Tuesday, May 08, 2007

So what do the Liberal Democrats do now?

There is no hiding from the fact that Liberal Democrat hopes were not fulfilled in these local elections. Although the vote overall held up, in the places where it mattered, we were comprehensively outplayed- and not just by the Conservatives.

For every gain like Eastbourne, Northampton and Hull, there were painful losses like Bournemouth, Waverley, North Devon, Torbay, South Norfolk, Windsor or Woking. We ended the evening four councils less than we began, and lost 246 councillors.

So, disappointing... and we should give this pause for thought. This is the second year in a row where the Liberal Democrats have failed to make progress. Our vote was broadly static, as it was last year, but this year we saw more losses, as the FPTP system did not give us the rub of the greens. We are clearly being hurt by the Tory recovery, and the Conservatives on the face of it should have much to celebrate. They achieved a higher share of the vote and made around 900 gains, giving them control of 38 more councils. Not surprisingly, the Conservatives are euphoric.

The other parties put the blame for our disappointing result firmly at the door of our leader: Sir. Menzies Campbell. They say that he is "too old" and "too Scottish" and "too old fashioned". I have not agreed with this analysis- to a certain extent I think that our opponents project what they want Ming to be, but the reality has been rather different- he has been collegiate with the Parliamentary party and has significantly improved the administration and the fund raising of the Central Party. Perhaps his biggest weaknesses have been his closeness to the "Mac-ia" that cabal of Glasgow University lawyers like John Smith, Donald Dewar and Derry Irvine, and his willingness to agree that Liberalism is "of the Centre-Left"- when it is not. It is also true that on many occasions he has been a surprisingly indifferent public speaker, and that when this has occurred in the House of Commons, he has been lambasted by other MPs.

The Conservatives are particularly rude about Ming, and openly decry his leadership. However, the message from these elections is perhaps less clear than they hope and we fear. Firstly, on the basis of these results, while the Liberal Democrats could expect a net loss of Parliamentary seats, it would certainly not be the wipeout that the Tories predict: seats like Lewes and Yeovil would be safe, and perhaps some gains like Liverpool Wavertree might offset, losses in the South and South West. So, strangely perhaps. the Lib Dems might suffer a setback, but paradoxically still be a key influence in a hung Parliament- for that is what the primary indication of these results is showing.

Nevertheless, this is not what we should be thinking about. The key is to move the party more firmly towards a coherent ideology- we are not "of the centre left" or indeed centre anything- we stand for greater individual freedom, greater government accountability and fiscal discipline at home and more international co-operation over the most important challenges to our species, not least war, pestilence and famine: all of which are set to increase as we damage the environment beyond the point of no return.

So, I am not panicking over these results: I am more determined than ever. We do have a talented and effective front bench- and they will come more to the fore over the next year. At some point one of them will take over as leader, but unless Ming were unable to lead himself that is a discussion for much later. We have had a setback, but much can still change- and though the Tories are triumphant today, there is a long way to go before they can form a national government. Labour are still in the fight- as we know to our own cost. However a more even match between Labour and the Conservatives may yet provide the Liberal Democrats with a new opportunity, rather than the squeeze that some predict.


Steve Guy said...

Cicero, I was waiting for you wise words after the results and I was not disappointed. I wonder if you had noticed that the Lib Dems bucked the trend in that little known ward of Ryemead and that the 'bruiser' is now a councillor!

Tom Papworth said...

I heartily agree. The attempt to lay the blame firmly at Campbell's door is ridiculous - though to be fair, we'd have been the first to ridicule the "Cameron effect" if they'd done badly (some areas did just that).

Actually, I think he's doing a pretty good job in the face of some stiff opposition. In recent years, the generally socialist-leaning media have begun to see us not as kindred spirits but as potential rivals of Labour, and consequently have taken off the gloves. If we want to be taken seriously we have to learn to live with that.

What we need to do, as you rightly suggest, is promote our distinct ideology and convey its value to society as a whole. This will be a challenge (as Acton noted, the true friends of liberty are rare) but it is better than acting as a "centre-left" party, either Labour-lite or even (as some have accused us) more socialist even than the Labour Party.

As the French election showed, a real contest between very different parties can engage the electorate and produce a high turnout. I would rather lose a few seats to 80% of the electorate than win a few more off a 60% turnout.

DP South said...

Surely the consequence of these results is that we are being forced to take ourselves more seriously than ever.
We have a voice and we have a platform; we are getting there, but we cannot allow underhandedness or incoherence undermine our struggle.
Every time the pendulum swings it is as a result of another failure, should we provoke further disillusion once (and when) we gain office, then we do a disservice to our cause and to wider liberal and democratic politics - THAT prospect should cause our Cicero some nightmares.
Vice may hold sway for a time, but virtue will be vindicated; so don't forget that the Conservative grandees still have itchy trigger fingers, as they know their money can only replace so many members.
Whatever Simon Jenkins says, 'playing Nero for a day' still ends as Marie-Antoinette on the guillotine by nightfall.