Opinion: The General Election is near – are we ready?

polling dayHaving taken a break from frontline campaigning in recent months it’s given me time to observe the party as a voter, if not an impartial one.  The European and local elections are undoubtedly important, but the big challenge is a year away and we still have time to make the Liberal Democrat case.

I’m instinctively pro-coalition and Nick Clegg and the leadership have to take great credit on what has been achieved on area such as tax, the pupil premium, pensions and gay marriage.  Without our party in coalition, there would be nothing to show for our vision of creating a ‘fairer society’.  We have also demonstrated economic credibility by sticking to the plan of reducing the deficit.

Undoubtedly with a general election approaching the party has grown up; taken tough decisions; and has put liberal values to the fore.  Nevertheless is our message resonating with the electorate?  The answer is no; the fairer society, stronger economy message is laudable but it is not being heard.

Are we developing distinctive policies that chime with the public?  No, and it’s only a year before a general election.  More old policies – mansion tax and increasing the personal tax allowance, but very few new ideas on jobs, welfare, the regions and balanced growth.

Have we capitalised on our role within government to demonstrate what our party is about?  Not enough.  Although I accept that this would be difficult in the absence of a friendly press.

I’m a proud Liberal Democrat because I believe in an open, free and fair society where individuals and importantly communities are supported and given the opportunity to succeed.  I’m in a party that is pragmatic, that loves debate and believes that policy should be based on evidence and what works. I’m in this party because it is outward looking, internationalist and cherishes diversity.

My testimony probably resonates with other Lib Dems, but voters aren’t like activists with their lofty ideals, they are pragmatic and self-interested and want policies that can help them. I have no doubt that we can develop policies which can do this but time is running out.

To the electorate, our opponents are clear in what they stand for: UKIP will pull us of out Europe and curb immigration; Labour will address the cost of living crisis through freezing energy prices and rental market controls; and the SNP want to pull Scotland out of the Union. Even the Conservatives have policies such as a guaranteed EU referendum in 2017 and further cuts to welfare such as curbing housing benefit for under 25s. We on the other hand still appear wedded to the coalition agreement, without the confidence to stand up and articulate Liberal Democrat policies that we as activists can shout about.

Until we can put forth distinctive and radical policies to the electorate, our fortunes will not improve. Our voice has to become clear and confident as the election approaches. Tales of battles won and lost in back room coalition deals are not going to convince any voters to support us; and only reinforce the position that the government has run out of steam. Therefore we have to call time on the coalition early, to show a reason for voting Lib Dem in 2015.

* John Coburn is an activist with Westminster and City of London Liberal Democrats

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27 Comments

  • peter tyzack 16th May '14 - 10:04am

    I agree with everything EXCEPT the last sentence, and as regards ‘distinctive policies’ we have quite a few but, yes, they do need promoting :-
    free school meals for all in the Primary sector(which must be provided regardless of who funds the school);
    scrap Council Tax and Business Rates, giving councils powers to raise Local Income Tax and Land Value Tax(any property owned by a business gets caught by LVT);
    European reform(long list but need to decide on top 3);
    new programme of house building by Councils;
    restore benefit cuts to those hit by the IDS blunt instrument;
    raise the minimum wage;
    raise the tax threshold to min-wage-week;
    scrap NI and assimilate into general tax;
    scrap the TV licence;
    decriminalise drugs;
    reduce class sizes;
    eliminate nuclear weapons;
    devolve powers to the Regions/counties/cities ……

  • Bill le Breton 16th May '14 - 11:30am

    John, I would like to know what you think the political landscape would be like if you were able to take the Party out of this Coalition in June.

    There is no obvious issue that the public could comprehend has led to this vault face.

    There would be no platform – other than one speech in the Commons and one interview on Newsnight in the day it happened. Thereafter (with say 13% in the Euros, sub10% in the GE polls) there would almost no media coverage of the Party. A slot on QT once every ten weeks. Ditto on Any Questions. No-one on Week in Politics. No-one to interrupt a year of Tory and Labour spokesperson on every news and affairs programme. Everyone of them saying that the last thing we need in 2015 is another coalition.

    And virtually no local presence on regional and local media, except in the SW. No locally delivered FOCUS and campaigning activity outside of 70 or 80 seats and few scattered wards elsewhere. No visiting Lib Dem ministers.

    Oh! and while there is no platform for our communications, there would be the Conservatives taking all the credit for anything good achieved since 2010 and a free kick in every interview for them to blame us for everything that went wrong. No access to the civil service. A bit of short money does not compensate. The economy would be growing at 3%, unemployment continuing to fall but no one able to hear our side of the story because it has always been so much easier to portray politics as a two sided affair.

    We have 12 months left in the spotlight. We must use it. There is nothing to stop us now putting forward, as you write, forthright and distinctive policy. And, it will be covered (eg Education this week). So we mustn’t waste our remaining opportunities either by ‘running away’ or by continuing to hope that Nick Clegg will get a fair hearing: he won’t until he is transformed by retirement into statespersonhood. The sooner that happens the better for him and us.

    Do you not think you should reconsider your advice to the rest of us?

  • Thanks for the comments Peter and Bill, and I acknowledge the problems that you carefully lay out Bill in terms of pulling out of the coalition early. However, I think the question is when we pull out of the formal coalition so that both parties can look forward to the election and the next five-year parliamentary term. I don’t think it should be June and it certainly could not before the Scottish referendum and its aftermath. My personal view is that it would be best to look at an amicable separation in January 2015, and where at that point we needed to vote together for budgetary/legislative matters we could do so, But at that moment we would see our joint programme for government as complete, and could start articulating Lib Dem policies.

  • Tony Greaves 16th May '14 - 12:24pm

    Unfortunately Bill is right about the Coalition.

    The answer to the question posed at the top of this thread is No.

    For the rest the crucial date is 25th May, as it always has been for at least 18 months. The crucial question is “Is anyone thinking things through?” I fear the answer to this is also No. Reactions to an electoral disaster next weekend may therefore not be rational.

    Tony

  • I think the *reactions* to the forthcoming débacle are more likely to be rational than some of the talk we’re seeing in the run-up. At least there will be a concrete point around which to focus both talk and plans for action.

  • paul barker 16th May '14 - 3:18pm

    To answer the question, I worry that we dont have more Candidates in place, Local Parties really need to get on with this.
    On a more general point, we are in many ways better “prepared” than Tories or Labour in that we are reasonably united & emotionally braced for bad results. The Tories are obsessed with Europe & UKIP, way beyond the actual relevance of either. Labour are also split but in addition are burdened by debts & still in denial about where they are. They still talk of a tight race next year when all the evidence points to a substantial Tory lead.

  • Bill le Breton 16th May '14 - 5:16pm

    There is clearly a need to make a significant change after the Euros, but we must preserve our place in the Coalition.

    If we do, then the two big decisions we shall have to make are provided by the Autumn Statement (recently first week in December) which in recent times has set out five years worth of expenditure. I do think that we should negotiate a different approach with a Coalition agreed programme for the first or/’and second year of the 2015/20 Parliament but a reserved position on the following three years – more of that in a line or two.

    The second ‘hurdle’ is the 2015 budget – March 20-odd 2015. The advantage of being in Government as we lead up to the budget process is access to the civil service, but it may be the time to have a budget debate that sets out not only the tax side, but also those last three years of expenditure.

    The Conservatives want there to be a surplus during at least one if not two of these years. Labour are saying that they want to arrive at a balanced budget during the Parliament but this would appear to exclude capital. We presently – that is the Clegg Party – want have ‘agreed with the Tories’ i.e. a true budget surplus.

    As a Party of public service (though not necessarily of public delivery and one which includes opportunities for social enterprises to deliver) I do not think that the Party in the country (as opposed to the Quad) would sign up to an extra £30 billion of cuts to achieve such a surplus as opposed to a modest 1 or 2% deficit.

    So under a new Leader, the Party could position itself in March 2015 in a different space to both Labour and the Conservatives on both tax (five years) and spend (the last three years of the next Parliament) . We could even ensure that there are votes on the three budgets (a la local government).

    Who knows – there could even be a majority for one of them – if not, Parliament could agree a holding budget and fight an immediate General Election – say four weeks on from the last day of the budget votes.

    So, there’s my exit plan – without any of the downsides of leaving early or leaving on some obscure issue or leaving the other two Parties in a position to attack us without our ability to answer.

    It could be that the public ‘like’ our budget and again produce a ‘balanced’ Parliament – in which case post election negotiations would be based in large part on elements of those budgets i.e. the nature and scale of public service, taxation and the economy (a just recovery).

  • Andrew Watson 16th May '14 - 5:20pm

    What “evidence” would that be Paul? What constitites substantial? Am I alone in finding your continual forecaste of a Labour apocalypse rather peculiar? I’m pretty certain that the next election will be a tough nut to crack for Labour but I’d put my shirt on Paul’s previous forecast of parity in the mid 20s between Labour and the Lib Dems not coming true. The Tories’ obsession with Europe pales into insignificance compared to Paul’s valiant keyboard-crusade against Labour. Nothing lasts forever and I’m sure one day the Labour Party will be consigned to dustbin of history but I’m pretty confident it’ll outlive myself and probably Paul. I write as a Labour leaning voter in a rural area who has consistently voted Lib Dem in a vain attempt to thwart the Tories. I think my antipathy to the Tories (dating back to the 80s) has clouded my judgement, I suspect Paul’s obsessive denigration of the Labour Party may well have done the same for him. I’d much rather he gave me positive reasons to continue to vote Lib Dem at forthcoming elections. As for UKIP not being “relevant” they are now a lot more active and popular (sadly in my opinion) around here than the Lib Dems or Labour, though that is not saying much.

  • Bill le Breton 16th May '14 - 5:22pm

    I should of course have added that Peter’s list (or the Party’s equivalent, honed and voted on at the September Conference) is costed by the civil service in the budget setting process and forms the backbone of ‘our’ budget or our budget amendment.

  • Chris Manners 16th May '14 - 5:45pm

    “The second ‘hurdle’ is the 2015 budget – March 20-odd 2015. The advantage of being in Government as we lead up to the budget process is access to the civil service, but it may be the time to have a budget debate that sets out not only the tax side, but also those last three years of expenditure.”

    Access to the civil service is important. It’s been reported Labour’s been denied meetings with senior civil servants? Is this true?
    If, so changing that should be a nice easy principled thing for Clegg to support, if necessary by forcing a Parliamentary vote.

  • peter tyzack 16th May '14 - 7:50pm

    the compliment that it is ‘my list’ is appreciated, Bill, but I think you’ll find, apart from a few points of ‘licence’ it is all pretty much extant LD policy. I like your idea about the budget, if I understand it correctly, put forward three fully costed budget choices and have the public vote on the choice… then whichever Govt is elected they have to implement it.. good-un.

  • John Coburn states we have “put liberal values to the fore.” There is a liberal value involved in the pupil premium, but I can’t remember hearing one of our MPs stating what it is. There is an argument that raising the personal allowance is fairer than cutting the tax rate, but I can’t remember hearing one of our MPs say why this is the case. Where were the liberal values when we supported secret courts? Where were the liberal values when we supported the introduction of the “bedroom tax”? Have we explained what a fairer society is with regard to our liberal values? I don’t think so.

    If we were radical we could have a policy that raises both the income tax and national insurance thresholds to the minimum wage level. We could have a radical approach to welfare reform that introduces sector minimum wages as well as regional ones and promises to raise them to reduce the benefit bill for those in work and to have an aim of reducing the help business owners receive by the state in effect subsidising wages. If we were radical we would have a policy whereby people could re-train or re-skill paid for by the state. If we were a radical party we would commit ourselves to achieving full employment over the life-time of a Parliament. If we were a radical party we would promise to bring in Land Value Taxation.

    @ Peter Tyzack – “the compliment that it is ‘my list’ is appreciated, Bill, but I think you’ll find, apart from a few points of ‘licence’ it is all pretty much extant LD policy.”
    I would be interested in knowing which of your list you think are current LD policy, some were LD Policy for example LVT once was party policy I believe but I think our policy now is for it to be looked at in some way. As far as I remember we have never had a policy of increasing the Minimum Wage above the recommendations made by Low Pay Commission. Providing free school meals to all infant school pupils has never been party policy and still isn’t.

  • The Liberal democrats first hurdle is getting through the European elections. The focus of campaigning has rightly been on IN v OUT and UKIP. Although ideologically logical, UKIP may not be the big threat to our electoral support.

    With general disillusionment with the coalition policies, in addition to the abstaining of supporters, there is also the real possibility of protest votes going to the Green Party. Many former local supporters have indicated to me that they will vote green this time round and that even extends to friends and family.
    I must admit the Green Party are making real effort to take support from Liberal democrats particularly in the European elections.
    Let UKIP damage the Tories electorally, almost everyone knows where we stand on the issue of IN/OUT in Europe.
    Concentrate on communicating Liberal democrat policies for the next elections. Yes, we DO need to win back trust in young people, explain why tax cuts for those on low incomes had to take priority over free tuition fees, and that we will restore free education as soon as priorities allow.

  • imho Iain, there is already good recognition of the LD achievements on tax thresholds and we should extend this into policies to raise wage levels across the board, both the minimum wage and public sector with a view to getting sustained wage and productivity increases in the private sector as well – for me this is a classic liberal issue because the imbalance of power between employer/employee caused by the financial crisis has allowed wages to be suppressed for many years now. People rely on ever-increasing debt to get by and few politicians seem to recognise this. Although Labour are attempting to appeal to broadly the same group, their approach of regulation from on-high does not resonate with people who are not earning enough to achieve a reasonable standard of living and want to have more influence over their own life choices

  • I strongly favour a change of leadership in June, then the summer leadership vote, the party conference and 5 months outside of the coalition, June is too early, we can argue that we need to review after the September conference, that will also deny any prospect parliamentary calls for a general election in October, (no government possible under the coalition agreement and the parliamentary legislation..
    But trajicaly, like Tony Greaves, I think the party has a death wish and will just carry on to Armageddon.

  • Tony Rowan-Wicks 17th May '14 - 12:13pm

    I support Bill’s proposal and also suggest that Peter’s list [our former list] be put back to the members’ vote as soon as possible.

    The media and LDV commentators don’t always re-state the difficulties we have had in government but we all know and understand – with a PM who switches/U-turns his policies to stay as leader of his own party. It’s always going to be a hard act to follow as the minority party in government but we should try to do it better by bringing our policies to the membership for ratification.

    I’ve said before that we need a better way for the ratification of policy changes – whether we are in government or in opposition. The direction of the party can go badly wrong if we give MPs total charge on policy change as their advice can come from a few people in back rooms [not good for LD principles of consultation]. We remain a party whose members vote on the direction of policy change, don’t we? And rapid recall of conference doesn’t solve matters in government and in the modern world.

    Recently, members completed a survey only to find it was about membership promotion – but surveys can be a useful tool if about specific issues. We should try to bring back the lost members of our party and give them a voice via specific surveys. I believe many LDs will re-join and give better a better view of members’ concerns if the surveys are well-conducted. It will give MPs a wider view, by far, than the narrow advice given at present and prevent our appearance as being like the other parties who are top-down oriented. Pressure of government have made us look the same – and not listening.

  • If you’re primarily a protest voter who is vaguely on ‘the left’, who became fed up with Labour after Blair/Brown and lost patience with the Liberal Democrats after Clegg and the Coalition, but who could by no means bring yourself to vote for UKIP, then I suppose that you might consider voting Green.
    What really hurts is that circumstances would strongly be favouring the Lib Dems right now if they didn’t happen to be in Government.

  • Tony Rowan-Wicks 17th May '14 - 2:44pm

    David, coalition needs open government, by the people, more than ever!

  • Tony Rowan-Wicks 17th May '14 - 3:05pm

    theakes
    A change of leader would help the party but the jobs-worths don’t like the idea as they will be out of work. So we have to go to the wire after the Euros but suffer for a few more days until then. After that, anything positive like a leadership election can be blocked unless we stand up and are counted. Let the voting begin.

  • SIMON BANKS 17th May '14 - 4:36pm

    I agree that we need to put over a clear message about who we are. This has been a problem for a long time. In areas of traditional Liberal strength like Devon and Cornwall, most voters had never lost such an image of us, but elsewhere, people reacted often with a degree of liking but also with confusion. Peter’s list of policies is worthy, but few people could draw from that a clear picture of what we’re about: they’re too diverse and too many.

    However, I have severe reservations about Iain’s approach. Yes, by all means. it’s useful to identify groups of people most likely to respond to our message. Actually, we’ve already done that at UK level and targeted leaflets are already reaching these people. How accurate it is may be open to question: I’ve had the interesting experience of delivering Euro-leaflets to nationally selected addresses in a ward where I fought two by-elections last year, and the similarity between the areas where the mysterious computer found a lot of hits and the areas where I know we had a lot of votes was slight, to put it mildly.

    But it may be that the best identifiers for Lib Dem voters are not things that can be easily defined and picked up from the web – people seriously concerned about their local area and not fatalistic about doing something about it, for example, or people believing in diversity and freedom. In this context I find Iain’s dismissive remark about “pothole politics” depressing.

    One of the reasons for our continuing difficulty in defining what we’re about in terms many voters can understand (despite the opportunity offered by government) may be the long-term shift in the party from activism to achieve something to activism to win elections, with the reasons for wanting to win fading like the Cheshire cat. I’ve probably overstated that, but it is a concern some valuable activists share and not a sign of long-term helath in the party.

  • @ ppb – “we should extend this into policies to raise wage levels across the board, both the minimum wage and public sector with a view to getting sustained wage and productivity increases in the private sector as well – for me this is a classic liberal issue because the imbalance of power between employer/employee caused by the financial crisis has allowed wages to be suppressed for many years now.”

    You are correct this can be seen as a traditional liberal position regarding the addressing of power. However as our MPs have supported a real term wage cut for the public sector it is not likely that we would see them reversing on this for the run up to the general election.

  • Adam Robertson 17th May '14 - 6:59pm

    If you ask are we ready for a general election – Yes, in the fact for the 80 seats, which the party is planning either to hold or fight but not in the rest of the seats. In Suffolk, for example, no candidates have been chosen for the Parliamentary Seats, despite there is an outside chance of us gaining South Suffolk from the Conservatives, because of Tim Yeo’s deselection. The party has not even grasped this, which does not help morale.

  • Adam: you have hit the nail on the head, we are no longer a national party and whilst old Peers from the Lords keep writing articles about some aspect of policy this state of affairs will long continue. We need a revolution in the party if we are to survive, even to live, in order to attract back the youth.

  • Thanks for the further comments. Would concur with those who say that we need to show our liberal values through new and responsive policies that meet the needs of 2015 Britain. The problem is by the time our senior politicians talk about these policies it might be too late to change minds and convince voters that we stand for a progressive and a fairer society. I don’t want any more weeks when we have our leader, Nick Clegg, and David Laws in unedifying rows with Michael Gove and his Tory aides. I want Clegg, Laws, Farron, Cable and the rest to be bold and brave and show what more Lib Dems could do in 2015 and beyond.

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