Opinion: Bloody but unbowed, we must pick our battles quickly

The pain of Thursday night and Friday morning will take a long time to heal. But politics, like time, is an ever-rolling stream, and while our party’s dreams may have died long before the opening day, there is never the luxury of standing still or turning inwards.

Already, and encouragingly, this already seems to have been reflected in a groundswell of renewed support from more than 2000 party members. I myself, as a formerly rather passive Liberal Democrat, feel deeply ashamed of my lack of active campaigning when it was needed most. We absolutely need to turn those feelings of guilt and anger into action.

The question will be where to focus our efforts. I want to argue that picking our battles deliberately and quickly is vital.

Twitter and Facebook might be full of people pointing out the unfairnesses of First Past the Post; people might even be actively questioning the legitimacy of the Conservatives’ majority. But that is irrelevant. The reality is that we have a Tory government, and probably for most of the next five years – unless they try to repeal the Fixed Term Parliaments Act they claimed as a major achievement in their manifesto.

Electoral reform is a personal dream of mine, as well as one the Lib Dems have proudly campaigned on forever. But it’s important to recognise that it’s off the table now, and will be until 2020 (or after the next election).

Instead we need to shift our weaponry onto the fields where battle is going to be fiercest. We set out six red lines. Members might not think they were the right ones. But to fulfil our promises to voters, we should treat them as such in the next Parliament.

That is an obvious starting point. But there will be other perhaps more substantial opportunities to renew our reputation for liberalism and internationalism. Many of these are obvious: the EU referendum looms large. Theresa May is already preparing to re-table her Snoopers Charter. The Conservatives will attempt to scrap the Human Rights Act. They will try to introduce further massive cuts in areas that the Lib Dems have historically protected and upheld – further education, social security, perhaps environmental regulation.

One area that has received barely any attention is workers’ rights. The Tory manifesto has some shocking policies in that area that make industrial action both almost impossible to undertake, and almost meaningless even when it is undertaken.

So let’s not get bogged down in the comfortable backwaters of recrimination and constitutional navel-gazing. We are bloody but unbowed, and we must be ready to make the case for a liberal Britain. Because if we don’t, no one else will.

* Tom King is a Liberal Democrat member and activist. He has worked for Liberal Democrat MPs and served on three policy working groups. He is the author of The Generous Society.

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This entry was posted in News.


  • I think the main issue is trust. Rightly or wrongly, you ask the average Joe what they think of the Lib Dems and they’ll immediately say, ‘Can’t be trusted. Didn’t they do that thing with the tuition fees?’ It hounded Clegg throughout the whole election and it might continue to hound the party until proven wrong in some way. Now, the media are mostly being kind and sympathetic to the party, in the aftermath, and that’s going to help a lot, I feel. But, moving forward, the party needs to focus on proving itself as the party of transparency and trust. Straight talking and honest, giving direct answers to direct questions etc.

  • Some good sense here. The Tories can simply ignore the noise on PR. Isn’t going to happen. They can also return to the delayed boundary changes which tip the electoral maths to them further and are hard to argue against within the context of the current system.

    Talking about workers rights needs care. It needs to be about individual employees rights and fairness rather than the balance of power between bosses and unions or the right to strike. Labour lost too – and not because they weren’t collectivist enough.

  • The party needs to show bravery and clear thinking in equal measure. Candidates like Joe Otten with his proven skills in local campaigning should be given the backing to find a way out of the current mess. Joe was a proud and unapologetic supporter of the Coalition and voices like his need to be heard and not just dismissed because of a brutal savage result.

  • I actually think the Lib Dem Manifesto and their values and beliefs were the best out of the whole lot and Nick Clegg spoke better than the other leaders in the whole Campaign. However the issue of trust was too big a barrier. Once lost it is hard to regain. Still, now that most of the MPs who broke their Pledge have been sent on their way, there is a hope that the Party can rebuild some trust under a new leader if the mistakes of the last five years are openly accepted and apologised for. It badly needs to do so. Lib Dem policies are great and on the strength of those alone, the Lib Dems would win a great deal of support. It was the MPs and the leadership who let the Party down because they proved through their actions to be untrustworthy. .

  • I can well understand why you want to pick yourselves up and choose your battles carefully and quickly. But, I fear that moment has passed us by. The (reluctant), conclusion I come to, is that the draconian Tory policy that we now face, over the next few years, has no democratic ‘off switch’, and it can now, only be battled on the streets, as it was in the Thatcher years.
    I truly wish to be wrong on this conclusion.

  • I am not a party member but always voted Lib Dem here in the West Country. The big problem you have is that many of us voted Lib Dem in 2010 to stop a Tory government but then found you in bed with them. I found that my Lib Dem MP would go along with a lot of Tory stuff and when I wrote to him all I got was a bland reply sending me a copy of a response from a Tory Minister. It felt like he had just folded and would not challenge strongly enough, such was the lure of being on the government benches. For example, it felt to many of us that Danny Alexander was basically a Tory. It was a huge mistake to get so cosy with the Tories, you left yourself wide open when it came to the election.
    If you are going to re-build you need to re-capture what you had in years past under people like Ashdown and Kennedy when people like me were enthused and trusted you. Despite some good stuff, it was a massive mistake to go into a coalition with a party so many of us can’t stand. You placed your former supporters in an impossible position and that was why you paid the price and the Tories hoovered you up. I am sure some of you party people will shoot me down for these comments but I am just a member of the public who always looked to the Lib Dems here in the West Country and who felt very very let down.

  • Dal
    The campaign for electoral reform started yesterday.
    That’s why Unlock Democracy and the Electoral Reform Society have joined forces to demand a fairer, more proportional voting system. Please sign the petition today.
    I heard a strong Tory saying the voting system was outdated so I am not sure the call for reform can be ignored.

  • Chris
    I am sure the Methodists in the West Country turned in their graves.
    However the financial crisis of 2008 was a very real one and the fallout was always going to be very painful and unavoidable. Without political stability it would have been much worse. Look at the recent history of other countries that suffered financial collapse.
    There are indeed lessons to be learned from the last five years but do not forget,”And if a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.” Mark 3:24

  • Tom. I don’t think that you should feel ashamed at all! The party was deaf to its membership and saw them as, at best, a resource to be managed. it was campaigning really just to stay in power and although the manifesto had some good points the overall campaign enthused only really those who wanted to stay as the little brother to the Tories. that went well.
    it is the time though for the members to take the party back and it would do well to listen to contributions from everyone who cares enough about it, or liberal philosophy, to talk to it.

  • @Manfarang
    “That’s why Unlock Democracy and the Electoral Reform Society have joined forces to demand a fairer, more proportional voting system. Please sign the petition today.”

    Thanks for this. I have just signed :-


  • I can remember a time when people in large numbers said that Liberal Democrats in Government was “not going to happen”, and they had been saying it for far longer than my entire life.

  • @Stuart
    We now know that PR would have given over 80 UKIP MPs, giving us a Tory/UKIP government. That makes me shudder. The next election would return even more UKIP as the immigration debate is not addressed by LibDems or Labour. We may not like to admit it but the fact is people are scared and ‘ fear creates violence’.

  • Are you forgetting that when people decide who they are going to vote for, they decide based on the electoral system that they are voting in, or do you know that all of the people who did vote Tory or UKIP would have done the same thing in a Proportional Representation system?

    People could have been voting UKIP to split the right wing vote and keep a Tory out.
    They could have voted Conservative to keep Labour out, when they would have voted Lib Dem under PR.
    They might have voted for UKIP because it was the best bet in there area for getting a pro-PR MP.
    I am in Brighton Pavillion, there are people here who vote Green because Caroline is the only chance of a PR supporting MP. (I don’t because I cannot make my hand vote for a communist, but I don’t have to worry that she won’t get in because of me).

  • Richard Underhill 10th May '15 - 1:45pm

    We should pay attention to what Shirley Williams said about money. The UK is following the USA, to our detriment.

  • Richard Underhill 10th May '15 - 1:55pm

    We should adhere to the party policy that we support the Single Transferable Vote.

    How about starting by electing MPs in Northern Ireland using the system they use for every other election?

    For the voters it is as simple as 1, 2 , 3, etc

    A lot of voters were undecided simply because they could not express their wishes, which is bad for democracy.

  • @ R Rossim
    My belief is that more would vote UKIP under PR knowing they would get more MPs in the current climate of fear.

  • Hi all. I belong to Aslef where a similar debate is raging. Where did it go wrong for Lib Dems. Well we allowed ourselves to be bullies by the SNP. We should have challenged them straight away as the Anti austerity party how they would pay off the debt and keep the standard of living up. Then use their tactic of a team for Scotland. A listening exercise is needed and more local approach. Liberal is not dead and after the blue shirts have ripped themselves to shreds over Europe we have a chance.

  • WildColonialBoy 10th May '15 - 4:27pm

    @Tom King
    “Vince Cable and Jo Swinson have a great track record of improving employment rights in government”

    You can’t be serious? In government Vince Cable doubled the unfair dismissal continuity of service requirements, imposed on trade unions administrative burdens and red tape that did not apply to any other form of voluntary organisation (a most illiberal “reform”) and reduced the length of collective consultations for redundancy

    Do you see these changes as “improving” workers’ rights?

  • SIMON BANKS 11th May '15 - 8:10pm

    Good point from johnmc. We started the election campaign with a very effective push on mental health but instead of following that with two or three more key issues we got sucked in to discussing our role in a hung parliament and attempting to quarantine the SNP. Nick Clegg harped on why Liberal Democrats were essential in government, which sounded like “please help us keep our titles and ministerial cars”.

    We are, though, still a much more democratic party than Labour or the Tories. We have real debates at conference and the leadership often can’t be sure which way a vote will go.

    But two things could be improved quite easily. First, e-messages to members could be a bit more honest. In the last year or so they often rang false. Secondly, there are recognised and tested standards for consultation exercises, so why can’t the party run a fair and competent consultation? The consultation on so-called OMOV (actually, one vote for anyone who can afford to get to conference) proposed taking away a right held by local parties (to choose their respresentatives) but failed to consult local parties directly. Worse, the consultation on “party communications” after the disastrous 2014 elections, which should have woken up the leadership much more than it did, failed to set clear criteria for the consultation. It wasn’t clear what it was about, what was included and what excluded! So many people thought the leadership question would be outside the remit and then the report remarked how few members had mentioned it! Neither consultation led to the publication of a proper summary of views put forward, which is pretty basic. We could do better.

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