LibLink: Lord Trevor Smith – looking to the future of the Liberal Democrats

Over on the Social Liberal Forum’s website, Lord Smith of Clifton has given a backbench peer’s perspective on political events and where the Party should be going, opening with a warning;

The Lib Dems are in a very serious state, possibly facing meltdown of the kind experienced by the Canadian Conservatives some time ago (though they managed a spectacular comeback), or the Canadian Liberals in last year’s elections. The burning question is how, at the very minimum, to limit the electoral damage and hopefully to revive the party’s fortunes.

For more of his thoughts, the full article can be found here.

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17 Comments

  • Bill le Breton 12th Jan '12 - 6:45pm

    I hope people take a moment to use the link above and read Professor Smith’s thoughts. It is a powerful piece from one of the Party’s best thinkers. But Professor Smith has also always been an activist. Few will realise just how influential he was in the Party’s performance in the 1997 election.

    So, when he speaks, the leadership should listen, but they won’t, because very few of them will even know how influential he has been in getting them into the position they now occupy.

    Their political inexperience and naivety is plain to see, as the brief list in his piece makes clear. To borrow a Smithism – they are not very good political plumbers. But why should we expect them to be? Getting in through a party list (Clegg, Huhne), taking over a safe seat (Clegg, Huhne, Alexander, Laws).

    Professor Smith was also responsible for making sure that the Alliance’s advances in the 1985 county elections were supported with help and advice on the ground. This was another election that saw a dramatic step-change in our performance. It led to a situation in which around a quarter of the County Councils elected that May moved into ‘no overall control’.

    David Owen thought those councillors would jeopardise the ‘centre’s’ progress, his progress. Like Clegg, he completely misjudged the political expertise of those outside of the Westminster elite.

    In fact the Alliance groups were brilliant at getting their policy through in the same kind of political environment in which today’s leadership finds itself.

    Those councillors proved that (sorry mixed metaphor coming) you can drive political institutions from the back seat, so long as you have political principle, a determination to get your policies through and are smart, tough and comprehensive negotiators. They also ensured that they communicated well internally to their own local parties, externally to the media and through continuing local campaigning to their electorate.

    But the other aspect to plumbing in Smith’s Approach was poetry – to have the imagination of a political poet: a vision (if we must call it that) and the inspiration to express it in a way that connects with people who are resident outside of the Westminster village.

    That’s real political leadership. That’s what we are lacking. And that’s why we are being judged by the public as rogue traders.

    The tragedy (literally) is that the great advance of ‘97 (in part facilitated by Professor Smith) was not exploited by those who had built the foundations so well, but by those attracted in by the prospect opened up by that success and who thought we stood for economic liberalism because they knew us no better. Who thought Adam Smith’s invisible hand was a Liberal system and not, as we well knew, a mask behind which greed, selfishness and individualism could portray itself as morality.

  • paul barker 12th Jan '12 - 8:32pm

    One of our strengths is that we dont, like Labour have hordes of embittered has-beens attacking us from the inside.
    Lord who ?

  • Yellow Peril 12th Jan '12 - 10:09pm

    Bill, if you are going to make sweeping generalisations about the leadership perhaps you should get your facts right. Danny Alexander didn’t inherit a safe seat, he gained it from Labour with a 6% swing in 2005 (which was above the national average in that General Election). And Clegg’s Chief of Staff learnt his political trade being a councillor and Deputy Leader of Kingston Council and his Deputy Chief of Staff cuts hers in the Welsh Assembly – which would rather contradict your assertion that “Clegg completely misjudged the expertise of those outside the Westminster elite.” Finally, I know accusing Chris Huhe of every sin under the sun is de rigeur amongst our political opponents; but suggesting he is politically “inexperienced” (he stood on both the ’83 and ’87 General Elections) and “naive” is pretty staggering. But hey, why let the truth get in the way of a rant?

  • “taking over a safe seat (Clegg, Huhne, Alexander, Laws).”

    Danny gained his seat from Labour – though it had obviously been Lib (Dem) held previously by Russell Johnston (and IIRC part by Charles). I wouldn’t have said that Chris was taking over a safe seat (in the way that Hallam and Yeovil were) – indeed he only held it by a few hundred votes in 2005. David Chidgey’s majority was 750 in 1997 and around 3000 in 2001.

  • Richard Swales 12th Jan '12 - 11:06pm

    If electoral success rather than getting things done is the measure of success then we made a big mistake joing the coalition.

    But ok, if we are are talking about electoral success then the key thing to be clear on in our own minds is that voters will want to vote for the current government or against it. The Tories and Labour are doing well in the polls because David Cameron looks like a man with total confidence that he is doing the right thing and can hoover up the voters who are pleased with the reforms, whereas Ed Miliband has total confidence that the govt. is doing the wrong thing and gets the voters who feel the same as he does. Our own strategy seems to be to sit in government but wear long faces and leak that we are unhappy, presumably in a bid to pick up the “not sure” voters – but not sure voters aren’t looking for someone to reflect their uncertainty and it isn’t working. We need to be proud of what we are doing or pack in. For this reason we should (all but) rule out going into coalition with Labour directly after the next election.

    In terms of defending seats, it’s the wrong time for boundary changes, but where we are (projected to be) fighting Labour we can rely on a much bigger Tory squeeze than in previous elections – again provided we make sure we are clear pro-coalition candidates. Where we are fighting Tories it is a bit more complex. We will lose a lot of the Labour squeeze whatever happens, but may be able to win voters previously put off by “vote Clegg get Brown”, again if we put up proud pro-coalition candidates. In these seats we need to make sure that we expose the more extreme Tory candidates (who often don’t actually like the coalition) and position ourselves as the moderates.

  • @paul barker

    “One of our strengths is that we dont, like Labour have hordes of embittered has-beens attacking us from the inside.”

    Would you say you are attacking the Lib Dems from the outside?

  • @Richard Swales:

    “If electoral success rather than getting things done is the measure of success then we made a big mistake joing the coalition.”

    Most ordinary people would say that the Lib Dems have had more electoral success since the Coalition than they have got things done. “WHAT!????” I hear you say. But the Lib Dems did make (I think) SIX seat gains in the last set of local elections, and that is a lot more than most non-political geeks would be able to volunteer the Lib Dems as having achieved in this Coalition to date. Of course, the whole point of the coalition is to provide a stable basis for deficit reduction, which it is doing. But those who pretend it is doing much more than that are emperors without clothes. And those who talk about percentages of Manifesto implemented are indescribably worse than that, who might understandably be accused of setting out to damage the Party irrecoverably..

  • Bill le Breton 12th Jan '12 - 11:42pm

    Paul, you do make my point if you don’t know who Trevor Smith is and what he has contributed. Without him I don’t think the Party would have survived much longer after the first Euro-elections fought by the merged party.

    Simon, is not ‘individualism’, as clarified thanks to Geoffrey, the new ‘conformity’ to which we are enslaved?

    Yellow Peril – you seem well informed as to the inner workings of the Clegg office. Were the new team influential in the messaging strategy for the Friday morning of Cameron’s ‘veto, or in his decision to avoid the front bench at the time of the PM’s statement? The Leader was at first totally out of touch with the ‘soul’ of his Party, had to ‘flip-flop’ when he felt the backlash from his colleagues and, then, made us look weak in absentia. These are mistakes that most of us have made, but thankfully during a time-served apprenticeship.

    Richard we were right to be part of a coalition but we were so wrong in the way we have used our power – the point I was making was that scores of Lib Dem councillors in ‘balanced’ councils have shown just how must of your own policy you can get through and how well you can communicate this to the party and to the electorate.

    My biggest regret in my comment above is that I cannot see that we are likely to start doing the right things until matters for the country and the party have got a lot worse – that may be too late for a lot of good councillors, a lot of good MPs and MEPs and it will certainly be too late for a great number of the poorest and most vulnerable in our world.
    It is way past my bedtime!!! You owls will be far too good at this game for this lark.

  • Bill le Breton 13th Jan '12 - 9:18am

    Morning Dan,

    Why does a belief that now is the right time for Government to lead investment in infrastructure – physical, social and cultural – a commitment to big government?

    Is the announcement of HS2 as a means of helping to unite the country geographically, a move towards bigger government? Would investment in something like WiMAX, which could provide free and more equal access to the internet for the least well-off as well as to business, be a move towards bigger government?

    I appreciate your support for better internal messaging and campaign support for local parties, but I also don’t see evidence of enough campaigning by our ministers – managing down the size of government isn’t enough.

    Twenty years of global stagnation ‘a la Japan’ will put enormous strains on international and intercommunity relations and reduce the liberty and life chances of billions of people, with the strain bearing most on the poor and the vulnerable.

    What is appropriate for Liberals in a time of economic paralysis is different to that which is appropriate in years of relative plenty. Criticising others for not fixing the roof in the sunshine is not an excuse for not putting a tarpaulin up during the storm.

    Simon, I don’t think it is to do with ‘distance’ so much as to do with ‘difference’. We have very different ideas and solutions to our partners in the coalition. I don’t believe that in such a relationship you should ever stop negotiating for your solution.

    Part of that processes of effective negotiation is campaigning for support for and involvement in those solutions and that means communicating that difference. It would not weaken the ability of the coalition to do the right thing for the country, it would strengthen it. Good partners are tough partners.

  • Tony Dawson 13th Jan '12 - 8:10pm

    @Richard Swales:

    “Our own strategy seems to be to sit in government but wear long faces and leak that we are unhappy, presumably in a bid to pick up the “not sure” voters”

    This suggests a degree of direction which is not at all evident.

    “where we are (projected to be) fighting Labour we can rely on a much bigger Tory squeeze than in previous elections”

    The evidence is completely opposite. Unless there is a clear Lib Dem identity established, people are far more likely to vote for the organ grinder than the monkey. Or is it a chimp? Or a lemur….. Or a two toed sloth?

  • Simon Shaw writes:”There are too many in the Party who are pressurising the leadership to do more to “distance” ourselves from the Conservatives, and that is the wrong strategy in electoral terms. That approach does very little to gain back support we have lost in a Labour direction, and denies us the chance to gain far more from a Conservative direction.

    You only need to look at ConservativeHome from time to time to realise that we should have the confidence to know that there are clear differences between us and the Conservatives without feeling the need to emphasise them all the time.”

    Surely it is a fundamental job for a political party to emphasise its differences from the other parties? Why should people vote LibDem if the party is unwilling to emphasise its own distinctive approach? The danger of your argument is that it seems to write off any hope of winning back disillusioned voters lost to Labour, in the (highly optimistic) hope of picking up Conservative voters.

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