Keeping hope alive

I was reading criticism of the dear leader the other day and thought without leaders to be critical about we really wouldn’t be a Liberal Party.  It’s understandable when we are down in the opinion polls oscillating between 5 and 7 per cent, but I wonder if we aren’t beating ourselves up over something we still haven’t fully come to terms with in order for us to put it right.

Firstly, how we went into and performed in Coalition has done far more damage to our brand than even the most pessimistic Clegg critics predicted. Unless, in the unlikely event, there’s a change in the electoral system, it may have put us back two, three or more decades.

Secondly, as a direct consequence, losing third party status in the Commons has made it near impossible to get back to the levels of broadcast and newspaper coverage we enjoyed before the Coalition. Making our own noise is all we have and internal criticism of whom a majority of members elected as leader doesn’t help when it isn’t justified.

Thirdly, no leader, whether currently among our MPs or from outside, can turn this round without grassroots campaigning on issues that unite rather than divide the electorate. For example, almost everyone loves our NHS, but few hold the same affection for the EU. Why hasn’t the NHS we helped create been first and foremost in our campaigning?

Fourthly, since the Coalition we have allowed ourselves to be framed by Brexit and minority interests and not by what the preamble to our constitution says we stand for. There are very few constituencies where this current perception can deliver seats, and bums on seats is what counts if you want political power in order to redistribute it.

Fifthly, it’s not rocket science, we have been here before. Campaigning on issues that matter to people locally and nationally is the route out of low poll ratings. Throw in good local election results and a by-election win and we start the journey back to base camp.  Integration between what our local Councillors and campaigners are raising and what our Parliamentarians in the Commons and Lords prioritise is the key, but the mountain is gigantic and the SNP block the way.

Sixthly, short of Scottish independence there is no easy way round this SNP block. Perhaps listening to people, majoring on one or two issues they raise, such as becoming the voice of carers and defending our NHS, campaigning on green issues as the major environmental party in Parliament and local government is the obvious start for a new leader. But he (or she if Layla had won) isn’t going to change much in the short-term without a little bit of luck and a great deal of hard work at the grassroots changing perceptions and regaining trust.

Lastly, when you have a Conservative Party that has wrecked the economy and contributed to people losing their lives by not following scientific advice, and an Opposition with the most boring leader in history about to start a civil war over its previous frontman, there has to be hope for the cause of Liberalism. No leader is perfect – not even, and possibly especially not, Paddy Ashdown whom I marched towards the sound of gunfire with – but it was the members and the messages, the campaigning and the unity that brought us success. I hope Ed can help to recreate that and I’m keeping hope alive that he will.

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

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28 Comments

  • Good thinking that Focus deliverer!

  • Katharine Pindar 26th Nov '20 - 8:48pm

    So good to hear your wise voice again, Adrian, thank you. It seems to me that one thing we can do is try to find a ‘clear vision and purpose’, as the Thornhill Review recommends along with the long-term strategy required to implement it (see p.48 of the review). I should like to recommend to the party our working out a Beveridge-2 type Plan in the spring, because as the Covid 19 crisis is overcome, we need a social reform agenda as deep and widespread as the one William Beveridge proposed in 1942 and which was carried out by the post-war Labour government. The timeliness for us now, after this disastrous year, is obvious.

    The idea of a Beveridge-2 plan has been (regardless of Covid) much mooted in the last couple of years, both within and outside our party, but it has not got anywhere as yet because it has not yet been accepted as an over-arching theme, dealing with all five of the modern injustices which are the equivalents of Beveridge’s five giant evils. We Lib Dems embrace so many good causes that we can’t focus enough to convince voters of what we are about. But a Beveridge-2 plan can embrace all those issues relating to social injustice in Britain, from poverty, and health and social care issues, to homes for all, and jobs securely placed in the green agenda and not in the gig economy. It should be very acceptable to the electorate (another vital Thornhill request) and raise our public profile as we need to do. Suggested slogan, Get rid of food banks! should be a public part of it – very amenable to social media design!

  • Thank you so much for your article Adrian. You have reminded me precisely why I retained the hope to keep on fighting even in the darkest times in that mass act of self harm that was coalition. You and several others in Liberal Left at least knew we were getting it terribly wr9ong and tried to get people to realise that it really was change or die.

    The problem then was that so many of our senior figures looked at what they were doing and only looked at the good short term stuff that they personally were doing, which to them was most important of all.

    What they and their cheer leaders did was focus almost entirely on those things that made them feel good from a pure liberal point of view (Remember the astonishingly self congratulatory poster “What have the Lib Dems achieved in coalition?” Of course to do that they had to turn a blind eye to all the bad stuff with a simple “That’s the Tories’ fault,” and ignore the message that came from the voters year after year in elections that they didn’t like it.

    During that time our party went from being lauded as saviours of the country, trusted by so many, to being distrusted, disliked, and then despised, but so many never accepted the fact they could get it so wrong.

    However we are now back to where we were in the 1960s and 70s (yes I recon Generation Clegg sacrificed five or six decades of hard work, not two or three), and there is only one way back – hard work. To most people we are totally irrelevant and not worth listening to, so the old favourite of armchair Lib Dems – Let’s polish up some new policies will just not do it.

    Once again we have to prove, street by street, ward by ward, council by council that Lib Dems are the best, and the only way to do that is by hard work, delivering what people want even more than Conservatism, Socialism, Brexit or even Scottish Independence (but don’t tell David Raw I said that) and that is a competent party, running things fairly for all our citizens.

    I hope the new generation of Lib Dems are as up for it as much as those previous generations some of us were lucky enough to work with were up for it.

  • A well-reasoned article and spot on about the damage that the Coalition did to the Lib-Dem brand. The party has been let down by poor and hubristic leadership. The damage wrought will take decades to repair. Good luck with that.

  • A reminder that in April 2019 we were on 8% in the polls and Vince (like Ed now) was struggling to get TV coverage (despite best of efforts). Like many others in my region I campaigned so hard in the May 2019 Locals against a depressing national picture. The result was stunning here in Somerset and throughout England with a net gain of 704 seats. I see no reason that once election campaigns are allowed again that hard work wont be rewarded (at least in England).

  • James Moore 27th Nov '20 - 1:22am

    The main difficulty is that the leadership is not leading – or at least not on the issues that matter.

    Liberals should be criticising the persecution of peaceful protestors outside the House of Commons, challenging the largely ineffective, extreme lockdown rules that are strangling the country, and begin proposing meaningful, imaginative ways to reinvigorate our economy post Covid.

    Instead we pick up fringe issues, play identity politics and mimic Labour policy. We don’t need more statist centrally-planned “solutions” from the 1940s, we need programmes of radical decentralisation to put local communities back in charge of health, the police, education, transport and key local services.

    We have great councillors and committed local activists. That may not be enough to save the party unless it is able to offer a distinctive Liberal voice again in Parliament.

  • Richard Underhil 27th Nov '20 - 8:30am

    The Green Party has one MP and does a good job. on an important issue. The APNI has important principles as John Alderdice has said. We should follow his report

  • Richard Underhill 27th Nov '20 - 8:35am

    The next US President after joe Biden could be Kamala Harris. Being a prosecutor did not cause her to lose too many votes. Political equality is achievable. We should say so.

  • @James Moore

    Whilst I agree with you completely, there is clearly a lack of appetite among LD members and supporters to be the party of “reopen” and indeed many would like to outflank Labour as the shutdown party so that is a non-starter despite being wide open vacant ground.

    On radical localism yes that would be a distinctive position to go forward with as it is not enough to simply play the numbers game of promising £x more billions of spending over x more years which has become increasingly meaningless to voters.

    Increased democratic control over public services could appeal to leave voters as well as remain voters.

  • Lost in a wilderness of our own creation! I see no way out, especially with Labour presenting a much more sensible image. The big question is “What point is there in voting Lib Dem, indeed what point is there in having a Lib Dem party?”. Honest and realistic answers please, because after supporting the party since 1959 I have no idea.

  • I think you’ve hit the nail square on there, @John Bicknell. The gap in the market is there at the moment, and it makes perfect sense for a liberal party to occupy it, but it lies in territory that large chunks of the membership would hate to be anywhere near.

    You’re also right that it’s unlikely to succeed as an anti-establishment party whilst it’s so rabidly pro-EU, which again a large proportion of the membership is.

    I don’t know how this dilemma is resolved, but attempting to hold mutually exclusive positions certainly doesn’t seem like a good way forward.

  • Totallly agree, we are still in denial about the scale of the damage done by the coalition and dont gave a clue how to turn that round nationally.

    A few focuses wont change public perception. Perhaps a change of some headline policies might help.
    But really we are still defending the same positions as 2010 and they aren’t popular.

  • Richard Underhill 27th Nov '20 - 12:29pm

    The PM seems to think he is Mussolini, rather inclined to over-centralise power, although he has not yet laid tarmac across the Forum, nor has he invaded Ethiopia, yet, despite the big increase in military spending, this year, he cut spending on the world’s poor. How can he become “king of the world” if he continues like this?

  • Paul Barker 27th Nov '20 - 1:12pm

    Individual Polls have put us in the range of 5-9% for the last 6 Months, in reality we have probably been steady on 7%.
    Covid has stopped Campaigning till recently & we have had no Elections outside Scotland since the Spring, hitting us where we are strongest.
    Things may look very different after the huge round of Local elections in May. If we do even moderately well The Media will be astonished as they always are.
    Right now The Tories (our principal enemy) are having a second honeymoon in the wake of the Vaccine euphoria, it wont last.

  • Sue Sutherland 27th Nov '20 - 2:39pm

    Good news from the North on a later LDV post. The SNP are not invincible!

  • Adrian Mark Sanders 27th Nov '20 - 4:29pm

    Thanks for the comments. I thought I might get some stick for appearing disparaging of ‘minority’ interests. Before anyone does take umbrage let me be clear, if the Liberal Democrats are not speaking up for minority interests no one else will. We should debate them, agree policy and campaign on them. The key point I was making that appears to have been understood is that in order to build back our support we must be seen to be fully engaged with the major issues of the day; economic recovery, tackling climate change, ending poverty, investing in education, health and social care etc.

    On a couple of specific comments from reddie and Martin. reddie rightly recognised that Ed is trying to position us as the party of carers and the green new deal. He has made some statements on the NHS that he sees linked to caring, most notably his on-line conference speech when he said: “You can only really protect our NHS if you protect care homes.” The intent is there and it will break through in time, hopefully. This month he called for a memorial to NHS and other key workers who have died from Covid, and writing in the New Statesmen he argued for EU citizen NHS and care workers to be given an indefinite right to remain after December. I also think his environmental appeal is beyond just the green new deal and he is trying to position us as a credible green party that won’t force-feed carnivores with rhubarb.

    Martin is right about the impact of Brexit but I wasn’t referring to any particular minority interest. He mentions trans rights and I don’t suppose they are any less important than Brexit to those who are affected. My point is there are other issues that our position and campaigning on would attract both campaigners for re-join and trans rights alongside legions of others. Those others include many previous supporters who voted for Brexit without whom we can’t win the seats and the political power to actually do something about membership of the EU, or help champion interests not in the mainstream. There are only about a dozen seats we can win majoring on a policy of rejoin and about five times that number we could win next time but won’t if we do. It doesn’t mean abandoning our pro EU policies any more than the Tories have abandoned regressive tax policies, or Labour’s binned increased taxes for small businesses – it’s just they promote what is most likely to gain them votes, as we need to do.

  • Steve Trevethan 27th Nov '20 - 5:51pm

    Might it help if we were to make ourselves into a party which gained a justified reputation for keeping the citizenry outstandingly well informed on matters of concern to them and those which are of concern to us?
    In this way might we build up the trust and knowledge which could enable us to gain more power and the information with which to use it well?

  • The party has been on single figures before

    An * when Paddy Ashdown took over
    6% in 1989 EU elections
    About 8-9% under Menzies Campbell

    So it’s nothing new, the underlying loyal vote has never been much higher than it is now but in the 90s – 00s an extraordinarily broad coalition of voters was put together including a lot of protest votes, eurosceptics etc giving the impression of a party more popular than it was.

    I am hopeful that 2019 moved forward the loyal voter base but I don’t know and time will tell.

  • David Garlick 27th Nov '20 - 8:59pm

    Good stuff. Time to review a leaders impact comes a little later in his/her time in charge.
    Get out with a Focus leaflet, make a donation, write to the local rag, telephone bank call or contribute as best you can. I am sure that we can turn the Party fortunes around and much more quickly than anyone expects if we get off our backsides ans get stuck in.

  • Paul Barker 28th Nov '20 - 1:18pm

    Some of us have very short memories, its only a Year since we were hitting 20%. The Big reason for us being stuck around 7% since April is that we are uniquely dependent on Local Elections & this Years were cancelled. We havent even had the usual weekly trickle of byelections except, briefly in Scotland.
    The 2 Year gap between Local Election Rounds hasnt happened before in my lifetime, its a one-off situation & comparisons with the past are not useful.
    Politics could look very different in 6 Months time.

  • “You’re also right that it’s unlikely to succeed as an anti-establishment party whilst it’s so rabidly pro-EU, which again a large proportion of the membership is.”

    Surely the Brexiteers are the Establishment now. They are, after all, in government. Come the next election it is going to be very difficult for this government of wealthy Old Etonians to portray itself as an anti-Estblishment force, with Brexit as the thing that has done away with the “Establishment”, when Brexit has become the established policy and its architects have a record in government. Rejoin could become the anti-Establishment cause.

  • Alex Macfie 29th Nov '20 - 1:42pm

    “There are only about a dozen seats we can win majoring on a policy of rejoin and about five times that number we could win next time but won’t if we do.

    This assumes that opinion on Brexit won’t have shifted by the time of the next election. If Brexit proves to be the disaster that Remainers think it will be, then voters won’t be grateful to opposition parties for going along with it — even voters who originally voted for Brexit. There is no point in chasing yesterday’s polls by dropping our opposition to Brexit, as the political landscape could well have changed dramatically against it by 2024.

  • “ This assumes that opinion on Brexit won’t have shifted by the time of the next election. ”

    Yes you’re right indeed a recent you gov poll found only 38% still think Britain was right to vote to leave and 51% said wrong to leave the widest margin so far.

    I also feel that Adrian Sanders is overlooking the fact that out of our top 40 target seats, by my reckoning only 9 voted to leave which is Carshalton and Wallington, Eastbourne, St Ives, Hazel Grove, Wells, Sutton and Cheam, Brecon and Radnorshire, Dorset West and Thornbury and Yate. The other 31 all voted to remain.

    So we should avoid shifting too
    much on Europe. Rejoin is not “for the birds”.

  • James Fowler 30th Nov '20 - 1:17pm

    @James Moore – Agreed.

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