Opinion: The Liberal resurgence – a time to spread like wild flowers

Like many Lib Dem voters, supporters and sympathisers, I spent much of the weekend lurching between disbelief and despondency, and genuinely worried whether the party could or would ever recover. In an effort to cheer myself up I went for a walk in the countryside only to encounter an ironic sea of yellow dandelions. Initially, it felt as if nature itself was mocking me, but in retrospect the vivid spring flowers seem provide a wonderful analogy of what the party needs to achieve if it is going to pick itself up and thrive again.

Traditionally, the Liberal Democrats have punched well above our weight in terms of delivering real change where it’s most needed. Unlike the Conservative or Labour parties, the Lib Dems have not needed national office in order to achieve this but instead, by acting as a grass-roots organisation have managed to influence policy making and ideas at every level of the political system and often seeing our policies appropriated and implemented by governments of all bents and persuasion. Whilst we continued to punch above our weight in coalition, we seem to have lost some of the energy and innovation that came from being a party driven from the bottom up. Conversely, while the party was viewed by many from either side of the political spectrum during the election campaign as the sensible, trusted and preferred choice of coalition partners, throughout the past five years it has been UKIP whose policies and supporters the larger parties seemed most keen to appropriate. Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, it was UKIP who saw the surge in votes.

To a certain extent, the rise of UKIP can of course be attributed to benefitting from being the core voice of protest while the centre held sway. However, they have also capitalised from existing almost exclusively outside the Westminster village – using that freedom to build up a large an active grass roots movement and talking directly to people at large. This is exactly what the Lib Dems need to do now – not just to survive and thrive as a political party but more importantly to ensure that the liberal values that we cherish remain a fundamental part of British political life. By building from the bottom we can also start to win back our local and regional power bases and demonstrate how our values translate into deliverable policies that make a real difference to people’s lives.

To achieve this we obviously need to re-engage and build up our base. The surge in new members is a good sign – as long as we use them properly and build on the energy they bring. More controversially, however, I would argue that whoever becomes leader needs to be brave enough to turn their back on Westminster and lead the party from the country and not become suffocated in the diminishing oxygen inside the parliamentary bubble. Instead they should concentrate on defining what liberalism really means to ordinary people and building up a sea of voices in support of our values and policies that will become impossible to ignore. Rather like dandelions.

* Ben Maitland is a new member

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  • I think for a start we should contest every council seat whenever one becomes available in a by-election. Grassroots campaigning will help the party and it’s members recover but it won’t happen overnight.

  • Does the new leader have to be a MP? I would prefer someone not tarnished by the last 5 years.

  • kevin colwill 12th May '15 - 4:12pm

    The trouble is Liberalism often seems happiest to defining itself in ways “ordinary” people don’t relate to at all. The social libertarian values don’t resonate as much as “the economy stupid”.
    Trying to be Tory clones on the economy and defining yourselves through social liberalism might have worked against Thatcher, Major, Hague etc. but Cameron or Johnson??
    There needs to be a hard look at what Liberalism means in relation to the economy, the environment, housing and broader social issues. The public already get you like free speech and gay marriage. They get it, they like it but they don’t because of it.

  • kevin colwill 12th May '15 - 4:15pm

    Whoops many a sticky key… meant to say “They get it, they like it but they don’t cast their vote because of it”

  • I think Paddy Ashdown’s quote about politicians being “seen to be a bit less stuck up and a bit more stuck in” is appropriate here. I agree with Ben. And Kevin, that’s kind of the debate we’re having at the moment on other threads. 🙂

  • I think people need to stop seeing UKIP as a party of protest. Unless you can come up with solutions to people’s problems in the way that they do, you are underestimating and miscalculating the electorate. You don’t have to sink to their level of rhetoric but you have to acknowledge those issues and deal with them head on.

  • Sir Norfolk Passmore 12th May '15 - 5:05pm

    Keith – I don’t think it’s realistic to have a “nothing to do with me, guv” candidate. Nor would the electorate thank us or find it credible.

    We democratically chose to go into Government in 2010. That’s historical fact. Where we made mistakes when we were there – and there were plenty – we need to admit it, apologise and mean it. Where we did good things – apprenticeships, £10k threshold, pension reform, Norman Lamb’s work on mental health on the previous thread to name a few – we need to be proud of it.

    Some will never forgive us for ever associating with the Tories, of course. But fewer than some here think – the Tories have just won an election so aren’t exactly universally loathed, while time heals to a degree. In any event, you can’t undo what’s done, and actually the political debate in 2020 won’t be about historical events so much as the offer for the future. I know it’s really hard to focus on that a few days after “The Event” but focus we must, and let’s listen to what both candidates have to say about the future.

  • Just had my candidate from this years bruising encounter, telling me he has set his sights on 2020,despite coming fourth,”we were second in 2010″ and arguing exactly the points made here from the bottom is where the party will reestablish itself
    Agree wholeheartedly we need to assist all constituencies to fight all elections as they occur but they must be supported by the rest of us

  • James Sandbach 12th May '15 - 5:50pm

    An excellent contribution from a new member who gets right away about what needs to be done and how – any centralised targeting strategy for rebuilding could well be doomed to failure, and besides which if we just target our rebuilding process on a ‘seat by seat’ basis with ‘only work there’ instructions it will take many many elections to get back to our high watermark of 60 odd seats. And if PR ever does come along we need to be able to use it which must also involve a more spread out strategy – we’ve had lists for Euro, Scots and London elections for some time but have been pants at actually using more proportionate systems to our advantage.

  • Keith, yes, constitutionally the leader has to be an MP.
    Great article, Ben.

  • we should clearly define what liberal means. We should be pushing a decentralised state, with more power to local councils. So acting locally working nationally.

  • It seems UKIP stands for screwing the public purse for all they can..at Least Carswell retains some vestige of integrity or is this a start to him requesting Tory Whip

  • Tim Heggett 12th May '15 - 8:11pm

    Great to see the membership growing so rapidly after the disaster of Thursday night. I feel that the party now needs to redefine Liberalism in the 21st Century, and how it applies to all policies – economic and social. There is still a big role for a truly ‘Liberal Party’ to play.

  • Caroline cherry 12th May '15 - 9:13pm

    Really interesting article. I think this is a very sensible idea ie working locally and using these ideas to feed into national strategy as opposed to top down agendas being imposed rigidly .However as you say we must try and encapsulate liberal values which are not nebulous and will cover a wider range of the electorate. One thing I have noticed is that there is less vehement ranting at people’s ideas on these pages which is a great help. I feel that expressions like red Tory are unhelpful .i was reading an article about the nature of people’s work in the UK . It is so complex ,I know so many who have become self employed and they are not in a privileged position far from it. They need to be embraced as well as employees. Anyway great metaphor in the article I love dandelions( so do my bees).

  • @Sir Norfolk agree

  • Bruce Marsland 12th May '15 - 9:42pm

    @Ben Maitland
    Welcome! I agree with much of what you say, but not this: “we continued to punch above our weight in coalition”.

    For much of our term in office, we were widely seen as being almost irrelevant except as an enabler of the Conservatives. A lot of this is due to the electoral system, of course, which gave us less than 9% of the seats for 23% of the vote. However, I do not believe that we used our electoral weight as well as we should have done.

    Which leads to …

    @Dan Howitt
    I think much of what you seek in terms of definitions is in the constitution, or at least the preamble.

    Maybe we don’t communicate these principles adequately. However, I think a bigger problem is that the party has not been seen to be true to these well-chosen words, especially in the last five years. Words are fine; actions are more important. We have been perceived as failing on actions.

  • Gwynfor Tyley 12th May '15 - 9:54pm

    Great article. The point I would draw out is that ukip have been very effective about driving policy change without even bring in power and until recently not even having any MPs. In defining what we believe liberalism to mean, and it needs to cover all areas of policy, we need to select those areas which mean the most to us and which we can have a real influence on, eg the ECHR, and those should be the national issues. Meanwhile, local teams can push all our policies within the local context.

  • Since I was a Lib Dem councillor in Leeds back in the late 80’s there has been increasingly ruthless targeting of resources. Places where we used to win elections (in Leeds West, for example) we now get <5% in both local and general elections – but the support is still there as you can see by looking at the Leeds W general election result in 2010; 24% of the vote with a fairly minimal campaign as far as I know.

    Targetting has been very successful of course – winning and holding Leeds NW, for example, but I do think we need to break out of our current and recent strongholds if we are to get the vote up above 10% again. And we need to appreciate that the Greens and UKIP are a real threat, using our methods and occupying our local campaigning ground

  • Beautifully put Ben! Every time a county or place name or yellow/orange colour pressed itself into my head over the weekend, there seemed to be a now-former LibDem MP associated with it. I am still dreaming about yellow/orange splodges on the map. It hurts.

    On the plus side, I’ve located the live membership counter which has me hypnotised. It seems that each time I go to the bathroom 25 people join.

  • Jane Ann Liston 12th May '15 - 11:07pm

    @James ‘It seems that each time I go to the bathroom 25 people join.’

    You’d better keep going, then!

  • Is anybody else staying up late just to watch the membership updates? And is this what it was like to be in the SNP post indyref? No wonder they were grinning from ear to ear…

  • Well said Ben. I think a lot of us want to redefine Liberalism for the 21st century. Is it now time to say OK how do we do this? I think it can be independent of the Leadership contest and could start now. We are hoping to get together with our new members in Bath in a couple of days and are thinking of doing a fun version of brainstorming why they joined the party and how they think of Liberalism.
    What sort of structure could this then be fed into for collation? I realise that it won’t be as scientific as a survey but it would be a team building exercise with no ideas rejected out of hand. It should obviously involve existing members too a bit later on and maybe that could be the point at which ideas are collated. Would it be a good idea to then involve the regional level of organisation so the results can be fed into other party groups for action,?
    This could then possibly be the basis for a more sophisticated bottom up approach to our politics.
    Positive ideas would be really welcome as we don’t want to lose the momentum of all these amazing people flocking to join us. A flock of Phoenixes – that’s awesome and I bet they like dandelions too.

  • James ….just staying awake because I can’t get to sleep at a sensible time due to ME and then I can never catch the early morning posts here as I’m still asleep.

  • Sue S 13th May ’15 – 1:08am
    “…. …. and then I can never catch the early morning posts here as I’m still asleep.”

    I have the opposite problem. I usually wake about 4.30 am and feel I have missed a lot by not being able to stay awake until midnight. 🙂

  • Steve Comer 13th May '15 - 9:26am

    Sue S: I think the ‘brainstorming idea’ is a good one. We’ve really not done enough thinking in the party recently, as all the attention has been on activism for its own sake. Perhaps Thursday can be a reality check, and we can re-assess what we stand for and where we go.

    We should also look at our Liberal heritage, it really is time to bin the Orange Book, and rediscover the Yellow Book, and the aims of Lloyd George, Keynes and Beveridge who did so much to create a modern civilised society. Lets not kid ourselves, the Tories and UKIP have an agenda of shrinking the state and creating a more viscious socially divided society on the American model. We have to opppose them not try to ‘triangulate’ with their agenda.

    Dan Howitt: “We should be pushing a decentralised state, with more power to local councils.” Exactly! I hope whoever becomes our leader will not undermine local democracy by supporting idiotic ideas and centralist like elected Mayor’s, ‘Free’ Schools, and ideologically driven privatisation of service delivery.

  • Bill le Breton 13th May '15 - 9:55am

    Sue S – yes brainstorming is great, but may I suggest there is one section at least which is looking to identifying very local problems and novel innovative solutions – Very local with the possibility of real action over the summer period.

    When we did this in 1989 no-one but a very few people had heard of traffic calming measure. No-one but the few were into recycling. And there were few facilities to help those who were.

    It is this level of innovation that we need to find. eg – developing a local economy, well then what practical changes and introductions would enhance that. Is it ideas like the Bristol £ ???

    So, talk and listen to firends and neighbours. We must search for the ideas that are only sketched now but will become everyday experience of people in 5 years time. And remember the priority task is motivating activists. Everything follows from that.

    Bath should be a hot bed of ideas many of them already being tested and developed in your radical communities.

  • You can’t have every candidate make a pledge, break it, then not pay a harsh price for it at the election. Democracy would be badly damaged if you could. You need to apologise for breaking the pledge, Nick saying sorry for making it was down right offensive and simply added insult to injury. The party made a bad mistake in defending these actions, there needs to be a sincere appology made and don’t spoil a good appology with an excuse either.

    On top of this the party needs to either get rid of its economic liberals or it’s social democrats, can’t have both.

    The party also needs to give people a vision, something real to vote for. It’s a two horse race and we’re not X really doesn’t inspire anyone.

    Do these things and I agree, liberal MPs could spread like wild flowers.

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