Opinion: Lessons from 1979

Leaving through some kindly donated old copies of Liberator from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, there is a distinct sense of déjà vu. Calls to revive Community Politics. Urgent pleas to reinvent liberalism for a modern age. Complaints about how the English Party is run. Provocative comments from Simon McGrath triggering hostile rejoinders. (Although it did amuse me to find that one passionate argument against the party ending up a centre-right pro-capitalism outfit came from one Gavin Grant.)

Some of the issues covered have been lost in the gaps of history. Others are still very relevant – such as the Liberator Commentary (leader column) on lessons from the 1979 general election. Part of the previous Parliament had seen the Lib/Lab Pact, which kept a Labour Prime Minister in place in the face of a hung Parliament.

Going in to the 1979 election, Liberal Party leader David Steel was keen to defend the virtues of cross-party arrangements and of hung Parliaments. All sounds rather relevant to 2015…
One Liberator lesson from 1979 gives reason for optimism this time round. It was rightly pointed out that, “Steel’s task was formidable. He tried to persuade the electorate not that Liberal policy is best, but that it would be better politically for Britain to have a Liberal influence on government … It would have been a miracle if the idea had got across in just four weeks, and Steel himself is now saying that it needs another election to succeed. Also, many candidates just did not understand the concept.”

In that respect, Nick Clegg’s task in 2015 will be much easier: with a full five years of coalition, rather than 18 months of a far looser pact, to call on, the case to be made is much less novel and far better understood within the party, in the media and by the public.

However, the party risks running into a different problem that Steel encountered too in 1979.

Back then, the Liberal Party tried to balance on the one hand arguing for its ability to temper the extreme edges of other parties and to be a moderating, practical influence on government with on the other hand arguing for a set of policies on areas such as environmental reform and civil liberties that both the other main parties opposed.

It is hard to be both a moderating influence and wanting to do something completely different. That is a balancing act the Liberal Democrats will have to carry off in 2015 – and in the full knowledge that in a hung Parliament getting another party to agree to some of our distinctive agenda will necessarily also mean agreeing to policies of their own that we do not agree with.

* Mark Pack is a member of the Federal Board and editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire.

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30 Comments

  • The last point you make, of course, Mark, is an indicator of how risky the idea of a Coalition or administration of any sort with Tories specifically is. Unfortunately, Nick Clegg didn’t realise this at the time (and I am far from convinced that he does even now). I speak as someone who voted for the coalition agreement in 2010 (but, as I have since written here, I now believe in the naive belief that tuition fees and other topics included in amendments to the main motion at the Birmingham special conference would either be red-lined, or treated very carefully in Government.)

  • Mark says —
    “It is hard to be both a moderating influence and wanting to do something completely different.”

    Jo Grimond and David Penhaligon had a rather different approach to the Lib Lab Pact. In Penhaligon’s words they had a strategy of “a row a day” with the Labour ministers. There were no Liberal ministers only occasional meetings, most of which according to Grimond were a waste of time, but he enjoyed the tea and biscuits! The distinct image and purpose of Liberal activists and candidates was not sullied by an over-cosy relationship with Labour. The Pact had also been ended some months before and we managed to win a by election in Liverpool just before the general election, compared with the 2% we got in Cowdenbeath last Thursday.

    So it was a very different experience from the collection of car crashes we have had to endure with the ‘King Midas in Reverse’ qualities of Nick Clegg as party leader. The ability to climb out of the very deep hole that Clegg continues to dig for Liberal Democrat candidates will be a much more daunting task than David Steel’s job in 1979. But then Steel was a brilliant achiever and had by then a thirteen year well deserved reputation in parliament and amongst the public for his opposition to apartheid and his cross party work on abortion. Clegg’s reputation as shown in yesterday’s Sunday Times poll is 58% points below rock bottom! The lesson for the party is that we are in a hole and we should stop Clegging.

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Jan '14 - 11:09am


    In that respect, Nick Clegg’s task in 2015 will be much easier: with a full five years of coalition, rather than 18 months of a far looser pact, to call on, the case to be made is much less novel and far better understood within the party, in the media and by the public.

    No, I don’t think so. The Lib-Lab pact was formed when the Labour government that was already in place lost its majority due to by-elections, and so could more easily be seen as avoiding the instability of an early general election rather than as a choice to “put in” one of the two big parties instead of the other. Liberal MPs were not given ministerial posts, so it could not be written up as “you did it just to get power”. The Liberal Party remained on the opposition benches, and did not make partisan remarks suggesting it had completely abandoned its independence and balance of opinion between the two big parties.

    I think it is very clear from the way the media has covered it, and the way the Liberal Democrats have been written off by such a big proportion of the public, that the Coalition has NOT been understood. We continue to be hit by charges that this was a voluntary choice rather than something forced on us by the balance in Parliament, and by the assumption that because we are “in government”, as we are so foolishly urged to boast by our leaders and party right-wingers, we are in full support of all of its policies and could somehow have put policies closer to our own manifesto in place if we really wanted.

  • Bill le Breton 27th Jan '14 - 12:15pm

    Professor John Curtice , on this Sunday’s Westminster Hour http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01qlqvj 3 mins 10 secs in.

    “There is absolutely no sign of any recovery in the Lib Dem vote ever since they were party to an increase in university tuition fees in England to £9,000. Since when they have been running at 10 – 11%. The problem is if you say one thing in British politics on what you put forward as your Unique Selling Point it is very difficult to persuade voters to trust you once again.”

    This problem won’t go away whilst Clegg is leader.

    A potential solution was not hard to find in that studio on Sunday night.

  • The Coalition has been understood all too well by the public at large. If it was not “a voluntary choice rather than something forced on us”, why did our leader behave like a love-struck bride in the Rose Garden? Why do we continue to make repeated partisan remarks excoriating everything Labour does, while making only far more limited and occasional criticisms of the Conservatives? Why do we trumpet the “achievements” of the Coalition in such an uncritical way?

    The public are not stupid. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck and defecates like a duck, it’s a duck.

  • @JohnTilley Two factors about the Lib/Lab Pact are worth bearing in mind. First, even its keenest supporters were able to point to very little in the way of government policy changes that the Pact achieved – e.g. in David Steel’s accounts of the Pact. Not being in government also went with changing very little in government.

    Second, not being in government didn’t help the party’s poll ratings – proportionately the party lost pretty much the same share of its previous general election support during the Pact as during the Coalition. Indeed, as you’ll know better from your memories of the time being a tiny bit older than me (!) – the lack of support for the party was a regular bone of contention for critics of Steel’s approach to the Pact, arguing that he had cost the party votes without getting Liberal policies enacted.

    @Tim13 I’d just add that risk is a relative thing – and one risk of not being in government is the missed opportunity that offers, not just the dangers it brings.

  • paul barker 27th Jan '14 - 1:11pm

    If we are in the risky business of making historical parallels then surely 1979 was much more like 2010, the fall of a Labour Government after a long period when Politics was dominated by TheAuthoritarian Left & its internal struggles. The big difference is that both Labour & Tories were so much weaker in 2010 & 3rd & 4th Parties so much stronger.

  • @ John Tilley

    “There were no Liberal ministers only occasional meetings”

    And no Liberal policies and we still ended up being slaughtered at the next election. Presumably you think winning the occasional by-election is the sole goal of being in politics.

    “So it was a very different experience from the collection of car crashes we have had to endure with the ‘King Midas in Reverse’ qualities of Nick Clegg as party leader”

    Ah, so it’s all due to Nick Clegg that the Lib Dems have any problems at all, is it? Nothing to do with the fact that our leader has been targeted and pilloried mercilessly in the media for four years from both sides, left and right, due to massive vested interests, and nothing to do with the unpopularity of making necessary cuts to save the public finances from disaster?

    Meanwhile, of course, there has been a queue of other potential leadership candidates who know that the answers to how to avoid Nick Clegg’s schoolboy errors who have just been waiting to step into his shoes to put things right.

    @ Bill le Breton

    “This problem won’t go away whilst Clegg is leader.”

    “This problem” as you put it, is inherent in going into Coalition with another party as the junior partner. Some way, at some point, one or more of your sacred policy cows is going to get slaughtered. If it hadn’t been that, it would have been the £10,000 personal allowance, the Pupil Premium, the Green Bank, Regional Development funds etc etc.

    The other parties have vast long lists of things they’ve failed to do while in power, even having a majority in parliament and the money to do things with. Yet somehow we still rush into the trap of letting our political opponents define us by what we haven’t done rather than by the things we have done.

    On this very question, I think you are wrong, actually. My view is based on a conversation I had on the doorstep in Eastleigh:
    Voter: “Well, I’m not that happy about the Lib Dems, what with the tuition fees thing and all that.”
    Me: “Well, the solution we came up with isn’t ideal, but given that there was no money to do what we wanted and we’ve only got an eleventh of the MPs in parliament, how can we force the other ten elevenths of the MPs to do what we want them to?”
    Voter: “But what about all that money students have to pay now”
    Me: “Well they don’t have to pay directly upfront and when they do pay the money back its based on how much they earn. If they don’t earn much, they don’t pay anything.”

    In the end, when things were explained to him, he agree to vote for us. The point is, the voters have been subjected to such a torrent of media misinformation about the Lib Dems and Nick Clegg in particular, it is only on the doorstep we are going to get through to them.

  • Gwyn Williams 27th Jan '14 - 1:54pm

    Although the Tory campaign poster ” labour isn’t working ” is the poster everyone remembers from 79, our “who will win in the Thatcher Callaghan gunfight” summed up our position far better than endless pamphlets talking about the centre ground. The lesson learnt from the Lib Lab pact was that an inter party agreement had to be clear, detailed and for a defined time period. It has guided us through the Alliance , numerous local government deals, into coalition deals in Wales and Scotland and Government. None of this has given us a clue as to how we come out of these coalitions and actually gain seats. Which is why the Party is so angst ridden at the moment.

  • Steve Griffiths 27th Jan '14 - 2:50pm

    Caracatus

    Small point, but Bessell was MP for Bodmin, not Pardoe’s seat of North Cornwall.

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Jan '14 - 3:30pm

    RC

    Voter: “Well, I’m not that happy about the Lib Dems, what with the tuition fees thing and all that.”
    Me: “Well, the solution we came up with isn’t ideal, but given that there was no money to do what we wanted and we’ve only got an eleventh of the MPs in parliament, how can we force the other ten elevenths of the MPs to do what we want them to?”

    Yes, I’ve said the same thing many times myself. But it is made much harder when our Leader and those surrounding him keep going on and on about us being “in government” and boasting about how wonderful it is, and how it is the fulfilment of all we had been working for over the decades. As David Allen says, it started off with the “Rose Garden” imagery, which gave the impression that this was not a disappointing compromise we had to accept because anything else was worse, but it was an almost equal partnership and done because the two sides found each other so close they wanted to “jump into bed”. We just have not been able to escape from that grave mistake in imagery made at the start, but it hasn’t been helped by the way those at the top of the party continue to push that sort of exaggeration of what was really possible, and this so damaging line about us being “in government”, which inevitably leads to angry disappointment when us being “in government” isn’t delivering what was in our manifesto.

    Remember that slogan “75% of our policies implemented” which we were at one term urged to use in all our publicity and whenever we were talking about the party? How damaging was that? The public read it (wrongly, but it’s an easy mistake to make, have you ever tried teaching maths?) as suggesting the government was 75% Liberal Democrat in policy – very different from the “how little we can do with just ten elevenths of the MPs” line you are using. The 75% was the back of an envelope calculation which its own authors revised to a much lower figure later. But the damage was done – so many of our voters were left thinking “Well if this is what a government that is 75% Liberal Democrat is like, I was very much mistaken in what I thought the party was like – those people who dismissed the Liberal Democrats as just ‘yellow Tories’ were perhaps more right that I supposed when I voted for them”.

    That slogan was quietly withdrawn, but should never have been allowed out in the first place. So WHO was responsible for it? We have been hearing recently about the necessity of making apologies for bringing the party into disrepute, so who will apologise for this one? Why did it quietly but rather suddenly disappear as if it had never been there in the first place? Why did no-one say “We aren’t using it any more because we realise it was wrong”?

  • @ Caracatus

    You appear to be totally ignoring recent polling in marginals which shows us virtually unchanged against the Tories. On that basis we would keep most of our Tory-facing seats.

    Clearly, in Labour-facing ones, unless we can gather up lots of 2010 Tory votes, we’re mostly going to be toast.

    Where we are not in with a chance of winning at all, our vote is collapsing totally. Where we have a chance and are facing the Tories, things are mostly reasonably good.

    Anyway, I’m not sure why anyone is trying to argue the Lib-Lab pact and its aftermath was so good for us. In 1979 we won 11 seats. The latest projection from UK Polling Report puts us on 26 seats.

  • RC 27th Jan ’14 – 1:41pm
    @ John Tilley. …… ….. Presumably you think winning the occasional by-election is the sole goal of being in politics.

    You do not have to presume anything about what I think about the goal of politics because I am on record of saying that I think politics is about people taking and USING power. You can also check out my personal record of winning elections, running a Liberal democrat majority on a London Borough, during which time we elected two Liberal Democrat MPs one of whom was one of the best women MPs this party has had in its history. Of course I cannot check any record that you might have RC because you hide behind an alias. — for all I know you are one of the highly paid special advisors that is appointed by Clegg. Why don’t you rip off the mask you hide behind and tell us what your record is?

  • Steve Griffiths 27th Jan '14 - 4:16pm

    @RC

    “Anyway, I’m not sure why anyone is trying to argue the Lib-Lab pact and its aftermath was so good for us. In 1979 we won 11 seats. The latest projection from UK Polling Report puts us on 26 seats.”

    I haven’t argued that. but if as you say UK Polling are predicting we loose more than half our seats at the next general, compare that with the number of seats in percentage terms we lost in 1979.

  • Well, RC, I would agree with you that “Nick Clegg has been pilloried mercilessly” in an unfair manner, if I had swallowed wholesale the propaganda that you have, in that the public finances needed “saving from disaster”. I noted someone (was it you?) quoting Liam Byrne as the only truth teller in the Labour Government having left his note for his successor as Chief Sec to the Treasury, saying there was no money left. He stated later that that had been meant as a joke, but, of course, David Laws took it absolutely seriously. The truth was, as most people know, that the public finances had been deployed by Labour to shore up the banks, which had put considerable strain on the debt and the deficit, but the root of the problem was bank (and personal) debt, and was international.

    Mark Pack – Yes, I accept that risks (or opportunities) can be balanced off against one another depending on the choices made. However, I find it simplistic to claim, as Nick Clegg does, that achieving things is something you do “in Government, not opposition”. All of us, at whatever level in politics, have experienced achievements through opposition, in pushing for decisions to be taken. If the right reaction from people, and from an administration is there, then you can get things done alright as an opposition. Equally, as our parliamentarians have found, you can become hamstrung in power, even when you are a single party administration. All these things are relative, and I think Clegg has been a little condescending or naive in not recognising this.

  • paul barker 27th Jan '14 - 4:40pm

    To be fair to Steel, one of the reasons he wanted the Pact was the opportunity it gave to widen Labour splits. That part of the strategy worked very well, we are the evidence.

  • Tim13 27th Jan ’14 – 4:33pm

    Tim, it is possible for Nick Clegg to be both condescending and naive.
    It is also possible for him to have had one week of Cleggmania and three years of ever declining personal unpopularity.
    It is not just possible but a matter of fact that Clegg is now toxic with all but a handful of voters across the country.
    Have you noticed that his defenders in LDV tend to be the ones who hide behind an alias? Hardly surprising I suppose, who would want to admit to defending such an abysma record of failure ?

  • Bill le Breton 27th Jan '14 - 5:46pm

    RC, This is not a problem of going into Coalition, nor is it an argument against coalition, it is an argument against remaining tied to someone whose reputation was irretrievably damaged.

    As Prof Curtice reminds us it is “the problem of putting forward something as your *Unique Selling Point* and doing another” . It was a spectacular blunder. It was a Perrier moment. It is to persuade voters to trust you once again as was illustrated in the AV referendum.

    For anyone who didn’t hear the programme, here again is the link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01qlqvj 3 mins 10 secs in.

    It is a fundamental lesson in politics through history that when once you sacrifice the trust of the people you don’t get it back. It is there first rule of campaigning – don’t make a promise and then break it … and certainly don’t make a promise never to break a promise and then break that one.

    The public know the truth of this maxim; The leader’s net rating is minus 58 according to yesterdays Sunday Times poll. The party’s campaigner know the truth of this maxim, they refused to use the leader in the Eastleigh campaign material. The party’s pollsters know the truth of this maxim; The party’s own poll monitoring is showing us becalmed at 10%.

    We now have a good number of people who have held senior Government positions, one of whom must take over the leadership and presentation of our Party.

  • John Tilley – who would you have replace Clegg?

    No, thought not.

  • I’ll happily donate to the party if someone can explain the decision for mass abstention on the Jeremy Hunt vote.

  • Steve Griffiths 28th Jan '14 - 9:01am

    Caracatus

    Well I was only 16 when he lost his seat! ;o)

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Jan '14 - 11:58am

    RC

    You appear to be totally ignoring recent polling in marginals which shows us virtually unchanged against the Tories. On that basis we would keep most of our Tory-facing seats.

    Well, I hope this is the case. Given that most of our seats are in places which were long-term Tory until we won them, the biggest beneficiaries of a collapse in the LibDem vote will be the Tories.

    Clearly, in Labour-facing ones, unless we can gather up lots of 2010 Tory votes, we’re mostly going to be toast.

    That’s a serious loss of ground. Our development from the 1970s was primarily where we had established ourselves as the main opposition to theTories, but in recent years we have managed to build up more of a challenge in Labour-dominated areas. We had always had isolated odd successes in such places (e.g. David Alton’s win in 1979), but it was becoming more general.

    Where we are not in with a chance of winning at all, our vote is collapsing totally. Where we have a chance and are facing the Tories, things are mostly reasonably good.

    That’s a BAD place to be. It’s where the Liberal Party found itself in the 1920s and stayed for decades. It could hold on to the places where it was traditionally strong, but wasn’t making advances anywhere, and once it lost anywhere, that was it.

    Our party leader and his strategic advisers have been telling us that it’s all changed now we’re a party “in government”. No longer are we looking for “protest votes” or votes “borrowed from Labour” to win seats on a locally based campaign, no, we were told, now we are going to win votes based on building up a national image of a being a “liberal” party interpreted as meaning right-wing on economics, left-wing on social issues.

    It’s clear from what you are saying that there are NO significant votes in that. Attempts by those at the top to use the coalition as an excuse to build that sort of image have almost destroyed the party, pushed it right back by about 80 years, undone all the progress of building up Liberalism as an alternative politics of the left which challenges Labour.

    Anyway, I’m not sure why anyone is trying to argue the Lib-Lab pact and its aftermath was so good for us. In 1979 we won 11 seats. The latest projection from UK Polling Report puts us on 26 seats.

    I’m not sure anyone here is trying to argue that.

    To me, the significant aspects of the 1979 general election was that the Liberal Party was not wiped out in the way it had been predicted. It kept enough of the big progress made in the 1974 general elections to be able to build on. I don’t think the Liberal Democrats will be wiped out in 2015, but we need a strategy to take us forward. As I’ve said above, the strategy which some influential people have been trying to push has failed us dreadfully.

    Sure, 2015 is going to have to be about survival. But what then? I’m sorry, but so long as Clegg remains as leader, people are going to see us in terms of the strategy associated with him: building up votes from people who have switched to us because they are impressed to see us “in government”, and pushing a more ideological version of “liberalism” on the Orange Book line. This got called the “Clegg coup”. So I think we need an “unClegg coup” to reverse us from it.

  • Tabman Please stop this incessant question of “Who else is there?” I know precisely who I and a number of others would back, but the idea of “outing ” an alternative at this stage would merely wreck the future. In fact I would say your approach of asking that question is to do just that! So, stop it!

  • Tin13 – a number of future Tory and Labour leaders were touted before the elections of Cameron and Ed. Surely if John wants to snipe at the leader he should have an alternative?

  • David Allen 28th Jan '14 - 2:39pm

    Tabman, the Labour example is a good one. Labour repeatedly moaned that they couldn’t think of a perfect alternative to Gordon. The polls repeatedly told them that Milidum, Milidee, Harman, Johnson and several more, though all with some flaws, would all poll higher than Gordon. Labour failed to take the point. Finally Gordon resigned and Labour’s poll figures immediately jumped four points, enough to save them the election, if it weren’t for the sad fact that the election had happened a week earlier. Later Milidee got elected and duly showed substantial flaws, yet still polled (of course) better than Gordon.

    It’s the same with Clegg. Now, we might or might not pick the best alternative to Clegg. But just about all of them (OK, I’ll make an exception for Danny) would be better than Clegg, both electorally and as a leader!

  • And, Tabman, I am sure that the same will happen when more top level shove comes behind the fact that a replacement is needed. But with mainly grassroots pressure at present, it would mean that anyone emerging from the woodwork now will be very easily “snuffed out”. But what it means is, that there ARE viable alternatives, of course, but it is not the right time to air at present.

  • Simon Banks 28th Jan '14 - 4:21pm

    There are lessons from 1979 (woops, keyed in 1779…hmm…the Fox/North pact was a bit later, so maybe that we shouldn’t have arguments with the Americans? Or not with the Americans and the French at the same time?)

    One worry about our present position is that the usual big improvement in our performance from what the polls are saying before the election presumably comes from two factors – the voters waking up to local factors like a hard-working Lib (Dem) MP or that Labour are a poor third; and the change from us being ignored by the media to us getting a fair amount of coverage. The first should apply in 2015, but the second won’t because we’ve had loads of media attention. In the second election of 1974, when Liberals held the balance and sustained a shaky Labour government, there was no surge. So will 2015 be similar? Since our scary poll ratings in 1979 did improve during the election and in October 1974 we failed to surge forward from quite reasonable poll ratings, maybe our prospects aren’t that bad. In 1977-9 we were a bit more in the public eye than usually between elections.

    Yes, we weren’t in government and our leaders disagreed openly with the government quite often – but on the other hand by late 1979, we were sustaining a government that was obviously struggling and unpopular. Callaghan did not seem to be in control of events and English voters in particular don’t like that in a prime minister. The present government is deeply controversial, but not so obviously wounded. The point is well made that in 1979 we had very little at all to point to that we’d achieved through the arrangement and had to harp on the dreadful things that might happen without us (since one of them was Thatcher, maybe we were right).

    Oh, and during the election campaign David Steel, not the most radical of leaders, argued that we were the alternative to two conservative parties…

  • David Allen – you can’t draw the conclusion that ditching Broon would have saved Labour’s bacon. The Tories ditched IDS and it didn’t make them win in 2005. If we’re unpopular we’re unpopular and ditching Clegg won’t save us. From you perspective, surely better to let him cop all the serious flak and permit an unsullied new leader to rise from the ashes?

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