Opinion: Taking a battering in the polls was the best thing that could happen to us

You may think that this is a rather perverse and even nonsensical statement for any Lib Dem member to make but stick with me if you will and I will explain why.

For as long as I can remember, the Liberal Democrats have been the party of protest in two ways. Firstly as the safe option for a protest vote because secondly, we were seen as a party of perpetual opposition. We were the cross on the ballot paper that puts two fingers up to the government of the day without really changing the political landscape. We were the party of perennial protesters, waving our liberal banners in protest at government policy and trying to exert a limited influence within the Palace of Westminster.

As a party, we had grown comfortable with our place in Westminster politics, we accepted that we were a party of opposition and recognised that under the current First Past the Post system, we were always likely to stay there. The upshot of that was whilst we produced numerous legitimate and worthy policies, we also set out some policies that, if we are honest with ourselves, we couldn’t uphold if we ever entered government; policies popular with particular sections of the electorate and therefore important to the party at a local level but ultimately undeliverable at a national level.

May the 6th 2010 put the cat amongst the pigeons and threw Lib Dem policies into the media spotlight and despite the fact that 75% of our manifesto is currently being enacted in the Commons (compared with just 60% of the Tories’) it is that one undeliverable, tuition fees, that has come back to bite us. Hard.

Roll forward 12 months and the party takes an almighty tub thumping in both in the local elections and the AV referendum. The response from the party has been mixed. There were some very high profile calls for the party to pull out of the coalition before we even went to the polls and privately, some members have called for the party to go back to the future, back to our oppositional roots, away from the trials, tribulations and responsibilities of government fearing further blood loss in the local elections twelve months from now.

Government is not our biggest enemy right now; it is the mentality of a party that has been launched from its comfort zone of opposition and protest into the pressure cooker of government and responsibility. Our biggest enemy is within. It is the fear of change that being in government is forcing upon us. It is the reluctance to face a moment of introspection, to look at the realities of why we got such a bloody nose on May 6th and a reluctance to make the changes necessary to correct our failings.

The devastating results were the best thing for us as party for one simple reason: it taught us some tough lessons, lessons we must learn and fast.

No more can we make promises we can’t keep. We must show that we are a credible force in politics with serious, deliverable policies that reflect, and are honest about, the realities of the day and the limitations of what can be achieved.

No more can we rely on protest votes to win us seats. We must make sure that the electorate understands what a liberal politics is all about, not just in the form of policies, but with clear and unequivocal values that drive all that we do, both locally and nationally: equality, liberty of expressions, freedom from the Orwellian scrutiny of the Big Brother state and the promotion of human rights for all must drive all we do.

However, having these values at our core is not enough: we need to demonstrate to the electorate why they are of critical importance in contemporary society. We must challenge the dominant discourses that sees human rights as nothing more than a mechanism for protecting those who have ‘wronged’ society; and that see equality as process for undermining Britishness and the privilege that certain social groups enjoy.

We must grow a core support of people who know and subscribe to the visions and values of liberal politics. We need to be clear about who we are. For if we are not, how can we expect the electorate to buy into what we believe in?

We may be a little bloodied in battle but learn the lessons and we may still win the war.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Former Lib Dem 28th May '11 - 4:11pm

    Being bloodied over matters of substance, like the economy, may be novel, but the party is disliked… even hated… because of the perception that it lied to the electorate: that “liberal principles” is synonymous with “no principles”.

    I’m sorry, but that can never be good.

  • Former Lib Dem 28th May '11 - 4:19pm

    Also: to state that “we must grow a core base”. Perhaps. But right now, the public is so alienated that they won’t buy it.

    All I see here is a call to exclude those who the party used to represent and now find awkward. A narrowing of the base. And it will cost us dearly.

  • paul barker 28th May '11 - 4:22pm

    Excellent article, the point is we dont actually know how much support for Liberal Politics there is in Britain & we may not find out for a decade or so. All we can do is our best & then wait for the result.

  • “This portion of the electorate in my opinion had nothing particularly useful to offer to politics …”

    Ah, yes, the “We didn’t want your votes anyway” response. But of course, the irony is that without those votes, you wouldn’t have had the problem of being in government in the first place. And you won’t have that problem again in the foreseeable future.

  • Good article. The fact is that the Lib Dems could afford to be idealistic and attract the votes of idealists when they appeared to be in perpetual opposition. Now that they’re in power reality has dawned. The world is not a nice fluffy simple place and hard choices have to be made.

  • Thanks for the article. I guess you are correct .All parties have their “comfort zones” – it was “fun” to be in opposition promoting sound policies that both other parties rejected – and promoting new ideas is a vital role for an opposition liberal party. Some made friendly noises backing our policies – electoral reform amongst them – until it came to the crunch !!!
    But Labour and Tories have their “Comfort zones” – and that (surprising for Labour) is to say NO to change. Just ask what is their policy to make the electoral system fairer – NO change, FPTP must remain. Tory dinosours share this approach – no to any true progressive change ( It’s clear that even the 1911 Parliament Act has yet to be accepted by some Tory leaders in the Lords !
    . I’d love to be a fly on the Cabinet room wall as Lib Dems (and one or two Tories – when awake !) try to steer decisions in a positive direction.

  • You have said what I have been posting on here for some time, only much better. At all the general elections of this century my partner, who was only briefly a party member (to vote for Nick!) has metaphorically shouted at the TV about our lack of ambition to become a party of government, while I, a party member for 44 years, worried about us doing too well, especially after the first leaders’ debate. It is really important to realise that the past year has changed things for us: eternal opposition is far more comfortable than where we are now, and there is a huge swathe of the Labour Party which would also be quite happy never having to take responsibility for anything, but I try to keep optimistic that we will emerge from this experience as a party with more to offer the British people than good ideas and constructive opposition as has been our role til now.

  • Excellent, thoughtful post. Couldn’t agree more.

    Request for title of your next article: “Why are we so bad at communication and how can we improve?”

  • Kevin Colwill 28th May '11 - 7:42pm

    I’m hardly in my dotage but I’m well past the first flush of youth and never voted anything but Lib Dem. I’ll go further, my family voted Liberal for generations. Core vote?- I was tribal!!

    My vote was never a protest vote. My vote was of left (I’m old fashioned about labelling and being of the “left” means a lot to me). It was a rejection of the rabid free market economic laissez faire economic Darwinism I associate with the Tories. It was certainly a rejection of the analysis that says private is always to be preferred to public in the provision of services.

    Where’s my small l liberalism? It’s in there, but it’s not all that’s in there. I rather liked the old days when news reports of European Liberal parties that felt duty bound to explain they had an economic philosophy to the right of Lib Dems here.

    So there was always was core vote. Maybe not the core you want now but we turned out election after election in traditional Liberal areas. If we’ll continue to do so is a moot point

  • David Allen 28th May '11 - 7:54pm

    “we don’t actually know how much support for Liberal Politics there is in Britain….”

    I think we do, actually, know how much support there is for making grandiose pledges to students and then tripling their fees. Not a lot!

    We got it badly wrong. We could have avoided the error the easy way, by not making an excessive pledge in the first place. Or we could have avoided the error the harder way, by telling Cameron that our pledge to students was the reddest of our red lines and that it took precedence over our desire to have an AV referendum and take lots of jobs in Cabinet. One way or the other, we should have avoided the error. The public know who is responsible, which is why our leader is discredited. Why we carry on with a discredited leader, heaven knows. It’s just like Labour’s purblind determination to carry on through thin and thin with Gordon Brown!

    “… & we may not find out for a decade or so. All we can do is our best & then wait for the result.”

    Yes, if we let Clegg carry on for another decade we shall remain discredited all that time, and we won’t get any sort of vote. Does that make sense?

  • Tony Dawson 28th May '11 - 8:09pm

    [b]MOST[/b] votes for [b]MOST[/b] MPs are protest votes, sometimes against a government, sometimes against a particular opposition party who frighten some voters. And now we have lost AV this will continue to be the case. So get real, people. Most voters never read a manifesto or even see a predigested breakdown of one.

    Representative democracy is about choosing an MP you trust. In making such a decision, the policies on certain matters of interest at the time are of some relevance to some voters but not much. Which is why TRUST is so important.

  • @Mat
    OK you’re not sad to see those who voted due to protest move on, there is certainly logic in that. That said no party wins a single seat on the votes of it’s core support only. Each party carries a certain number of voters who have swapped their votes for various reasons. But what about those voters that feel that some key promises made to them by their Lib Dem candidate were broken ? Some feel let down and lied to, they too can share your Liberal principles, the party needs to convince them that it has really learnt and will hounor their trust in the future.

    There is talk about not making promises that cannot be kept, my worry is about making promises and then not attempting to keep them. Personally I vote for the manifesto that most closely meets my worldview, in local elections I also take the the peformance of the individuals being elected more into account. Recently that has been the Lib Dems, I have lost a lot of trust int he leadership but will not be voting for anyone else as a protest, they would have to convince me that their offering was best for the Country. If there were an election tomorrow I am not sure I am yet in a position to trust the leadership with my vote. There has been movement and I am certainly happier than I was 2 months ago but there is some way to go.

    I also worry that if pre-defined achievability is the only shaper of policy all three parties merge too closely together.

    Some of the most significant and beneficial changes in this country have been made in the face of others calling them unachievable. Often it is the forces of conservatism that have led the protests. Ending slavery would be bad for business, the minimum wage would be bad for business millions of jobs would move abroad etc etc.

  • I am still a Liberal Democrat because I have nowhere else to go. The term ‘liberal’ is bandied about as though everyone knows what it means. The current practice and phillosophy of our leadership is that of the Orange Book Liberals which most of us reject.. It includes support for centralisation and ultimate marketisation of our Education system without a peep. It includes support for Lansley’s health policy before being brought up short by the Party and the professioal bodies. I really wish I could enthuse about the 75% but I know that our leadership lack political nous and, as David Marquand has said, are tories under the skin.

  • @MatGB
    “The tuition fees ‘pledge’ was not policy, and the reason the MPs in large part broke it was that the other parties wouldn’t support our costed alternative. If we’d won, that wouldn’t have been an issue.”

    This is the type of comment that chases away voters. The pledge assumed that those who signed it would have a Bill to vote against, therefore clearly there would be a Government (or some makeup) that did not agree with the Lib Dem policy. There is no excuse it was shameful, it made liars of Lib dem MP’s and until it this is accepted some of the votes will never return.

    The lie of “If we were in a majority Government we would have kept the pledge” is just rubbish. If in majority Government there would have been no need for the pledge. If in opposition keeping it would be simple, the moral courage to keep to it was needed only when going against one’s own Government. On that count too many failed.

    It did not say “We will introduce a Bill…..” it said “Vote Against”. There is no grey area at all.

  • Very good piece.

    We have to proclaim who we are and what we stand for. Until the public (and indeed some of our members) is clear about that, we stand no chance of being taken seriously.

    This is now time for internal discussion, debate and decisions so that we emerge with a much clearer identity.

  • I have been a member of either the Liberal Party or the LDs since 1983. I am not a protest voter, nor are my friends. We are liberals, we believe in Liberalism and understand the philosophy and its application in the modern world. This is what we have worked for.

    The battering was not a good thing – it showed very clearly that we have alienated our ‘core’ support and upset those who travelled with us because they felt that we offered a better alternative.

    The reasons for this are just two; they are clear and simple, and have nothing to do with the move to government from opposition. They are- 1: our negotiators were spiked by the tory team over fees, quite unnecessarily, and that led to the disaster which followed, the repurcussions of which are yet to be fully felt – you will not want to be an ‘out’ Lib Dem when A level results are out later in the year and talented young people are going on the dole rather than going to university, and universities are looking at closure, and 2: the failure to apply liberal principles in Scotland leading to the decision to oppose both the previous SN administration, rather than govern with them, and the pitiful attempt to justify this because of their proposals for a referendum – a REFERENDUM, mind, – on self-determination.

    Fix those, and the party will start to heal.

  • Bill le Breton 29th May '11 - 12:13pm

    Did we oppose the Iraq War in order to gain protest votes? No. We opposed it for sound Liberal reasons and our stance and campaign brought in new supporters. Did we then trim our policies to retain those new supporters? No, we used the warmth they felt for us to convince them that they have found a good home by communicating in word and deed the value of our ideas and the strength of our determination to win more and more support for these values, ideas and policies.

    Yes, at the heart of Liberal values is the tension between individual freedoms and a belief that there is a social duty to help others to take and use power, to help them seize and realise their potential by fostering opportunities in all the communities to which we belong. Is it possible to be a Liberal without being an active campaigner (in the widest sense) for equal opportunities? Our campaigns for justice are campaigns for that equality of opportunity and are consistent therefore with our fight for greater liberty for all.

    I do not recognize a description of my fellow Liberal Democrats as more comfortable in opposition. Has Andy ever stood for election as a councillor? Has he been fortunate to serve with other Liberal Democrat Councillors? They work night and day not just to represent people but to gain majority power or minority influence so they can introduce our policies and help others take and use opportunities to realise their potential. Ditto our members of the various Parliaments and Assemblies. No one is comfortable in opposition – everyone is frustrated there, helplessly watching as power is abused in oppressive ways by our opponents.

    There are strong Liberal arguments why our general election position on deficit reduction and HE fees was right. They were not put forward behind the white flag. They were put forward with the determination that they would become policy. I have never met a canidate yet who did not in her heart want and hope to win (even when notionally a paper candidate!)

    As the continuing failure of Osborne’s ‘expansionary deficit reduction’ proves, our position on the economy in April 2010 was right (as was our position on VAT) and the restraint on Tory economic policy could have been our greatest contribution as Coalition members to the history of this country.

    Similarly, our position of HE fees was also right. The present policy will not bring in a penny for five years from the point of the decision and it has fulfilled no economic purpose other than actually to make the deficit higher! It was ideological and all the worse for that.

    In short Liberals have always been serious and about power. Our policy for its use and distribution is strikingly different to that of our opponents. Already each day we campaign for those values that Andy lists. We don’t need to ‘start’ campaigning on them, we need to continue … effectively … and resolutely.

  • Spot on, Andy. I disagree with you, Geoffrey Payne, that protest votes are a straw man. They do indeed exist, and they have indeed sustained us through the years. While there is indeed lots to protest about, to protest about something is easy. To come up with solutions is harder.

    So it’s easy to protest about cuts, or wars, but much harder to come up with alternatives. Nobody likes cuts. But those protesting about them haven’t given us any alternatives. The unions suggest we could somehow eliminate the deficit entirely with a Robin Hood tax and/or by kicking the deficit-reduction into the long grass. The Robin Hood Tax, whilst a very good idea, if successful at reducing damaging currency speculation would raise less money. To delay deficit reduction means bigger cuts and steeper tax rises in a few years.

    We need supporters that are aligned with our beliefs and values, and will stick by us through thick and thin. So a hardcore of 30% of people that usually vote Labour still stuck by them, despite all the disappointments of their 13 years in power – letting council housing stock diminish, PFI programmes and NHS privatisation, illegal and unpopular wars etc etc – because they identify with the party and just saw the positives and not the negatives. We need people who will stick by us in the same way. They may not like the cuts, but can see that there aren’t alternatives, and applaud the Pupil Premium, fairer taxes, and reforms like taking big money out of politics.

  • I see this as a devious defence of the coalition, and it is one I cannot respect, because it is disingeuous and insulting of those who take a different view. I guess he is trying to “square the circle” without realising that squares and circles will never coalesce.

    It is disingeuous, because it pretends that only Conservative policies are realistic and grown-up, and that it is possible for Liberal Democrat values to preponderate in a government dominated by mammonite Tories (a little confused, but that is true of most pro-coalition thinking). It is insulting, because it accuses anti-coalition Liberal Democrats of being unrealistic and craving the alleged comfort of opposition.

    Some pro-coalition arguments I can respect. Matthew Huntbach argues from a mix of democratic mandate and necessity. I don’t agree with him, but if the leadership heeded his advice and admitted that we have little influence, the electoral damage might not be so serious (every time someone recites this tired drivel about implementing 75% of our manifesto, another clutch of supporters deserts us in disgust). George Kendall argues that it is essential for Britain’s economy to implement the Tory deficit reduction strategy. I don’t agree with him, but at least he is up front about it, and one can respect that. What the author of this post is really trying to tell us is that Tory policies are right. Sorry, if I thought that, I’d be in the Tory Party, not the Liberal Democrats.

    If we do as the author advises, I solemnly predict that the party will disintegrate. Some top names will join the Tories to save their careers, while the rest of us will drift away, cancelling our standing orders when we’ve had more than we can possibly take.

    To rebuild our relationship with the electorate we have to find a way out of this coalition. We have to stop defending Tory policies that conflict with our own, we must reassert our identity as a radical, left-of-centre reforming movement, and we must keep our formal links with the Tories to the barest, grudging minimum. A few faltering steps along this road have already been taken, and that is all to the good.

    Be under no illusion. If we don’t end the coalition, Cameron will. Three months of solid Tory opinion poll leads, and a general election will follow as sure as night follows day.

    I think Nick Clegg is irretrievably damaged. First the rose-garden love-in that made every one of us quiver in embarrassment, next the volte face over student tuition fees (in which he patronisingly called on students to “grow up”), and then as recently as January this year, the putting of his name to the Health & Social Care Bill, which he must have known was a blueprint for stealth privatising the NHS.

    But let’s not get hung up about Nick Clegg. The leadership issue is secondary. What really matters is exiting the coalition. For that, and not Nick Clegg, is the source of our present deep unpopularity. The leadership issue will be sorted once we become an indepedent centre-left party once more. Let’s not play the Labour troll’s game of setting Nick Clegg up as the Anti-Christ. He isn’t, and pretending he is just takes our eyes off the paramount issues.

  • David Allen 29th May '11 - 4:12pm

    “We need supporters that are aligned with our beliefs and values, and will stick by us through thick and thin. So a hardcore of 30% of people that usually vote Labour still stuck by them, despite all the disappointments of their 13 years in power – letting council housing stock diminish, PFI programmes and NHS privatisation, illegal and unpopular wars etc etc – because they identify with the party and just saw the positives and not the negatives. We need people who will stick by us in the same way.”

    A perfect definition of blind tribalism. Tribalist support didn’t help Labour, it hurt them. “Not seeing the negatives” is why Blair and Brown ended up toast.

    Now it’s our turn to be hurt by the blind tribalists.

  • I stopped voting Labour for two reasons: Iraq and the disgusting way they’ve treated the sick/disabled. Since 2005 I voted and supported the LibDems in every election until May of this year. Here in the North, you campaigned (since 2005) on a platform to the left of Labour. You proclaimed your support for the NHS, you were against Iraq, against privatisation, in support of treating the sick/disabled with respect and dignity, against tuition fees, etc. You spoke the language which disaffected ex-Labourites like me wanted to hear.

    You took the trust I gave you with my vote and threw it in my face. My grievances are many, but I am most angry with the way you have gone along with the Tory attacks on the sick/disabled and now seem to have completely washed your hands of the most vulnerable in society.

    I know you’re all sick of it so I will just say that the very fact your party now seems to not care that the disabled are being hit hardest by these cuts and that many disabled people have to choose between food and heating in the winter breaks my heart. It’s so horrible when pensioners have to make this choice, but it seems nobody cares about the sick/disabled as they’re all “feckless scroungers” as your ministers and MPs keep telling us.

  • Great article. I certainly havent spent more than 25 campaigning for the Lib Dems in order to deliver socialism minus illegal wars. Sadly, too often in recent years that is the impression we have created of our aims. Governing is tough and governing as the minority party in a coalition is really tough. We shouldnt be surprised that we have disappointed a group of people who voted for us thinking we were a nicer version of New Labour. Over the next 4 years we need to have the confidence that we can build a new electorate based on our record for liberal government.

  • Martin, a Lib Dem 30th May '11 - 4:45pm

    We didnt take a battering as a result of adopting a policy – we took a battering because we are considered Second Class Conservatives. Cameron, of course, manipulated the coalition arrangements very slyly in his favour. The Conservatives don’t do principles. He could do no other. Clegg displayed an astonishing degree of naivety in accepting the terms and in thinking he had signed up to a true partnership when in fact it is only a working relationship. In terms of both substance and perception Cameron has won at the expense of the Liberal Democrats. The polls reflect this and there is no bright side to being beaten you dont get a second prize in politics. Why do we always think the best? This relentless optimism paradoxically results in the best and the worst outcomes for liberals – best because it drives us to improve public services and the worst because, like doves amongst serpents, we are unable to defend and promote our vision in practical terms.

  • Andy Thompson 30th May '11 - 5:33pm

    The article seems to have, unsurprisingly, touched a raw nerve and produced some quality and ultimately healthy debate within the party. There are some very valid points within the comments that have been made, but also some that I would like to challenge.

    In May 2010, the party faced three difficult and contentious options. The difficulty arouse from the fact that each of these options would ultimately be detrimental to the public perception of the party.

    The first option, failure to take up a place in a coalition government and to remain in opposition for another term, would leave us castigated by our opponents, criticised by the electorate and forever labelled as a party without aspiration, one unwilling to take the responsibility of government and one that was no longer a credible political party.

    The second option that we faced was to enter a ‘rainbow’ coalition with Labour and other parties. Whilst Labour would clearly be closer to our own political position, could we legitimately claim that entering a coalition with a party that had steered the country to the brink of insolvency to be in the UK’s best interest? Could we legitimately support the establishment of a Prime Minister who had never received a public mandate to govern? Taking this approach would see the party labelled as self serving and protecting its own interests and our credibility with the electorate would be decimated.

    Our final option was the one we eventually took, one that is far from comfortable and one which is clearly detrimental to the public perception of our party. Quite clearly the polls on 6th of May are evidence to this.
    From a personal perspective, I am far from comfortable with our being in coalition with a party that is so intent of maintaining the privilege of the hegemonic groups in contemporary society but I do not believe that we had any choice. After all, the Tories recorded 2 million more votes than Labour and Labour’s credibility with the electorate was almost non-existent. Sometimes in politics, as in everyday life, you have to work with people you would not normally choose to do and this is one of those times.

    To leave the coalition before the end of 2015, as Sessenco suggests, would condemn us – at both a national and local level – to generations in the political wilderness. Imagine the headlines “When the Going Gets Tough, the Lib Dems Get Going”. We would never be trusted in politics again. How can leaving the coalition now (or indeed never entering the coalition in the first place) prove anything other than a comfort in opposition?

    Bill, the points you make about our opposition to the Iraq War typifies what I am advocating. By setting out the Liberal reasons for our opposition, we won new support because these people recognised and internalised the validity of our position and we retained their support by demonstrating the ‘fit’ between liberal politics and contemporary society. I know that we are campaigning on the values I set out but we are not effectively communicating to the electorate why they are of relevance.

    What we have communicated is a series of pledges and polices which we have been unable to keep and whilst I am of no doubt that the policy positions we established pre election were based on strong liberal arguments, if as MatGB suggest the psephology was pointing towards a hung parliament for a considerable amount of time, then we were naive in making the pledges that we did – both within the manifesto and in other media – knowing that we would ultimately not be able to deliver them in a coalition.

    I come back to the two key lessons I still believe we need to learn: that we need to develop a clear Liberal identity and to promote its relevance to the public at large and secondly, we need to be more politically astute if we are ever to be taken seriously in politics again.

  • Daniel Henry 31st May '11 - 11:46am

    I want to second what Catherine said:

    “Excellent, thoughtful post. Couldn’t agree more.
    Request for title of your next article: “Why are we so bad at communication and how can we improve?”

    I think one of the reasons why we rely on protest votes is because barely anyone out there really understands what we’re about or what we stand for. As a result, they see no need to look at us until they get so disillusion with the other two that they come to us hoping that we’ll somehow manage to fulfill their hopes and dreams in a way that the others didn’t.

    I think we’re a very misunderstood party and that damages us more than anything else.

  • Sesenco – “The leadership issue will be sorted once we become an indepedent centre-left party once more.”

    A lot more will be sorted if the party becomes centre-left. Namely, the disappearance of many members and (more crucially) voters who aren’t, never have been, and never will be centre-left.

    They are looking for a party placed firmly in the centre ground and that distrusts monopolistic capital and state positions.

    Your advocated position leads us firmly back to Labour-lite irrelevance.

  • PrimroseLeague 31st May '11 - 5:35pm

    If I can throw in a hand grenade from the Tory left…

    Although a Tory member, the relative emasculation of my wing of the party for many years has led me to watch the LibDems closely as the One Nationers have a lot in common with the LD right.

    The point raised about communication of what you’re about is a good one – there is a distinct Liberal ideology, which is totally honourable, and could be communicated effectively were the part to stand square behind it and not tout about for votes as the mother of all protest parties.

    However, where there is a slight disconnect is the strategy that you have used over the past 2 decades to work your regional seat distribution – a strategy I might add that has been successful, but which is/was far more appropriate to Grimond’s 6 seats than Clegg’s 60.

    There have been several posts in this thread that have made the point about the LD’s picking up disenchanted Labour voters in the north. This is undoubtedly true, but as someone hailing from the southwestern shires, the strategy down there is diametrically opposed. In every seat (parliamenta\ry or council) up north, where you paint the Tories as the devil incarnate, you pick up Labour voters to keep the Tories out (“Labour can’t win here”).

    Yet in the SW (Bristol, etc, rather than more continuously traditional Liberal Cornwall) you’re doing the same thing – “the Tories can’t win here, vote LD to keep out Labour” – I’ve voted for you in the past for that very reason! So outside the core LD vote, you’ve got two mutually exclusive blocks of voters who have been voting for you for the same reason – to keep each other out depending which party the vagaries of geography have made into the enemy.

    Therefore, for every Labour waverer you seek to win back in the north, now you’ve been forced to pick a side, you stand to lose a Tory waverer in the South – and vice versa. Actually, there is some internal logic in this, and it would probably make sense for the long term future of the LDs to finally decide which of the 2 horses you want to ride in the future – because the days of being able to appeal to both sets of voters have come to an end fr a decade or so. Purely selfishly, I’d be disappointed if you went with the Left, but then that’s only because you’re current position as a party bolsters the Tory wets like me. However, it’s not my decision (obviously), just thought you might like to read the view from over the fence – we’re not all evil and I have tried to be constructive. Take it if you will as “how others see us.”

  • PrimroseLeague 31st May '11 - 5:37pm

    There are several typos and grammatical errors in the previous which I am aware of, but, like ConHome, the lack of an edit function means I can’t rectify. I really ought to have learned not to just press send when I get to the end of the last sentence by now : – )

  • Bill le Breton 31st May '11 - 6:56pm

    Andy, congratulations on the virility of your article ! I understand that you were talking about exactly the process of (shall we call it) consolidation of the support of those recently drawn to us and to do so by, as you say, “demonstrating the ‘fit’ between liberal politics and contemporary society.”
    The tragedy is that we jettisoned those very people and wasted all the work we had done with them when we abandoned pledges and positions in our manifesto/campaigns that we should have fought for within the Coalition, just as we are now fighting in the H and SC Bill.
    The truth is that there was a disjunction between the main parts of our manifesto/election campaign and the detail we signed up to in the Coalition agreement which is mystifying to the voter, even the voter who remains loyal.
    The fault line lies exactly along the divide between life before the first leaders’ debate and thereafter. Prior to the first debate Conference, the Policy Committee and Vince Cable restrained the leader and prevented him from fighting on his preferred manifesto and from voicing his own preferences in the campaign. This was symbolized in all the campaign literature and leader’s tour arrangements which until that TV debate and the poll bounce had Clegg and Cable in joint harness.
    After the debate, Cable was dropped from the leader’s tour. It is also no coincidence that we failed to retain or further enhance that poll boost as the campaign post-first leader’s debate was pure Clegg and Starkey (he of AV fame). Don’t forget he had forced Rennard out of office.
    And after the result, the Leader, flush with success and temporarily free from Party democracy was at liberty to endorse the detailed negotiations of his carefully selected negotiating team (the need for which as MatGB is correct in suggesting was anticipated. The team being first brought together before Christmas 2009).
    It was they, including Huhne (see Law’s book) and obviously approved by Clegg who were hawks on accelerated deficit reduction, it was they who accepted many Cleggisms including support for the government (or not vote against it) when it reacted to Browne on HE funding.
    Neither of these commitments, nor our subsequent capitulation on VAT, which followed from the quickening of the pace of deficit reduction, was inevitable. They were Clegg’s preference; or Clegg’s Way, to borrow from Proust.
    Now a leader can do this given the nature of the British constitution but to the looker on it seems like treachery/double dealing. To me this was Clegg and his team’s naivety or lack of experience or/and belief that large numbers of the British people would ultimately see the rightness of these policies when they had had time to come to fruition. This is the Clegg gamble that we all ride today and which has led to the sacrifice of 700 hard working and effective councillors and the dessimation of the party in Scotland.
    Others might think that if these policies are provide right, then, the Tories will take full credit and if they are wrong the old pendulum and buggin’s turn will put back in Labour. The weakness in thinking that we could share in any upside, should expansionary deficit reduction actually work, is that our reputation for probity will have been shot-through in the process. The Perrier Effect.
    What to do? Campaign as we have been on the H and SC Bill. Start campaigning for Plan B economic policy. And make Coalition decision making more transparent so as to, as you say, “demonstrate the ‘fit’ between liberal politics and contemporary society.”
    The electorate will not expect us to win every time, but they do expect us to fight our/their corner with all our skill and tenacity.

  • David Allen 1st Jun '11 - 12:40am

    Tabman said:

    “A lot more will be sorted if the party becomes centre-left. Namely, the disappearance of many members and (more crucially) voters who aren’t, never have been, and never will be centre-left.”

    Well now, it takes a certain amount of gall to support a leader who has presided over a halving in Lib Dem support, who has specifically told left-of-centre voters to go away, and to do so by claiming that it is his opponents who risk us losing votes!

    However, there is a primitive logic behind it. The logic is to argue that half the old LD vote was centre-left and the other half centre-right. Ergo, we have lost the centre-left and thus fallen from 20% to 10% in the polls. Ergo, the last thing we should dare to do is to offend the centre-right as well, because if we did that, we’d then fall from 10% down to zero.

    Primitively logical. But totally wrong.

    Actually, the old LD vote encompassed centre-left people, centrist people, and even somewhat right-of-centre people. What it didn’t encompass, outside a small coterie of Orange Bookers, were far right ideologues who wanted to dismantle the NHS and state education, cut harder than the economists asked us to, and put the junk food industry in charge of healthy eating policy. The vast majority of the old LD voters – not just 50% of them – were and are dismayed by what the Coalition signed up to. Just canvass as an anti-coalition Independent, as I have done this Spring, and you’ll find that out for yourself.

    So why did so few as 50% desert us? Because the others couldn’t, for the moment, think of anywhere else to go. Because they stayed loyal to individuals on the local council. Because they hoped we might reform. Because they objected to Labourism as well as Cleggism. Because their voting habits were not readily changed.

    Those people will gradually haemorrhage away too, if we don’t do something to stop them. The way to bring support back will be to change the policy and change the leadership.

  • David Allen “Actually, the old LD vote encompassed centre-left people, centrist people, and even somewhat right-of-centre people. What it didn’t encompass, outside a small coterie of Orange Bookers, were far right ideologues who wanted to dismantle the NHS and state education, cut harder than the economists asked us to, and put the junk food industry in charge of healthy eating policy. The vast majority of the old LD voters – not just 50% of them – were and are dismayed by what the Coalition signed up to. Just canvass as an anti-coalition Independent, as I have done this Spring, and you’ll find that out for yourself.

    So why did so few as 50% desert us? Because the others couldn’t, for the moment, think of anywhere else to go. Because they stayed loyal to individuals on the local council. Because they hoped we might reform. Because they objected to Labourism as well as Cleggism. Because their voting habits were not readily changed.”

    I’ll leave aside the obvious straw men in that statement (I’m bored of talking about the Orange Book – given all our current cabinet members were contirbutors including Cable and Huhne who are not exactly red in tooth and claw capitalists, its specious to make the kind of arguments you do), and focus on the psephology.

    We already have a well-funded, well-organised left of centre party in this country. Its called the Labour Party, and the most we will ever be able to do is borrow some of its supporters in times when its making itself unpopular. Pursuing left of centre Statist policies as you advocate has been, is, and always will be the road to electoral oblivion and irrelevence. Our left of centre support as Andy argues was built on sand and has very quickly slipped away back to its comfort blanket and permanent home.

    Who, however, speaks for the centrist voter?

    The clear answer was, until we did in the last 5 yearas but mainly the last 2, was “No-one”. Centrist voters have been forced into a false dichotomy, and no-one has made a serious and sustained pitch to become their champion.

    We have to persuade people like Primroseleague that their interests are not best served with the Conservative Right, and the Blairite supporters that their interests are not served with rEd and the likes of Mr Crowe. They have a home, and we are it.

  • Tabman,

    A party of the kind you envisage (one that is basically centre-right and broadly similar to the German FPD) is only ever going to achieve any kind of electoral success under PR because its support will be spread rather evenly across suburban and rural Britain.

    For a third party to win under FPTP it is necessary to build a coalition of voter groups that allows it to concentrate its supporters in individual constituencies and thereby overcome the distortion that our corrupt system creates.

    In 2005 and 2010 we made a successful start in that direction. We gathered together students and sections of the middle-class metropolitan left and won a whole succession of constituencies on the back of it. Yet Nick Clegg has thrown both those groups away.

    What he has left are soft Tories who like to call themselves “classical liberals”, many of whom are likely to drift over to the real thing as they see the Liberal Democrats founder, and loyalists such as myself who have nowhere else to go.

    You see, Tabman, I am centre-left and I will never vote Labour (at least not with a first preference). And there are lots more like me. However loudly you order us to join the Labour Party, we simply won’t do it.

    If we want to return to the winning strategy that Kennedy/Campbell pioneered, then we have to plot our exit from the coalition, and we have to do it fast.

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