Ed’s experience can help him rebuild the Liberal Democrats

In his acceptance speech Ed Davey claimed to have been a member of our Party for 30 years. This surprised me as I worked in the same Liberal Democrat Whips’ office as Ed in 1989/90 and had assumed he was already a member.  I can’t claim to have influenced him in joining, but I can imagine some of the other great people who were in that team might have done.

My surprise was down to Ed’s keenness at the time to ensure we had a credible economic message and his enthusiasm for campaigning at the grass roots to get that message across, combined with his natural Liberal responses to the issues of the day we discussed each morning as we put the press cuttings together for our MPs. 

It was a small and effective team that saw our opinion poll rise from an asterix to near double figures thanks in part to the campaign materials we produced in association with ALDC. Known as the People First campaign it was promoted through ALDC and the tiny but talented campaigns team in Cowley Street. It was a first and much missed example of integrated campaigning the new leader might wish to remind himself of.

I also recall that it was Ed who came up with our distinct economic policy to give the Bank of England independence. This policy helped broaden the Party’s appeal beyond the inspiring leadership of Paddy Ashdown and our community campaigning. It was a policy that became one of the first things the new Labour Government did despite it not featuring in their General Election campaign.

In the run up to the 1997 election there seemed to be a wide understanding, probably learnt through the extensive local government experience within the Party, that you can have radical views and policies, but you can’t vote for them if you don’t get Liberal Democrats elected. This is where the targeting of messages and resources was developed that proved so important in helping to win seats like Twickenham and Oxford West & Abingdon for the first time since universal suffrage. 

Sadly, after the 2010 election we ignored the lessons and moved away from the tactics that had secured our bridgehead which has left Tim, Jo and now Ed with an enormous challenge to overcome. 

It isn’t the tuition fee pledge we should have said was subject to a majority Liberal Democrat Government being elected, nor is it the failure to reward our tactical voters with a proportional voting system so they never have to vote tactically again. The biggest barrier to our growth is the loss of third party status in the Commons that was a consequence of these and other fundamental mistakes the leadership made during the coalition years.

I didn’t hear either candidate make much of this during the leadership contest and it isn’t going to go away while the SNP have 48 MPs to our 11.

This matters crucially because so much political coverage is based on what happens in the Commons. It means the SNP appear more often than ourselves on news and current affairs programmes, why the SNP Leader in the Commons gets two questions a week to the Prime Minister, why their policy spokesperson is always called before a Lib Dem when statements are made in the House or bills are being debated. 

Apart from the personal tragedies of losing so many MPs and their staff in 2015 we also lost significant funds and opportunities to re-group and recover quickly. We are now more dependent than ever on our own media, on and off-line, to state our case and respond to attacks. We underestimate the importance of pieces of paper though letterboxes at our peril.

Before and after paying his membership fee, Ed’s history and experience will have given him an understanding of the long road we are going to have to take to regain the trust and support we once enjoyed. As Paddy used to say, “Do not underestimate the scale of the task ahead.” Ed didn’t back then, and I don’t think he does now. His intention to listen to people is a great first step in understanding how not to repeat the mistakes of previous leaders.


* Adrian Sanders is a Focus deliver in Paignton, Devon, and was the MP for Torbay from 1997 to 2015.

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  • Peter Watson 30th Aug '20 - 1:12pm

    “It isn’t the tuition fee pledge we should have said was subject to a majority Liberal Democrat Government being elected”
    A very good article, but that particular sentence seems to be rewriting history a little (though I vaguely recall a Tory MP had added some small print of his own when he signed the pledge!).
    At the time, it looked like the whole point of making the pledge was that it was based on an assumption that Lib Dems would be nowhere near government! It was a promise “to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative.” Implementing the party’s policy to “scrap unfair university tuition fees for all students taking their first degree” did indeed depend on being in government, but the highly publicised pledge of individual MPs could have been kept (and was by some not too far away 😉 ) regardless of circumstances; either it should have been kept or it should not have been made.

  • Interesting to check (with the help of Wikipedia) who our MPs were in 1988-1989. Most of them represented seats in Scotland or Wales, some in North West England, some in the South West.
    We’ve seen a regional party, the SNP, benefit massively from First Past the Post and acquire a disproportionately large number of Westminster MPs. As you say, Adrian, the SNP is third in number of MPs. The Lib Dems are third in number of votes and obtained a substantial increase in 2019, but they translated into fewer MPs than in 2017.
    As I see it, resentment of overweening Westminster in the rest of the UK has been present for centuries, and has received a massive boost from the insane act of self-harm called Brexit. The SNP has benefited. But the cold economic facts and figures still counsel that the people of Scotland should be wary of leaving the UK.
    The Lib Dems believe that legitimate power belongs to ordinary people and is only loaned as it were to tiers of government. A federal UK within the EU is still, ultimately, the best government arrangement for the people of Britain. But we have to inspire people – not just in Scotland or Wales but in England too – to want to take back control from Westminster of things that needn’t be done centrally. (And that’s most of the things government does.) We don’t need an overweening all-powerful Westminster, and I don’t think people want it any more either – if indeed they ever did.
    I hope Ed will go and find out. There is precedent. After the 1992 general election the then leader Paddy Ashdown concluded he knew nothing about Britain and set off to find out. It involved going down coal mines, visiting run down council estates and the like. Norman Lamb used to do a similar thing in his North Norfolk constituency, visiting communities. While Johnson’s undeserved large majority of seats vests power in him to do what he likes (until his own backbenchers turn on him, which I hope will be soon), maybe our efforts are best spent undermining him outside in the rest of the country.

  • Sue Sutherland 30th Aug '20 - 2:46pm

    Thank you for this insight into Ed’s history with the party, Adrian, especially as he went through the difficult post Alliance days too. I was a grass root at the time and remember an interview with local TV after an election in which we lost two seats on Bath City Council being so happy that the loss was so small and that 3 party politics was here to stay.
    I think the problem with Tuition Fees was that it showed that we were just like any other party rather than being, as many people had hoped, something different, a party with integrity. I hope Ed can restore the belief in our party that was so casually lost.

  • Matthew Huntbach 30th Aug '20 - 10:58pm

    Sue Sutherland

    I think the problem with Tuition Fees was that it showed that we were just like any other party rather than being, as many people had hoped, something different, a party with integrity.

    Why is it supposed that with one-sixth of the MPs in the Coalition Liberal Democrats and five-sixths of the MPs Conservatives, and not enough Labour MPs to make a Labour-LibDem coalition viable, we could somehow get the Conservatives to drop everything they stand for and switch to supporting everything the Liberal Democrats stand for, so the Coalition would, in effect, by like a 100% Liberal Democrat government?

    The main policy of the Conservatives is (or was) to keep taxes down and not to borrow more money. So, if we had insisted that the Conservatives kept to our policy on Tuition Fees, the Conservatives would then have insisted on paying for it by even bigger cuts on other government spendings – and we’d have been blamed for that.

    The issue is that our useless leader then didn’t say that, and didn’t make it clear that we had only a minor say in the government, and instead pushed the opposite suggestion, that we had a big say in it. The worst thing was saying that three-quarters of our policies were being implemented, which most people read as the Coalition being three-quarters Liberal Democrat in terms of its policies.

    It is almost always the case that small parties which form a minor part of a coalition are severely damaged by it, because it is assumed they can get much more from it than they really can. The major party of the coalition and the major opposition party work together to destroy the small party by blaming it for all that the coalition does that is least liked by the public. It serves them both well to do that. That is why we needed to make it clear that we were only a small part of the coalition, and only able to shift it just a little in cases where the Conservatives were divided.

  • John Marriott 31st Aug '20 - 9:22am

    Sue Sutherland is right. Ultimately, the Lib Dems ARE “like any other party”, in that getting one hand at least on the levers of power in 2010 is an unpleasant wake up call to the realities of life. Unless, of course, to paraphrase Mr Michael Lee Aday aka Meat Loaf, when offered the chance to govern, Clegg had said to Cameron on behalf of his party; “I’ll do anything (for power) but I won’t do that”.

  • Nigel Jones 31st Aug '20 - 9:50am

    I agree with Jo Hayes that we need to undermine this government by what we say and do outside of Parliament. Ed and Layla can help with that by visiting places around the country talking to people inside and outside the party and inspiring local campaigners.

  • Katharine Pindar 31st Aug '20 - 11:17am

    Grand to know that Adrian, as one of the MPs sadly ousted in 2015, is still working for our party , delivering both Focuses and words of wisdom on LDV. I hope you will play a significant part in our revival in the South-West, Adrian, which we so much need, and as ever I want to be coming down to help when there are significant elections there again.

  • Sue Sutherland 31st Aug '20 - 1:33pm

    Matthew, I agree with you. We only had to say “ how can we keep our pledge to students when so many others are experiencing cuts” or something like that and lots of people would’ve understood. It’s just that I think the fact we didn’t say it means we didn’t think it either.

  • Christine Headley 31st Aug '20 - 3:55pm

    It is widely forgotten that most of the backbenchers in the parliamentary party voted against the rise in tuition fees. Members of the in government were obliged to vote for it; two PPSs (Mike Crockart and Jenny Willott) stood down in order to carry out their promise to voters. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-11964669

  • Peter Watson 31st Aug '20 - 9:57pm

    @Christine Headley “Members of the in government were obliged to vote for it”
    The Coalition Agreement allowed Lib Dem MPs to abstain (which did mean that within days of the General Election they were already kick-starting the reputational damage of abandoning their pledge, but that’s a separate issue!). It was reported that those in Government chose to vote for the policy instead of abstaining in order to cancel out the votes of those who were honouring their pledge instead of the Coalition Agreement.
    Then fast forward a few years, having wanted to scrap fees and having weaponised them against Labour, Lib Dems “owned” the new system of higher fees and opposed changes. Meanwhile, Labour proposed a cap at the level Nick Clegg had assured us would only be exceeded in exceptional circumstances and the Tories went on to raise the repayment threshold.
    Considering that most voters couldn’t care less about the details of university education funding, it is amazing how Lib Dems inflicted so much damage on their own reputation for trustworthiness and competence, damage from which the party has still not recovered.

  • Worth reading Norman Lamb’s comments on Danny Alexander when discussing the coalition!!!


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