Opinion: Why are we waiting?

We have played the waiting game before. It didn’t work in the 1980s, and it won’t work now.

In the 1983 Election, the Alliance reached a high water mark with a 26% vote. But there was discord. The Liberals, who won most seats, felt they should take the lead. The SDP, with their heavyweight experience, saw things differently. Problems grew when Owen took over, refused to collaborate properly, and set out to undermine theAlliancefrom within. A stalemate developed, and a waiting game began.

The Alliance announced to a stunned public that two-headed leadership was the new future. Their slogan “Not Left, Not Right, But Forward” neatly demonstrated a wish to paper over internal differences. Spitting Image mercilessly lampooned us with the “Owen with Steel in his pocket” puppet. The Alliance put on their trusty rose-tinted spectacles and comforted themselves in the belief that a puppet show could not be serious politics. So on we drifted, waiting for something to turn up.

Owen thought his command of the issues would gradually establish his dominance. It did not. The Liberals thought their stronger campaigning would establish their dominance. It did not. Nothing turned up that would break the stalemate.

Finally, we reached the 1987 Election, when we had promised we would finally knock Labour off their perch for good and all. It did not happen. Our disunited campaign fell apart, and we went – Not Forward, But Backward.

Paradoxically, electoral defeat proved liberating. Owen broke free from the Liberal embrace and marched off as undisputed leader of what, sadly for him, became a diminished splinter group. Meanwhile, SDP advocates of Alliance merger like myself, who had been marginalised for years, suddenly found themselves part of an unstoppable movement for change. Of course, it then took many more years to recover from the trauma and damage. The Owenite SDP disappeared, and for a while it looked as if the merged Lib Dems might do likewise.

In hindsight, a showdown was unavoidable. What did we gain by waiting, from 1983 to 1987, before having the showdown?  Why on earth did it help us to throw an election away first?  Why exactly did we find defeat so liberating?  Did we really need the defeat?

I think the answer is that we did indeed use defeat to liberate us. Defeat allowed people to do things which in “peace time” would have been outlawed as “bad behaviou r”. In peacetime, people felt constrained to maintain the polite fiction that everything is always going swimmingly, and that self-criticism is wrong. Instead, problems should be swept under the carpet, where they will fester and grow.

In other words, we embraced dysfunctional behaviour.

Now, thirty years later, will we do better?

* David Allen is a member of the Rushcliffe Local Party and has been a member of the Lib Dems or its (SDP) predecessor since 1981

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  • Bit of a coy conclusion. Waiting to do what?

  • Peter Watson 12th Apr '12 - 3:57pm

    Looking on Wikipedia, the Lib-SDP or Lib or LD share of the votes were:
    1983 25.4%
    1987 22.6%
    1992 17.8%
    1997 16.8%
    2001 18.3%
    2005 22.0%
    2010 23.0%
    In 1987 it was our hopes that were dashed by the results. I can’t imagine that in 2015 we’ll get near the share of the vote of any of these previous results, so I don’t think we’ll have much hope or expectation to be disappointed.

  • David – I’m a bit confused as to what you are asking for here too!

    @Peter – I don’t actually think that the % share of the vote will be lower than 1997. What might happen though is that we’ll have less MPs because the vote will be thinly spread, going back to the pre-1997 days. It’s an interesting point that, in 2005, we had almost the same % vote but almost 3 times the number of MPs!

  • Sadie Smith 12th Apr '12 - 5:00pm

    There was an utterly unrealistic expectation of the Alliance. It was wise to have all the advance advice. Did anyone give the Parly Party the same advice for 2010?
    But tactics were awful.

  • David Allen 12th Apr '12 - 6:22pm

    Colin Green, all

    I would love to have “spat it out”, but LDV told me to stick to a 500 word limit, so the second half of my posting had to go. I am tempted to post it in now as a “comment”, but I don’t want to annoy the moderators.

    I think the split in our party now is probably more unbridgeable and entrenched now than it was in Owen’s time. I also think that Clegg took a conscious decision to split the party once he gained the leadership, and that coalition merely gave him and his allies free rein to show their real beliefs, which are quite incompatible with what our party has always stood for.

    It is tempting to suppose – as each side did in the 1980s – that this is not a stalemate, that the next issue will be the one on which Clegg just has to yield to the strength of opinion in his party, or else be thrown out of the leadership. However, if you suppose that, why didn’t it happen over the tuition fees disaster, or the NHS? It won’t happen over the internet surveillance issue either. Stalemate will continue, just as long as we let it.

    It would be better to accept, now, that Clegg has successfully managed to split the party. Better than leaving it to after 2015, when a split will mean two opposing taxis to the Commons, neither full.

  • Peter Watson 12th Apr '12 - 6:23pm

    I wasn’t sure what you meant in the original article, but having read your posting above I have to say that I agree with you entirely.
    I was going to preface the last bit with “sadly”, but as I wrote it I realised that in fact this restores my faith somewhat in the LDs in that I am not alone in feeling let down by what has been done since May 2010. I am however still sad at what I expect to be in store for us over the next couple of parliaments.
    I don’t foresee an exodus by the parliamentary party to the Conservatives, but only because I don’t think the Conservatives would accept them. I also suspect that many have burnt their bridges with contributions to debates over NHS reforms and tuition fees, so won’t be crossing the floor of the house either (some might). Consequently, I suspect that the future of the party will be defined by whichever MPs retain their seats after 2015 (and by possible Scottish independence). I hope that it would be shaped by the membership but based on the last 24 months I am not optimistic and will not consider rejoining the party lest it be seen as supporting its current position.

  • Daniel Henry 12th Apr '12 - 7:15pm

    So far I don’t see our problems as a split in ideology. I see it more as a disconnect between the grassroots and the leadership, exacerbated by the difficulties of being in coalition.

    I think as a party we need to shape up and improve our political performance. Hopefully active groups arising in the party are the start of organisational structures that will get it’s better organised.

  • I would hesitate to predict what is likely to happen to the party three years out from a general election, although I think that Peter Watson is right to suggest that the party will be shaped to some extent by the MPs who retain their seats after 2015. But Harold Macmillan’s warning of “Events, dear boy, events!” should never be forgotten. A western/Israeli attack on Iran could tear the party asunder long before 2015, or a wholly unexpected issue could arise (as with the surveillance proposals) which might galvanise the activists against Clegg. I’m not sure that I go along completely with David Allen’s analogy with the Alliance, though. The leadership of the SDP felt that their experience of government meant that they had a seriousness about politics that the Liberal Party lacked, but the Liberal Party’s strength at that time lay in the commitment of their activists at local government level, something that always seems to be sneered at by Westminster politicians (including Liberal Party ones at the time of the Alliance). Maybe I’m not close enough to the party these days to know any better, but I still find it hard to believe that Clegg has deliberately set out to rid the party of the lefty anarchists like me. I’m more inclined to believe that Clegg, like every other Liberal leader with the partial exception of Paddy, has little historical connection with the party’s grassroots and surrounds himself with advisors for whom the membership is an abstract irrelevance. The difference is that Clegg, unlike any of the others, has the power to do things which are alienating the activist base.

  • Steve Griffiths 12th Apr '12 - 7:27pm

    Daniel: it is a clear split in ideology, although many are trying mask it by saying it’s a grassroots/leadership thing. I left the party over policy decisions once in government , political direction and the ideas espoused by the Orange bookers; so did many others. I did not recognise the party anymore as the one I joined.

  • paul barker 12th Apr '12 - 9:58pm

    Im sorry but this all looks like paranoid fantasy to me, I dont see any split, just a healthy range of opinion. If you want to split the party its you playing the david owen role.

    To me, the obvious historical comparison is between 1979 & 2015, labour have suffered a heavy defeat after a long period when they felt like the dominant force, they are all blaming each other & they have a widely ridiculed leader.
    What happened after 1979 was that we nearly destroyed a labour party far stronger than it is now. Labour cant afford to lose any more votes but they will.

  • OK then Geoffrey, here is “why are we waiting part 2”:

    In Part 1 of this piece I argued that, back in the Eighties, we played a pointless waiting game. Faced with a right-wing leader who deliberately sought to divide the Alliance, we postponed confrontation for several years. It didn’t work. We wasted time, we blew our chances in the 1987 Election, and after defeat, we had to face the showdown anyway.

    And now?

    Well, there are of course significant differences between now and the Eighties. Whereas Owen’s ego may have been the greatest barrier to unity in the 1980s, the real policy differences within our party are now much more serious. Under a succession of relatively emollient and consensual Lib Dem leaders, the growth of an “economic liberal” right wing was carefully balanced against our established centre-left philosophy. All that changed when Clegg, having portrayed himself as a consensus man when standing for the leadership, then moved to declare victory for one side, and effectively told the other side to leave the party.

    It could be said that, whereas Owen agonised for years before deciding to split the party, Clegg took that decision from the outset. Some may argue that right-wing policies were forced on Clegg by the demands of coalition. However, that view ignores many factors: Clegg’s choice of “Big Permanent Tax Cuts” as the keynote policy of his first Conference; his early advocacy of drugs “top-up” charging and the pupil premium as routes toward marketisation of state services; and his unprecedented pre-election maneuver to rule out a deal with the party (Labour, of course) which would finish second. Clegg’s strident enthusiasms in government for Osbornomics, the NHS Bill, and a locked-in Coalition after 2015, now leave no doubt on where he and his close allies truly stand.

    So once again we have a stalemate. The Clegg group demand that the centre-left should knuckle under or leave. From the opposite side, activists write with intelligence and passion on the need to take back the initiative* with radical Lib Dem policies for government. To our leadership, they might as well be talking to a brick wall.

    The Coalition has seen two phases. The first year was the Rose Garden love-in between Cameron and Clegg and the launch of an ambitious Tory “reform” programme going far beyond Thatcherism. The second year was exemplified by the Shirley Williams NHS Bill “compromise” – more conflict, a few concessions won, but an end result pretty much the way the Tories wanted it. This now looks like setting the pattern.

    Can we really drift on like this until 2015, do nothing to resolve the stalemate, and then go into election like lambs to the slaughter? The experience of the 1980s tells us that yes, we certainly can, and we probably will.

    So here’s my challenge to everyone who sees why the Lib Dems must change. How are we going to break this pattern? How will we make change happen?

    (* – see https://www.libdemvoice.org/opinion-time-to-take-back-the-initiative-27960.html )

  • This evening Ed Davey spoke to local party members about what’s going on in government. Of course there’s stuff that is tough, we are in coalition after all, but I can tell you this for nothing: there was no split in the room. There are some things that pretty much none of us like (Tory policies), and there are some things that pretty much all of us liked (LibDem policies being enacted for the first time in many generations).

    As for the idea that the pupil premium-one of the most important ways of improving social mobility-is the marketisation of public services is flat wrong.

    as George says, some people are unhappy, but the idea that there is a fundamental split in the party is simply wrong.

  • Peter Watson 13th Apr '12 - 12:44am

    I agree that reducing the deficit is an important issue and that public sector cuts will always be unpopular and in accordance with tory principles.
    However, so many of the LD actions, reversals and capitulations do not seem to be consistent with this. Reforms in the NHS and education have not been justified by cost-cutting and in fact appear to be inefficient and expensive. Even the student fees debacle can’t have any short term impact as the money has to be lent to the students in the first place (though I suspect that creative accounting puts the numbers elsewhere).
    I find it hard to believe that the party is united (you use the word “surprisingly” yourself). Polling figures suggest that overall support has evaporated: most of those who voted LD in 2010 are apparently not happy with the outcome and most conservative voters are. This speaks volumes.

  • Perhaps the dilemma facing the party is more akin to that of the SDP rather than the Alliance. With the inevitable success of the coalition, the strong working relationships that have been built up, and the duty owed to the country to continue the good work, perhaps the final question will be over a merger.

  • Paul McKeown 13th Apr '12 - 1:02am

    @David Allen

    “It would be better to accept, now, that Clegg has successfully managed to split the party.”

    The only person here talking about splitting is you. And we saw what splits and personality conflicts did to the Liberal Party, reducing it from its 1906 landslide to several small warring splinter parties, more interested in burying hatchets in each other, than promoting liberal politics.

    So you don’t like him? So what. He’s been the first leader to take the party into government – and that under very difficult circumstances to boot – so he gets blamed for everything.

    Your solution? Take the ball home. Great.

  • Andrew Suffield 13th Apr '12 - 1:23am

    However, if you suppose that, why didn’t it happen over the tuition fees disaster, or the NHS? It won’t happen over the internet surveillance issue either

    Tuition fees was a screwup, and all sorts of things were wrong with how the other two were handled, but on the point you raise? It did happen over the NHS and the internet surveillance issue.

    The rest of the party just didn’t back your hard-line “shoot them all for speaking such blasphemy” attitude and took a more moderate approach. In both cases, Clegg was presented with clear demands from the party body and (with quite a bit of enthusiasm) gave them exactly what they asked for.

    Interestingly the hard-liners continue to rattle on about how theirs is the One True Way…

  • Martin Pierce 13th Apr '12 - 8:13am

    I think it was an interesting piece though I don’t agree with all of it, and I think comments like “hysterical gibberish” aren’t really in line with the request to be polite. I’d make 3 points for what it’s worth – (1) in the mid 80’s one of the reasons we ‘waited’ is because for most of the Parliament we were polling very well indeed as the Alliance – there were sustained periods of 30%+ e.g. in 1985. The poll ratings only really went down after Eastbourne in Sept 86. (2) I also don’t buy that Nick Clegg deliberately engaged in a deliberate mission to launch a right-wing takeover by stealth. However I do think one of the reasons that people perceive a ‘leadership/grassroots’ issue is that he, and quite a lot of the leadership, doesn’t naturally have the philosophical instincts that the Party membership has. He is, if you like, our Tony Blair, (3) It doesn’t matter whether it’s a conspiracy or a communications issue – as Mark Pack’s excellent history of opinion poll ratings shows, we are facing meltdown in 2015 unless something changes – since Tuition Fees the monthly average poll rating has never been above 10.7%; in the TWENTY YEARS before that, since Ribble Valley, the monthly average never dipped below 12% (and was usually much higher). At 30% in the mid 1980s we could afford to wait – in fact the strategy looked quite successful on the face of it – at 10% now we will have to do something to change the game

  • Martin Pierce 13th Apr '12 - 8:18am

    Actually, re-reading my comment, make that “he [Clegg] is if you like, our Tony Blair, but unfortunately without the electoral success”!

  • Robin Gonard 13th Apr '12 - 8:45am

    We should spend less time being concerned with our internal squabbles and more time worrying about the future of the country and what needs to be done. I suspect most voters / taxpayers / citizens would cringe to know that we are so inward-looking and bothered about the politics of the party more than the policy for the country. Not left, not right, but forward!

  • Bill le Breton 13th Apr '12 - 8:59am

    Taking the ‘our’ Tony Blair analogy for a walk: Blair had a very strong campaigning team of Gould (polling and focus groups), Mandelson (messaging), Brown (political intelligence including party management) and Blair himself (messenger).
    He also had a section of the electorate that he was campaigning to win over – actually the ‘Alliance’ voter – to add to its core. There was a simplicity to this strategy.
    Clegg has a target group but winning it over sacrifices tactical voters, possibly half our 2010 vote and weakens the support of the core. This suggests that he doesn’t have a very good ‘Gould’. Messaging? Not looking very effective. Party intelligence/management? Non existent.
    As we are where we are, we have to hope that somehow the Leadership gets the message that these elements are essential and must be put in place even if they are not embodied by people you know or necessarily agree with.

  • @Daniel IMHO there is a clear left – right split in the party. In fact there always was, but the big difference being in government has made is that it is no longer possible to paper over the cracks and has forced people to come clean about which side of the divide they are on.

    @Simon McGrath the message I have been receiving from the Orange Book Brigade since the start of the coalition is “Lefties are no longer welcome in the Lib Dems”. If that’s not the message the OBB are meaning to send out then they need to change what they are saying and doing so that they send out a different message.

    Given UKIPs rise in the polls, trying to destabilise Cameron over Europe might be a good move.

  • What Clegg actually said was: “The vocation of Liberalism is not to be a leftwing ghetto for people disaffected by the Labour party.”


    I suspect that Simon McGrath and Tom Papworth know perfectly well that it was this statement or others like it to which I was referring,and are preparing themselves to argue that I have been horribly unfair to poor Nick in my interpretation of it.

    Of course, most of us will understand that politicians use flowery language like “ghetto” in order to help themselves to say nasty things, while reducing the risk that their opponents will successfully nail them for being nasty.

    Or to put it another way, it was perfectly clear to anyone left of centre what Clegg was saying. He was saying “B*gger off and join Labour, we don’t want you here.”

  • Andrew Tennant 13th Apr '12 - 1:28pm

    A choice between implementing Lib Dem policies in government for the first time in decades, or standing impotently on the sidelines denying the tough choices and reality the country is faced with. I know what option Labour chose – personally, I expect better than that.

  • David Allen 13th Apr '12 - 1:42pm

    Simon Mc Grath said: “do you think we are a leftwing ghetto etc. ?”

    Simon, let me just spell out the rhetorical technique which Nick is using, and which you are regurgitating, to make a dishonest point. When you attack something, you don’t describe it as it is. You demonise it and then attack that. So, you don’t say “The vocation of Liberalism is not to be a good place for lots of nice people who stand somewhere to the left of Genghis Khan”. You say “The vocation of Liberalism is not to be a leftwing ghetto for smelly people with coarse accents and an overfamiliar interest in farmyard sheep”, or something similar. This means that you can get away with a dishonest attack which you shouldn’t be getting away with.

    Now you tell me – Why do you think Clegg said what he said? What do you think he was trying to achieve by saying it?

  • Peter Watson 13th Apr '12 - 2:06pm

    Just googled the sentence to get some context.
    Clegg said (),
    “Clearly there is a chunk of people who, I totally understand, turned to the Liberal Democrats at the height of Blair’s authoritarianism and his fascination with [George] Bush and [Dick] Cheney, They said, ‘Aha! These Liberal Democrats, they are the leftwing party I want. They are the leftwing conscience of the Labour party that I want. That was always going to unwind at some point, particularly when Labour went back into opposition and started sloganeering leftwards. Because the vocation of Liberalism is not to be a leftwing ghetto for people disaffected by the Labour party.”
    It does look to me as if he was saying to anyone left of centre, “B*gger off and join Labour, we don’t want you here.”

    Then again in April 2010 Nick Clegg said, ““We will resist, vote against, campaign against, a rise in tuition fees.”, so maybe it’s just not possible to discern what he means from what he says.

  • Well I’m no fan of Nick Clegg at the moment but even I can see that all he was saying was that the LibDems are not just a place for disillusioned labourites to head as Labour lurched to the right, we’re a Liberal party not a left wing or right wing party. What he was saying was we didn’t want to be swamped by disgruntled exLabour big state authoritarians.

  • @Carl
    “we’re a liberal party”

    This is clearly true but not the whole picture. The party was formed as the Social ANDLiberal Democrats. Unless my recollection is wrong, the name was changed due to ‘salad’ ridicule rather than because Social Democrats were no longer welcome. It appears that those who define themselves as Liberal are not give fair hearing to the other party traditon.

  • @Simon
    Sorry should have said, “we’re a liberal party” (small L). The point being that a lot of people on the left are not liberal (small L or otherwise) but rather authoritarian. No disrespect to those of a Social Democrat heritage intended!

  • mark fairclough 13th Apr '12 - 4:03pm

    lets all dissolve the party & join the labour party , thats what you all want.
    I for one am not labour

  • Dave,

    “So here’s my challenge to everyone who sees why the Lib Dems must change. How are we going to break this pattern? How will we make change happen?”

    In answer to the question you pose, I would disagree that splitting the party into factions to reform for elections in 2020 would be in anyway advantageous to the furtherance of social liberalism in this country.

    Being in government is almost always a thankless task and operating in a coalition government is the most thankless of all. With the burden of a serious structural deficit to deal with and a global economic slowdown, this was never going to be anything, but an arduous and unpopular period of time.

    The key for our party is to be able to exit this coalition having demonstrated that it up to the task of taking the hard decisions needed to put the economy back on the right track, while striving to ensure that the most vulnerable in society are protected from unwarranted hardship.

    Restructuring of the country’s economic, social and political base requires a myriad of short, medium and longtern measures. There will be differences of opinion on strategy and tactics but as long as consensus is retained on the end goals and objectives, then relative unity can be maintained.

    This would be a difficult time for even a majority Liberal Democrat government. Let’s cut the party leadership and ministerial team some slack during this period of transition and keep our eye on the end game. – a more ethical and socially liberal UK.

  • David Allen 13th Apr '12 - 4:50pm

    Graham Cowie said:

    “Those who … describe the party as of the centre-left may well be right in so far as they comprise a majority, but that does not give them a carte-blanche to marginalise those who do not identify with the centre-left.”

    Er, who is being marginalised in practical terms at the moment, and who is banging the Cabinet table to celebrate passing the NHS Bill?

    “The notion that Clegg somehow wants rid of such people is just nonsense. He’s a moderate. For some of us more economic liberally minded frustratingly so, though less than his predecessors. The notion that the likes of Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell more carefully balanced the centre-left and economic liberal wings of the party is revisionism. They came down firmly on the side of the former.”

    Translation: “All the other marchers are out of step with me. Even Clegg is too much of a lefty for my liking.”

    I really don’t see Ming or Paddy as being raving lefties. I suppose Charles would identify himself as being on the left of our party, but then he was the leader who, for example, moved us away from the “penny in the pound” tax rise policy. That’s the sort of thing I meant by being emollient, consensual, and giving due ground to what I recognise as a growth in the strength of our “economic liberal” wing. Clegg, except when forced to do so by party and public opinion, never gives any similar ground to his dwindling band of centre-left members and voters.

  • @Joe Bourke
    A lovely sentiment but the leadership has already used up all it’s slack. When it’s repaired the trust deficit caused by the uturn on tuition fees, proved its fiddling round the edges of the NHS bill actually improved the thing, consigned secret courts to the scrapheap of history and made sure that no one can go on a fishing expedition with my ecomms it can have some more slack but no sooner.

  • David Allen 13th Apr '12 - 5:02pm

    Joe Bourke said:

    “I would disagree that splitting the party into factions … would be in anyway advantageous to the furtherance of social liberalism”

    It doesn’t sound good. But the alternative may prove to be worse.

    “With the burden of a serious structural deficit to deal with and a global economic slowdown, this was never going to be anything, but an arduous and unpopular period of time.”

    True. My view is that it is people like Darling, Blair and Hollande who have the right answer about deficits. First, do whatever is needed to persuade the markets that you are serious about proper financial control and paying back creditors. Then, don’t go ape about massive state cuts for their own sake. Recognise that whatever you do it is going to be hard to recover the situation, and that trying to grow and hence increase your tax receipts may be a more efefctive way of reducing future borrowing than trying to shrink. … But in any case, the deficit doesn’t explain or justify privatising health and education, or cutting the 50% rate while clobbering the disabled!

    “The key for our party is to be able to exit this coalition having demonstrated that it up to the task of taking the hard decisions needed to put the economy back on the right track, while striving to ensure that the most vulnerable in society are protected from unwarranted hardship.”

    The word “exit” is encouraging. However, do you think we have yet demonstrated to the public that we are protecting the most vulnerable?

    “Let’s cut the party leadership and ministerial team some slack during this period of transition and keep our eye on the end game. – a more ethical and socially liberal UK.”

    Let’s come back in a year’s time and review whether we have got ourselves any closer to achieving that end game.

  • Dave,

    we are going to fight the next general election based on our record in government. Mark Pack’s infographic is a good summary of what has been achieved to date Liberal Democrat achievements in government . We need to allow sufficient time for the benefit of these policies to filter through and cement themselves in the public consciousness.

    I think the structural deficit reduction plan we now have is effectively the Darling plan. To be sure more could and should be done to stimulate economic growth- particularly in fast tracking infrastruce investment and job creation. Some of the concessions made to our coalition partners are unpalatable and maybe deserve a ‘could do better’ on our report card. We can always do better and with two years of coalition experience under our belt, I hope we will in the remainder of this parliament.

  • David Allen 13th Apr '12 - 8:37pm


    Do we need to allow the public more time to come round to believing that we have been wonderful – or do we just have to get rid of the rose-tinted spectacles, and recognise that they don’t?

  • Sorry, in here somewhere should be the argument – powerfully made by many economists, but not enough politicians – that the “deficit” issue is not a crunch one, certainly not in the UK. If we were a party “different from the old parties”, represent “the new politics” etc, both types of slogans used by our leaders down the years, including Clegg, then we should be showing this. We should be showing this in prioritising compassion, developing a sustainable way of living, and working through how our international political and economic system needs to change in order to live in a world with between 7 and 9 billion people in it. It is rather clear (to me anyway, and I know to many other Lib Dems) that we will not move towards a sustainable future without major changes – in our use of natural resources, in our economic indicators as currently deployed, in our unequal allocation of resources, and in our resort to violent conflict to solve differences. While people still revert to the “safe” options, and “realistic” politics, these matters, always important to many Liberals and Lib Dems will remain fringe, and changes when they come will be violent, enforced, and the very opposite of liberal and compassionate. This has to be a medium to long term gradual transformation, but if we don’t ready the ground, get the parameters set now, we will not achieve the better world and Britain aspired to in our Constitution.

    Our leadership has sold the pass on this – whether for bums on ministerial seats, or whatever, I am not clear.

  • David Allen 14th Apr '12 - 4:15pm

    Tim Leunig said:

    “This evening Ed Davey spoke to local party members about what’s going on in government. Of course there’s stuff that is tough, we are in coalition after all, but I can tell you this for nothing: there was no split in the room. There are some things that pretty much none of us like (Tory policies), and there are some things that pretty much all of us liked (LibDem policies being enacted for the first time in many generations). …. The idea that there is a fundamental split in the party is simply wrong.”

    So, Tim and his friends and colleagues from the Party met and bonded, shared their worries, shared their hopes, determined to work together, and generated a sense of purpose.

    There are two words for this process. One is team spirit. The other is groupthink. It would be unfair for me to ignore the importance of team spirit. It is dangerous for the party, I suggest, to ignore the serious problem of groupthink.

    Those rose-tinted spectacles (which, incidentally, have nothing to do with Clegg and have been in regular use as long as I can remember) will be the death of us!

  • Dave,

    putting aside some of the less significant achievements and errors in government – the bigger differences are in the personal allowance increase from next year, the pupil premium, apprenticeship program and banking reform. Much of the benefit of these policies are yet to be felt on the ground.

    As a major national party we are a broad based coalition of opinion, reflecting the electorate we represent, as are the other major parties. It is only single issue parties that can maintain a narrow coalescence of views and that among a small minority of the popoulation.

    To remain a progressive force in British politics, we have to be able to accomodate a fairly wide range of opinion in the centre ground. As a consequence, there will always be overlaps with moderate labour and conservative views. Our challenge is to present a distinctive, forward looking vision that is instinctively rational to a majority of voters.

    Much of our present problems have been self-inflicted. Capping tuition fees was never a policy that could survive the dynamics of a coalition – with either Labour or the Conservatives. This was clear well before the election. However strongly we felt about the issue – it was not a policy compatible with entering a coalition government that was faced with making deep cuts across all government departments and was about to be presented with the Browne report. Failure to confront this reality prior to the election has deeply damaged public trust in the party and will take some time to mend.

    Whether we like it or not, the Brtiish public do not hold politicians of any stripe in high esteem. Demonstrating managerial competence is an essential prerequisite to developing the trust that can bring a large swathe of the voting public along with the radical reforms required for future progress.

    If we are to see the kind of changes that you and I want for this country, then it is essential that Liberal Democrats are viewed as a broad based national party with a record of managerial competence in goverment. We all need to take that on board if we are to have any influence on the future direction of government in the UK.

    I simply cannot see how an internecine split in the dwindling party ranks, can do anything but inflict further damage to public trust in the credibility of Liberal Democrats as a party of government.

  • David Allen 14th Apr '12 - 5:02pm


    Everything you write tells me that you’re a natural consensualist. You recognise the importance of a broad base. So did I thirty years ago when I was one of those who argued for a merger between the SDP and the Liberals. So do most successful politicians. David Owen did not. Clegg, Alexander and Laws do not.

    If you’ll forgive the reference, it’s a little bit like the problem which politicians faced in the 1930s when dealing with the emergence of Mr Hitler. Now, most foreign leaders (or so it was widely felt) turn out in the end to be more-or-less reasonable fellows. They might be tough negotiators, but, at the end of the day, they will usually offer you a deal you can agree to, in order to get the things they want for themselves. So, the natural consensualists thought that, if only they were nice to Mr Hitler, he would eventually be nice to them in return. It took Churchill to point out that we were not in fact dealing with a consensualist, and that in consequence, we could not afford to act like consensualists ourselves.

    A consensualist Lib Dem leader, in the present circumstances, would probably reject the minority view put forward by people like me that we should now leave the Coalition. But he/she would equally reject the minority view of the Clegg/Alexander/Laws group that our future lies in permanent alliance with the Conservatives, or that (for example) the Shirley Williams “compromise” on the NHS Bill goes anything like far enough to show any significant beneficial influence over government policy. On that latter topic, he/she would not ask our internal opinion shapers, whose dedication to the rose-tinted spectacles is unrivalled. He/she would ask the public, whose views are more objective, and who remain supremely unconvinced.

    If we had a consensualist leader, we could reasonably progress without splitting the party, by staying in coalition, and by fighting much harder to achieve a real influence in government. But we don’t.

  • David Allen 14th Apr '12 - 5:04pm

    Caractacus said:

    “Whatever one’s views – the problem … with … Nick Clegg is that there is no realistic alternative leader.”

    That’s what Labour said about Gordon Brown.

  • David Allen. I agree with what your are saying here; you are (in my opinion) simply telling the truth.

  • Paul McKeown 15th Apr '12 - 6:07pm

    @David Allen

    “reject the minority view of the Clegg/Alexander/Laws group that our future lies in permanent alliance with the Conservatives”

    Where do you get that idea from?

  • Paul McKeown 15th Apr '12 - 6:26pm

    i.e. that Nick Clegg wants a permanent alliance with another party

  • CroydonDunblanite 16th Apr '12 - 1:47pm

    I love a bit of gloom and doom me, but I really don’t see it here, sorry. My Dad was one of the first SD council candidates and got thoroughly trounced in Dunblane. Since then I have been in and out of love with the party. I looked for a home in the labour party but was marginalised less by what they leaned from Marx than what they learned from Stalin. I am a natural Green but would like both feet on the ground.

    I guess the point I would make is that Liberal Democrats have been through it all before, from both sides. Clegg does not have a hold of the course of the party in much the same way that my Labour friends were proud of their party but ashamed of their government – so we see here thankfully the thing that really solidifies in my mind that the leadership will not rest the party from the hands of the party is that (somewhat ironically) there is no leadership. No Comms strategy, no political strategy. I cannot imagine Clegg holding hallam (a constituency I know well) and that will spark a leadership race. Come 2015 we will all know it’s time for Tim.

  • @CroydonDunblanite

    “Come 2015 we will all know it’s time for Tim.”

    Unfortunately come 2015 Tim is unlikely to be in a position to lead the party. A UGOV poll for the Sun on LD seats is forecasting just 7 Lib Dem MPs following 2015. This is based on the revised boundaries and specifically asking the question with relevance to the specific constituency. In so doing any personal vote from the incumbant LD MP is taken into account. The good news is that Clegg, Laws and Alexander go but unfortunately so do Farron, Cable, Hughes, Kennedy et al.

    Re those commenting that there is no split in the party. That is probably because those of David Allen’s persuassion have already left the party as I did after the NHS bill fiasco. I am now homeless and the formation of a centre left party would certainly be good news for me and I suspect for at least 2/3 of the party which existed in spring 2010.

  • David Allen 16th Apr '12 - 5:15pm

    Paul McKeown, Graham Cowie,

    Here’s the link to the Newsnight programmme in which Alexander committed himself to a continued Coalition economic programme out to 2017:


  • Evening all

    Coming in fourth place in the latest YouGov poll is certainly a large fly in the old ointment, no?

    It has the Lib Dems are on 8%, one behind UKIP’s 9% and less than a fifth of Labour’s 43% share
    (compare that to the 2010 General Election when our 24% was four-fiths of Labour’s 30% share)

    Tricky, eh? Sometimes I wonder if we shouldn’t all go and join the Greens…

  • @Graham Cowie

    Sorry for the somewhat delayed reply.

    I said (quite carefully) “the message I have been receiving” which doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone stood up and said those exact words.

    I remember doing a presentation skills course where the instructor said that “words are only 40% of the message” and “focus on the message that the audience is receiving – it may be different from the one that you are sending”.

    In that context, I feel (as the person receiving the message) that the leadership of the Lib Dems don’t want to have anything to do with their left wing supporters. Indeed if they had set out to alienate me, they could hardly have done a better job.

    And from the posts above it’s not just me. In fact the councillor who got me to start canvassing has now left the party.

    And I don’t know what to do. I feel sick at the apparently unbreakable succession of Tory governments (New Labour == Old Tory IMHO). For the first time in my life I feel like not voting or writing none of the above on the ballot paper.

    @Peter Bell – do you want to form a new party?

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