for leader but she’s a new broom. V good Bath MP.

  • @ Judy, I agree with the thrust of what you say about leadership, but sadly I can see no obvious candidate as yet with the wide public appeal that Charles Kennedy had in his best years.

    It’s possible someone may emerge over the next two or three years, but frankly, at the moment. it’s not obvious who has that flair and ability.

  • Peter Watson 13th Jan '18 - 8:07pm

    @Ian Sanderson (RM3) “Because this is an internal UK matter over which Westminster/Whitehall has authority”
    Indeed. I often wondered why, during the Scottish Independence referendum, those opposed to independence didn’t point out that in an independent Scotland, the Scots would have to foot the bill for the tuition fees of all of the English students who might subsequently flock north of the border!

  • @Ian Sanderson (RM3) “Because this is an internal UK matter over which Westminster/Whitehall has authority – ‘control’.”

    Which once again, raises rather serious questions over the ability of Westminster/Whitehall to stand-up and make hard decisions. It doesn’t bode well for a newly ‘Sovereign’ Westminster post-Brexit…

  • I’d be interested to know how many of the leadership who rushed into coalition are no longer members of the Liberal Democrats; I would expect the number to be more than a few.

  • @David Raw I’m probably more of an optimist than a realist! Still as others have said we won’t get far until an honest appraisal is made at the top of the party about mistakes made.

  • Katharine Pindar 13th Jan '18 - 9:23pm

    There is surely a time for introspection and a time for moving forward. I don’t think it will help the party image to be seen deeply criticising past leaders, and even the present leader because of his identification with the Coalition government, and to be observed lamenting over the grave mistakes we have made. Why cannot we focus now on the deplorable nature of the May Government, the shame of having Boris Johnson as Britain’s chief representative abroad, and the doubtful nature of the offers from the Corbyn Opposition?

    Face to face with our activists seeking council seats to serve their public, the voters warm to us again. Our image (not ‘brand’) remains a largely sympathetic one on which we can build. The public will not have the same degree of trust, agreed, but are they meant to trust back-stabbing members of the Tory elite, or likely to forget the failures of Cameron and Osborne? Or to forget how so many Labour MPs fought to keep Jeremy Corbyn out of leadership? There cannot now be much trust for any leading politicians at Westminster, but we can gradually build trust again for our party with its humane, caring, practical outlook and raft of well-thought-out and constructive policies.

  • Despite my criticisms of our coalition policy, I don’t believe the answer is to make a big public ‘mea culpa’ statement. That might satisfy some in here but it wouldn’t move our public support one inch. Don’t forget Nick Clegg did make a public apology for tuition fees, and all it provoked was ridicule.
    The only way to get past the coalition era fallout is to let time pass. Politics moves in cycles. Parties that make mistakes get punished by voters for a while. It happens to all parties: when they screw up, they lose support. But then, after a while, it comes back. We are currently in that phase when people still see us as un-principled and un-trustworthy. That is our own fault – you reap what you sow. There’s no magic wand to getting our support back. We have to work like hell on the ground, and yes a leader who wasn’t part of the coalition would be good (Layla Moran?). Then at some point in the future the other parties will screw up big and 2010 will seem like a long time ago, and the voters will give us another look.

  • Jayne mansfield 13th Jan '18 - 11:54pm

    @ David Raw,
    Despite my eye impediment, I would be out there, canvassing for you as the leader of a party that I would wholeheartedly support.

  • Katharine Pindar 14th Jan '18 - 12:27am

    Tony H. “at some point in the future the other parties will screw up big” – what are you waiting for, Tony, they already have! Often! Just look at the record of each of them in the past three years.

  • @TonyH It is interesting that there are such divided views on the right approach now. Maybe leaders need to take more opportunities in interviews, to say yes we got some things wrong in the Coalition years, but we are heading in a new direction now etc
    @Katherine I agree we shouldn’t be disloyal – although the party itself was very quick to ditch Tim after the last election – but the latest national poll published yesterday put the Lib Dems at 6% in the polls. We do have to try a new approach I think which is where this article started.

  • There was a poll yesterday showing us down to 6% but a different polling company had us up at 9% a couple of days earlier. There’s little point fixating on a percentage up or down here and there, because it falls within the margins of error, and the nature of our support and FPTP means considerable regional swings. What we do know is that our support is fairly static, which could be interpreted all manner of ways, but I think the main one being that, as Paul suggested, the vast majority of the public don’t want to think about politics in the kind of detail that might be expected prior to a real election.

    Apologies have already been made about tuition fees, and I don’t think we’re helping anyone by playing into the opposition narrative of talking about it even more. Rival parties and their activists knowingly mislead on what our role was, and the problems of the current situation. However, there’s no getting away from the fact that the ‘optics’ are bad. This is where the Scottish Government have done well. Being able to claim ‘no tuition fees’ in Scotland has allowed all manner of sins to be swept under the carpet, virtually unnoticed. In order to fund ‘no fees’ for the majority middle class university students, there have been cuts to higher education (more likely to benefit working class students) and the removal of maintenance grants, which again hits those from poorest families. Not to mention that the Scottish Government don’t offer anything like the same reward to universities, so they have had to limit the ‘free’ spaces for Scottish students, which are subsidised by the fee paying English and international ones. When you drill into the figures, more students from poor backgrounds go to university in England and Wales than do in Scotland. So it’s not nearly as progressive as it first appears, but there’s no denying that’s it’s a politically canny move.

    One problem we face is people claiming ‘what’s the point of the LibDems?’ IMO, we need to blow our trumpet that little bit louder about policies which we devised, but others take credit for. Easier said than done of course.

    I like to think that in the longer-term we will benefit from having extra MPs, but most of our new and returning MPs have rightly been establishing themselves in their own constituencies and hopefully shoring up their personal support from their own voters.

  • Thank you for all your comments. It seems as if the consensus view is we need to be far more open and up front about acknowledging past mistakes. This doesn’t necessarily involve being disloyal to the present or past leadership but saying, we as a Party made mistakes and on some things we really let you down. We urgently need to put together a new approach on tuition fees too, based on fairness, equality – and I would add value.

    I do think people are forgiving, although it takes time. The poll tax was eventually forgotten and the Tories re-elected. To speed up the process, I think we probably need a new policy vision looking forwards not back. In a separate article later this month, I’ll outline just some ideas on what might be helpful new policy priorities going forwards given the decline we are seeing in public services. I know the party makes policy so it will just be my thoughts really.

    Have a lovely Sunday all.

  • Peter Watson 14th Jan '18 - 10:38am

    @TonyH “Don’t forget Nick Clegg did make a public apology for tuition fees, and all it provoked was ridicule.”
    Largely because he made such a hash of this.
    As a politician who had already lost the trust of the public, if anything he made matters worse by attempting to draw a line under the issue with such an unclear statement (sorry for breaking a promise or sorry for making it?) and by ignoring what the pledge actually was (individual MPs voting against an increase in fees rather than delivering the Lib Dem policy of scrapping them, a pledge that some kept, some did the opposite and some followed the Coalition Agreement by abstaining). Even the style of delivery was misjudged, with Clegg’s brand of doe-eyed sincerity that had been so compelling in 2010 looking insincere by 2012. The only good thing that came out of the debacle was a brilliantly funny musical video.

    Though perhaps even a clear unambiguous apology for breaking a promise would not have been enough, particularly on the back of an election campaign that promised “no more broken promises” and attacked Labour’s record and Tory plans for tuition fees. As George W. Bush memorably failed to say, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”. It would take a lot for voters to let a politician fool them a second time, and the trust in Clegg (and by association, the party he led) was not there.

  • Peter Watson 14th Jan '18 - 10:50am

    @Fiona “Apologies have already been made about tuition fees, and I don’t think we’re helping anyone by playing into the opposition narrative of talking about it even more.”
    The apologies (was there more than one?) were meaningless.
    But beyond the damage to trust in the party, there are implications about its competence. Having faced so many different ways on the issue in a short period of time, they can’t all have been right!
    A clear and unambiguous position on tuition fees and the funding of tertiary education would only be a good thing, and if that means apologising (clearly and unambiguously) for any previous confusion, then so be it.

  • I’d argue that future apologies would be ‘meaningless’, because the people who complain most about it have no desire to forgive us. This is a convenient stick with which to beat us, and they aren’t going to give it up easily.

    I agree that we need to have a clear policy on the funding of higher and further education, but only because the country needs one, not as some knee-jerk attempt at PR.

    Beyond that, we need to remember that there are a great many issues of importance to the public, and pay attention to those. People living in sub-standard housing or worried about their hip operation being cancelled, again, will find the obsession with student fees irrelevant.

  • Slightly disheartened that the conversation has become about difference between Scotland and England, and largely from an English perspective, thus supporting my earlier comment that there is too great a focus on England within the uk. It would be insulting if yorkshire, for example, was given similar powers to the Celtic nations as it was insulting for nick Clegg not to rebuff Cameron’s comments about Wales during those coalition years of forget the young Welsh people who had voted remain in his speeches after Brexit. All this while the only lib dem in government sits in the Welsh assembly and has to semi-recently point out to national figures and pundits that education is a devolved area. It seems for this topic the lib Dems are, sadly, closer to the Tory party.

    May I highlight that rail developments in England and Wales announced fairly recently were English developments only, or that rail electrification promises are not going to be continued into Wales, or that the Swansea tidal lagoon is at a standstill. Subject for which the lib Dems can use their voice to reduce the inequality that exists within the uk and real concrete policies which would give the party an identity.

  • @Fiina I agree I mentioned fees in my article, but I talked about healthcare, prisons, transport. special needs – all these things. My key theme was declining public services across the board

  • Hi Judy, sorry, I was responding to Peter’s repeated request for more/bolder apologies on student fees in response to my earlier comment that we’re playing into the opposition’s narrative if we devote too much energy to it. I won’t deny that it’s a problem for us, but I maintain that it’s of more interest to those who want to campaign against us than it is to those who might vote for us.

    When people are faced by those other, more pressing issues, then squabbles about student fees are an irritation. The challenge is to find ways and means to talk about those other issues without having our message interrupted by people heckling about student fees, or more recently, Tim Farron’s views on gay sex.

  • Peter Watson 14th Jan '18 - 5:19pm

    @Judy Abel “I mentioned fees in my article, but I talked about healthcare, prisons, transport. special needs – all these things.”
    Unfortunately the tuition fees issue casts a long shadow regardless of how important it may or may not be per se. It has reduced trust in the Lib Dems when they speak on any issues and a number of missteps by the party over recent years have not helped restore that trust.
    Better handling of the issue over the last 5 years might have helped speed any Lib Dem recovery, and perhaps it is not too late to act. Otherwise, the default strategy of “time heals all wounds” requires voters to forget and move on, and this might mean that recovery takes the 10-15 years predicted by some. My best guess is that the Lib Dems won’t see a significant upturn until voters have replaced the Tory government with a Labour government which then disappoints them (though Lib Dems could get an earlier boost if enough Tories back them in order to prevent that Labour government), and the electoral cycle makes the timescale difficult to predict.

  • Peter Watson 14th Jan '18 - 5:28pm

    @Fiona “The challenge is to find ways and means to talk about those other issues without having our message interrupted by people heckling about student fees, or more recently, Tim Farron’s views on gay sex.”
    Agreed, but that is a tough challenge. Before the election, Tim Farron looked weak and evasive in his interview with Andrew Neill, and not just on gay sex. Seven years earlier such a performance might have given a very different impression, but overcoming a loss of trust in Lib Dem politicians makes it so much harder for them to be heard now. I do wonder though if Vince Cable’s “grumpy old man” persona might actually help with this!

  • david thorpe 14th Jan '18 - 5:44pm

    the problem is the party establishment are using the cover of the coalition years tgo justify the poor performance, and the cover of a brexit problem yet to come to disguise the poor performance of moost in senior positions in the party. the 2017 manifesto contained nothing radical or intertesting, nothing addressing the real questions asked by people in my area, and nothing for the people in our traditional heartlands. instead it contained a number of very niche policies aimed at virtue signalling, few voters are in a position where they have the luxury of voting for that.

  • John Marriott 14th Jan '18 - 5:50pm

    I’ve said this before; but I’ll say it again. Look across the Channel. Where PR systems prevail ‘Liberal’ parties struggle to reach double figures in terms of percentage. The fact that the Lib Dems have, in recent years, achieved percentages in the twenties (although thanks to FPTP never converted into a representative number of seats) over here has more to do with a general dissatisfaction with the two party politics that was the feature of the two decades after WW2 than a reawakening of Liberalism.

    Now it would appear that this polarisation has returned, and while we continue with the ‘winner takes all’ voting system, the chances of a third party, any third party, making significant inroads are remote.

  • nvelope2003 14th Jan '18 - 7:14pm

    When the two bigger parties are split from top to bottom on the major policy issue and still get over 80% support from the voters while the 2 parties which are completely united ( UKIP and the Liberal Democrats) can only manage about 10% in total there does not seem to be much hope for policy changes bringing any improvement in the party’s fortunes. Time alone will bring a change. Corbyn has upset the Labour party’s union paymasters and many of his MPs by his opposition to Britain staying in the single market and Mrs May is an unimpressive leader. Eventually the electors will get bored with all this but of course the majority will vote as they always have done so any change will be very slow unless there is some political earthquake, something which has not happened since the rise of the Labour Party but the Liberal Democrats are not going to propose the sort of radical changes that they demanded and if they did it is unlikely many people would be interested. At the moment the only radical change being proposed is Brexit and the Conservatives are the only party which is benefitting from that. When they proposed abandoning the historic policy of Free Trade in 1923 the Liberals won 159 seats and Baldwin resigned but leaving the EU has been no help at all to the Liberals this time. I wonder why.

  • Stephen Hesketh 14th Jan '18 - 8:32pm

    @Judy Abel “my suspicion is that it is not more media attention we need (although that would be good!) – but a clearer and stronger policy identity that people can understand and relate to. Like them or not, people know what the Tories and Labour stand for – the same still cannot really be said of the Lib Dems.” Indeed Judy!

    The identities of the Tory and Labour parties are so strong that people believe they know what our opponents stand for even when the reality is some distance away from the established identity. This demonstrates why Equidistance or Centrist messaging and defining ourselves by the positions of our opponents just doesn’t cut it by way of establishing a coherent and widely accepted identity.

  • @Stephen. Good point. Before 2015 election I wrote blog for LDV raising concerns about ‘Look right,look left’ campaign saying it didn’t make us distinctive enough – just defining ourselves by what we are not. Polarisation in politics makes things difficult for us at the moment. Wasn’t it Tony Blair who talked about the ‘third way’? We need to find it!

  • I do wish there was a golden bullet that would solve all our issues. It seems we are going to fund our welfare state from arms deals with some of the most repressive regimes. The key is funding and green energy is one of the solutions. We must harness our people’s creativity, entrepreneurial spirit and excellence in the media to earn sufficient to look after our young, old and sick.

  • @ So true Peter. I haven’t given up hope though. Still we must muster as much enthusiasm for health and social care as eliminating plastics – vital though that is.

  • The only way for the Liberal Democrats to acquire a degree of credibility would be if they were the only party which could give one of the othe parties a majority in Parliament and they made it clear that there would be no deals but they would not support any policies which they disagreed with. The voters might respect that – no ministerial cars etc

  • Bruce Milton 24th Jan '18 - 10:18pm

    The Lib Dems do have the vision and with the majority of people can win the arguments however when the country is polarised by our voting system of encouraging either left or right, remain or leave voting which for most people is built around a message which resonates with the voter.
    TAKE BACK CONTROL – Was a simple statement that encompassed a vision that touched a multitude of passions sentiments and feelings in voters that flew in the face of expert opinion.

    To win the voters hearts is as important as winning the argument.

    Lib Dems need to be modern, slick communicators to appeal to the natural enthusiasm of the younger voter with a clear message of hope and vision that wins the hearts as much as it wins the argument.

    I am a UK plc shareholder and I want;
    – A UK that Unites, Country, Europe, Cultures.

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