Opinion: A bad election result – what now ?

The Liberal Democrats took another slap round the chops from the electorate on the May 3rd local elections. Yes, there were a few bright spots, especially those ably pointed out by Jeremy Browne MP, but the overall picture was still grim.

Of course it was not unexpected, and neither has the leadership’s response been – hold the course, reiterate what we have achieved and will achieve, compare our policy successes with those of the Conservatives, and emphasise that it was Labour who got us into the financial mess we are in. And so on. All good stuff, and well executed. But…..

If it’s not working with the electorate it is certainly working across the Party – criticism has been noticeably muted and that which has been made publicly mostly has been polite and on relatively minor points. The Party has displayed a mature unity across the country that the Tories and Labour should be envious of (although admittedly a large number have voted with their feet and left the party since May 2010).

The question remains as to what the political plan is to revive the Party’s popularity by the time of the next general election. Waiting for economic growth, and then highlighting our role in it, seemed to have been the main approach up to now. If economic growth is not forthcoming (which seems more likely now) the electoral prospects certainly do not look good. The other cloud for the Party is the shift to the right amongst a large section of the electorate – the EU and immigration are great scapegoats for the UK’s economic woes. Whilst much of the discussion about this has focused on UKIP threatening the Tories in many constituencies, such a shift in sentiment is bad for the Lib Dem’s electoral chances too.

There are some strategic steps the Lib Dems could take to address the problem of electoral unpopularity in such dire circumstances. Two are worth mentioning here.

The first is the Coalition structure – in managing policy areas. The public perception is that there is shared responsibility for each ministry. This is not entirely true since there are ministries without two parties having senior ministers – eg BIS and Energy/Environment on the Lib Dem side and International Development on the Tory side. There is scope however to make changes to ensure that the public perception of ‘Lib Dem policy areas’ is enhanced. Indeed one way of distinguishing approaches to Coalitions across the world is between those where parties share responsibility for each ministry and those where individual ministry control is allocated between the parties. Withyin a framework, the Tories might control the Home Office and FCO and the Lib Dems BIS, Justice, and Transport, for example.

The second is for the Party to apply itself more vigorously to the question of how fiscally sustainable economic growth is achieved in the current circumstances. [I have written before in LDV on this topic]. This in the main means a focus on supply side ‘competitiveness’ issues. This is one of two big open questions in government today (The other being the achievement of much greater efficiency in government). The Tories have made a mess of growth strategy so far – emphasising train projects, feeble employment generation ideas, and even more feeble stuff about de-regulation and making it easier to sack people. The problems and inhibitions in UK growth run much, much deeper than that, and require much more focused work.

It is not too late to avoid a drubbing at the next general election. Few in the Party are arguing for dramatically slowing down debt reduction. But many are waiting for some kind of new approach to both benefit the nation and revive the Party’s electoral prospects.

* Paul Reynolds works with multilateral organisations as an independent adviser on international relations, economics, and senior governance. He is a member of the Lib Dem Federal International Relations Committee and an Executive member of Liberal International (British Group).

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  • I’ll be blunt: if the party is unable to articulate a Liberal vision which addresses the concerns of today’s Britain, we’re in big trouble.

    I suggest part of it comes down to the words we use. Let’s look at leaders from the past – Lloyd George was able to use strong, almost earthy language in conveying his messages. If we want to talk about a sustainable future, let’s articulate a vision of a nation in which the rich pay their share, and the poor have the best possible chance to escape poverty. Beyond this, talk more about that means of escape – it’s right that the poorest don’t pay income tax, but here’s a question, “What’s the big idea?” If we don’t want a Britain that relies on financial services, well what do we want it to rely on as its mainstay? What do we want to be particularly good at?

    Here’s a suggestion: how about a Britain that is a leader in information technology by, say, 2030. We should be aiming our education system at enhancing skills in information technology, electronics engineering, and “digital humanities”, such as content creation and graphic design. This can be supplemented by major infrastructure projects like National Broadband (as they have in Australia). Tax policy should be given sharper focus on high-tech entrepreneurs. We’ve already got a tradition of leadership in this field. Think of Charles Babbage, Alan Turing and Tim Berners Lee: it would be credible to suggest that we want to build on this history of innovation. I know that bits and pieces of this agenda are being implemented, but it’s not put into the context of a larger vision.

    This is just a suggestion. However, it’s not enough to say that we want a more balanced economy – we need to say specifically what we want to balance it towards. It’s not sufficient to say that we want to lift people out of poverty, the means, via a clear economic plan (one which incorporates all the smaller elements which are currently being put together), needs to be articulated. It’s not adequate to address only the fiscal concerns of now, because that doesn’t answer the question of where we want to be tomorrow. Finally, what we say has to be credible: Cameron has talked about the Big Society, but it doesn’t work because no one believes it, it seen as merely cover for cuts in public services.

    Do this, and matters will likely get better. But even if they don’t, at least we’ll have said something important.

  • @Christian

    Don’t disagree in principle, but we need Ed Ms blank sheet of paper to outline such big ideas.

    My guess is that, whatever we want to achieve, its a supertanker turn to make anything happen, and btw that supertanker is still heading for the rocks.

    We laid out our big ideas in the Manifesto and immediately dumped it in favour of the coalition agreement. Frankly, whatever bold ideas we throw out, the response will be “what, like tuition fees” and ignored.

    Labour have never apologised for the cock up they left behind; if we want to do anything we need to straightforwardly say “we made a promise we couldn’t keep, we’re very sorry and we’ll never promise anything we can’t deliver again”

    W”easel words about the mandate, problems of coalition etc etc just reinforce the same old, same old attitude

    It’s a well known fact in business that you can’t stop things going wr4ong or mistakes being made, What matters is how you deal with the problem. Thats why the Apples and Dysons of this world have a good reputation; they dont duck problems, they deal with them.

  • I have to say, I think one of the things we have to admit is this: ‘Labours mess’ was created by preventing major banks by going under. Are we as a party really saying that we think people should have been thrown out of their homes and lose all their savings?

    We have swallowed the Tory line time after time – on tuition fees, on the NHS. I think we have to start being truthful and honest again if we are to regain trust – let’s face it, our line are very hard to swallow at the moment.

  • paul barker 10th May '12 - 7:54pm

    Mr Reynolds, you say that “many” members have left the party in the last 2 years, do you have any figures for that or are you just repeating “what everybody knows”?

    On the general point, so much depends on the economy , almost entirely out of the governments control & on what the voters will think when they start thinking.

  • Billy Mack ‘Labours mess’ was created by preventing major banks by going under”

    In other words, bailing out banks that were too big to fail because (i) Labour were happy to sit and watch a housing bubble pump money into the economy (even encouraged it by including notional house price valuations in measures of saving) and (ii) Labour did nothing to ensure retail and investment banking were separated.

  • Andrew Suffield 10th May '12 - 11:16pm

    Frankly, whatever bold ideas we throw out, the response will be “what, like tuition fees” and ignored.

    If that’s true then there’s no point doing anything – the party only has a future if you are wrong, and hence it must proceed on the assumption that you are, and ignore you.

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th May '12 - 2:13am

    Andrew Suffield – the tuition fees issue really has damaged us to that extent. “redndead” really is quite right, as a result, any “pledge” or “promise” we make at the next election will be met by “what, like tuition fees?”. If you think that means we have to give up, well, that’s it, game’s over, no more LibDems.

    Well, I don’t think we should give up, but to ignore what WILL be a very common response to us would be catastrophic and we can’t afford catastrophic at the next general election. We HAVE to have a ready answer to “what, like tuition fees?”.

    The next election will need to be played in a very defensive way. To be honest, I think our leadership has been so catastrophically inept, making the difficult situation of the coalition even worse, that campaigning in the next election needs to be very much locally focussed, emphasis on the local candidate and what s/he can do for the constituency. This should help us hold as much as we can of what we’ve got. The local election results hinted that this may be the best strategy (or even the more the local party is disassociated with Clegg, the better it does).

  • When will people realise that the general election is not the be-all and end-all? There are more elections in 2013 and in 2014 where we stand to lose ever more hard working, dependable Lib Dem Councillors. And with them goes the ability for MPs to get re-elected.

    I am amazed pure self-interest hasn’t made some people wake up and think of things beyond the Westminster greasy pole.

  • William Jones 11th May '12 - 8:54am

    I have been a little disturbed to learn that many Lib Dems, traditionally those that have a calming influence on the activists, have been spreading the message if we work hard, do what we know and push on. Everything will be fine in 2015 when we can hold our heads high that we did the right thing for the country.

    Rousing stuff, but I feel this is different.

    As a party the Lib Dems have turned a corner by joining government. We need to be more clear and focussed. We need to tell people what we are about, what we believe in, how we see Britain’s future. We need to change our FOCUS from a party of coalition only but also a party that has a vision and is relevant to the electorate. If this means we become a little more popularist, so be it.

    If we carry on as we have been doing we maybe proud in 2015 but we may be also be without much of party and much of our MPs.

  • As MH said
    ‘the more the local party is disassociated with Clegg, the better it does’
    And perhaps, therein lies the answer at the national level.

  • Andrew Thomas 11th May '12 - 2:56pm

    I agree with many of the sentiments. Our votes have supported some brutal Tory policies including tuition fees, a thick red line, we shouldn’t have crossed, Education with the Academies bill and worst of all the NHS Bill which despite what our minsters say is leading to the marketisation of the NHS on a grander scale than was started under Labour. I don’t know where we go now. I am furious that Lib Dem Mps and Peers ignored the conference vote. We should pull out now and start a campaign to reverse these changes, which will have to include a new leader. I cannot defend what has been done in our name when I speak to people. This is the reason we did so badly in these elections. We need to wake up NOW!

  • Helen Tedcastle 11th May '12 - 8:49pm

    ‘But many are waiting for some kind of new approach to both benefit the nation and revive the Party’s electoral prospects.’

    I agree with Andrew Thomas. For a social Liberal, It is disillusioning to hear David Laws on Radio Four, after the hammering at the polls, for instance, lauding so-called ‘reforms’ to Education as a positive achievement for the coalition and claiming that criticisms come from the ‘fringes’ of the party.. . how patronising.

    Centralising schools, undermining local authorities, bringing back elitism and the old divisions into the curriculum is not Liberal Democrate ‘reform’ but Tory solutions to social mobility.

    Another thing – Nick Clegg aims to improve social mobility for the under-privileged – a key Lib Dem aspiration but look out for who is advising him and helping him to carry out his desires – the right-wing policy exchange think tank and the Sutton Trust ( an elitist Tory vehicle for their version of social mobility). What about party policy? It’s full of suggestions about the means not just the general ends to social mobility – bypassed.

    You couldn’t make it up.

  • Mark Wilson 11th May '12 - 9:26pm

    Paul you mention criticism is muted in the party. I am not sure whether you mean in terms of the size of any rebellion, or the quality of argument that is being put forward and the standing such an individual has within the Lib Dems. Lembit Opik’s interview on Radio 5 Live was stinging in it criticism and certainly pulled no punches on what he though must happen (get rid of Nick Clegg as Leader). Then on last night’s Question Time Lord Oakeshott’s criticism of the Lib Dem Leadership was both insightful, and refreshing. It is the sign of the maturity of a party if it can accept constructive criticism and its membership does not have rose tinted glassess to every utterance that comes out of the mouth of its Leadership.
    Lord Oakeshott was absolutely right in the points that he made regarding the need to give the growth strategy much more prominence than it has so far been given. Perhaps equally important as the mechanics of trying to achieve that growth is the restoration of the “belief” that if you want to set up new businesses, and new industries in this country and that if you have a good enough idea you “will” succeed in this country.
    We need to develop the psyche that we want new British Companies providing jobs for the people of this country, not relying on the opening of the latest branch of a multi national company with no long term commitment to the British Economy. We need a more flexible Education system not simply changing the name over the door who owns and runs it. An Education system that caters for academia, but at an early age allows students perhaps as young as 14 to learn how to set up their own . What we don’t need is meaningless language which purports to support British business but talks about, “red tape” “bureaucracy” “more flexible working” but puts no meat on the bones of these concepts.
    The most flexible workforce you can get is a self motivated, hard working, and passionate workforce that believes in the ideals and the products of British Companies, and yes that includes manufacturing.

  • Paul Reynolds 12th May '12 - 5:27am

    The Comments debate has been of high quality (that’s what authors say when most folk agree with them).

    Simon McGrath raised the question of how you achieve fiscally sustainable economic growth (usually assumed to include an improvement in national and firm-level ‘competitiveness’). I have written widely on this topic. Unlike macroeconomics, reforms in microeconomics (growth rather than stability reforms), are not one-time big decisions resulting in step-changes. They involve thousands of small reforms – and a few big ones – in the way of a campaign that id driven through across government – most such reforms are interdependent. So the first thing to consider is whether we have the institutions and decision-making structures to drive forward such a campaign. The reforms themselves are both general (competition & ‘fair trading’ policy, influence over trade policy, commercial law, M&A rules, planning reforms, equity markets etc) and sector specific (banking cartelisation, infomatics regulatory capture, construction restrictions). There’s not space to go into detail here, but I would make two general points. First, modern markets are far more regulatory-dependent in practice than taught market economics assumes, and this has a big impact on how you define and address problems. Second, such reforms can also improve the position of employees, and one should guard against falling into the trap of defending against accusations that growth is being built on the back of worker exploitation or ‘more deaths at work’. (One should also not forget that the MAJORITY of employment in the UK is in small firms and sole traders – a fact often glossed over in growth & employment policy). But there are many factors contributing to growth including those related to education, science & technology, taxation, export & investment support overseas and other areas. I will write further on this topic….. Paul Reynolds

  • Trevor Stables 12th May '12 - 9:17am

    The only way for the Party to show its distinctiveness is to be hard on the Banks in the national interest and to get the UK moving again.
    RBS is already 80% owned by the taxpayerand should either be nationalised or put under government control and direction to get lending going again at reasonable and affordable rates. As Lord Matthew Oakeshot put it, unless we sort out the Banks and get the Housing market and constuction going again we are going to have real difficulty getting out of recession

  • Radicalibral 12th May '12 - 11:34am

    Just look what happens when you put a contribution on Lib Dem Voice which is “slightly” critical of the Leadership. Up pops The Orange Book brigade to formally rule out coming out of the Coalition after 4 or even 4 1/2 years. I did not realise I had such powers of influence to get David Laws to rush straight to the “Daily Telegraph” to have a Video Stream done to comment on “suggestions” that there might be some Lib Dems who might want to pull out of the Coalition.
    If Paul Reynolds article is going to have any impact in terms of the suggestions he makes perhaps the Lib Dems must first of all decide whether they are going to go past first base. Perhaps it is time to test the waters and have an article, or even better a Lib Dem Voice Poll on what Lib Dem Members “really” think. Dangerous I know but when have the Lib Dems ever bothered about what the press think of them. In this modern age Lib Dems need to utilise modern IT techniques to by pass the Press and get their message to the people that really count the Voting Public. I class myself as IT illiterate but even i have got the odd helpful suggestion on how to do this.

  • “European Voice” wrote a pastiche on Vince Cable and ended with the, perhaps, prophetic paragraph…..”But Cable, always with a twinkle in his eye and a gloomy economic prognosis at hand, remains a force to be reckoned with. As his party looks for a way to leave the coalition before it has to fight the next election, he may find himself at the heart of its attempt to regain some of its lost popularity before the chickens come home to roost.”…….

    Leave the coalition we must; but how, when and in what circumstances is the hard part..

  • Paul Reynolds 12th May '12 - 2:31pm

    I’m a supporter of the Coalition and I believe, barring major upheavals, that we should attempt to stay in the Coalition until the election campaign begins for the next national parliamentary election (also being an advocate of fixed terms and Coalitions in principle). Derived from the evil streak in all of us, it is satisfying to see the ‘Sir Bufton Tufton type right wing’ looking angry and marginalised, and reduced to kicking their own party in the shins. However, my irrelevant private musings aside, I find the ‘who is hindering who’ in the Coalition debate in the press utterly depressing. The lack of structural reforms in government, and the slow progress in economic growth related reforms and government efficiency reforms – these are the enemies both parties face. Being able to address such grave challenges only within the context of the details of the Coalition agreement is a tangible hindrance to getting over the current crisis. Folk have a right to criticise the Lib Dems in Coalition. But the more important need is to address the inescapable challenges of growth and more efficiency in government. To spur us on, I would highlight the fact that is not really a global crisis in the way people believe. In the years since the crisis began there is good growth in Germany, Netherlands, China, SE Asia, India, Turkey, Scandanavia, almost all S America, Canada, Australia, South Africa…… The crisis has seriously caught the US, UK, Southern & Eastern Europe and not much more. Not to detract from our ministerial achievements, in the face of our very severe problems many of our growth & efficiency reforms have been too small scale. Fixating too much on the confines of the Coalition Agreement is one culprit. Absence of structural reforms across government another. We will be electorally rewarded if the public can see we have deeper reforms under way.

  • Giselle Williams 13th May '12 - 12:05pm

    Andrew Thomas 11th May ’12 – 2:56pm

    Andrew, I agree with you. Unfortunately for the LibDems there are already BIG hints that the LibDems will run the next election with Tory policies – Alexander has said as much concerning the “economic” plans up to 2017.

    Until the LibDems reverse their Orange Book infections of Clegg, Laws, and Alexander (and actually tells them to just go and join the Tory Party), then I fear the next election will see the LibDems run as a Coalition OF the Tories which we all know will result in wipe out for the LibDem Party.

    The behaviour of the LibDems in enthusiastically enabling the most harmful and right wing extremes of Tory policy to attack the most vulnerable of citizens is, to me, beyond comprehension in a civilised society, and it is this behaviour which I believe will be what the LibDems in “government” will be remembered for. Most particularly, to my dying day, I will remember the words from Clegg and Williams which were “The ENGLISH NATIONAL Health Service is not being privatised”.

  • Paul Reynolds 13th May '12 - 1:20pm

    I’m not sure that reforming the media and being ‘anti-business’ are going to increase the Lib Dem vote at the next election. Economic growth (with improved competitiveness as a key component) however, will – as indeed will. Improving public services whilst spending less money also will. If anyone doubts the latter, just have read through the latest NAO and PAC reports, with all the tales of deeply shocking regard for the need for care with the public’s money. Boyce’s reports on the culture of mindboggling inefficiency and poor services are very informative too.

  • Paul Catherall 14th May '12 - 1:30pm

    Rationalisation of the deficit is fine, this is a moot point which no political party in the mainstream would disagree with,
    So what the government is doing in many respects does have public support.

    However, it must be said that reforms such as expensive NHS liberalization and privatization of schools have no relation whatsoever with the economy, these are purely ideological changes. The expansion of the academies projects will not solve the deficit, but these anti-meritocratic and regressive reforms in education and health will lead to the breakdown of our basic health and education sectors and blight the lives of our people for decades.

    The public don’t need more instruction about the deficit and what the LibDem party is doing, this is the wrong conversation, the real conversation is why LibDems ministers are co-authoring legislation to liberalize the health and education sector and why enterprise and jobs services are being targetted for cuts when these should be a priority. Why are the drivers of growth such as FE/HE and regional development agencies being cut when we need them most, and why was EMA abolished when it helped young people get training and jobs.

    The progressive electorate are very puzzled indeed, the only real question is how many massive electoral defeats will it take to replace the current Neoliberal leadership with a LibDem leadership, who seem to have very little in common with this party, its manifesto, its policies or conference.

  • While I sympathise with the “pro-growth, anti austerity” tendency (for want of a better term) here, I think there is a need for an approach which does go beyond a return to the status quo ante. We certainly fought the 2010 election (and I remember as a PPC in 2001 and 2005 those elections) as a party with a fresh agenda. That agenda recognised the need to tackle climate change and other environmental and resource issues as a matter of priority, because of their urgency and the catastrophic changes that could occur fairly quickly if we do nothing. It also prioritised social inequity. Of course we must enable the less well off to improve their quality of life and life chances, but we must recognise that allowing GDP as currently measured to ratchet up uncontrollably (and with such policies as new dash for gas etc we can see early signs) we will make a negative impact on carbon footprints and efficient and low use of natural resources. So, what do we need? 1 A redrafting of the accepted criteria on economic growth, with a negative factor for overuse of natural resources, and probably other changes. 2 A radical redistribution of wealth and income, both in this country and internationally (leading to transfer taxes, and a lot more attempts to coordinate the international situation) 3 Major attempts to curtail current armed conflicts, and build a better conflict prevention system worldwide.

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