Thursday, September 27, 2012

Dead Parrots strike back

The conventional wisdom in the British media is that the Liberal Democrats are doomed to a huge defeat in 2015. The only question that exercises such commentators as Polly Toynbee is how large the Labour victory will be and how long they will be in power.

For sure, as Sir Mervyn King foresaw during the general election, in conversation with my friend David Hale, any government that took office in 2010 was going to face exceptional challenges. The economic situation when the coalition was formed was the worst in over 60 years. On top of this came the challenges of forming and running a new political structure, namely the coalition itself. Well, as we now know, "mistakes were made". The learning curve was pretty steep, and the Lib Dems have paid an exceptional price in support for being behind that curve. 

Yet the Brighton conference may well mark an inflexion point both for the members of the Liberal Democrats and indeed their voters. The political environment could have hardly been worse- a halving of support, a leader the focus of huge personal opprobrium, the disruption of losing "short money", even the impact of the move in headquarters from Cowley St to Great George St., all have contributed to a loss of membership and of morale.

The morale of the party has clearly recovered: the atmosphere in Brighton was not so much grimly determined as actually rather jaunty. The membership issue, in common with all other political parties, may prove more problematic. The other two parties have already made a large move towards creating "virtual" campaigning. The professional targeting of voters  through sophisticated databases such as the Conservatives' "voter vault", is far more advanced. The fact is that for all parties, the key issue is not about membership any more, it's about money.

The need to modernise campaigning will have a significant impact on the Liberal Democrats, as it has on Labour and the Conservatives. However, the persistence of party democracy in the party is the baby that must not be thrown out with the bath water of old fashioned campaigning tactics. Once, the party faithful were simply the foot soldiers of the campaign, And the quid pro quo was that the campaigners had disproportionate influence.  Yet, now the key area is the formation of policy. The focus groups have created tightly targeted policies, which are tested without reference to the intellectual purity of the party concerned but only within a marketing strategy. This was the fatal error behind Blairism. 

The Liberal Democrats are a highly ideological party driven by many expert members: many were on show in Brighton. Indeed it was quite clear that those of us who have been long term members were regarding the current difficulties of the party with a certain wry amusement. We continue the fight, of course, seems to be the message, yet I am mildly  concerned about how much the rules of the game have changed. It remains to be seen whether the Lib Dems can match the financial fire power that the other two parties can bring to the new world of professional politics.

Nevertheless, at least the party is aware of the problem, and the new party chief executive, Tim Gordon has moved to address some of the critical issues already- and that, as much as anything else, will establish the recovery of the party. For the reality is that in most conventional terms, the party is already recovering, activity is up and the members are remarkably united in the face of adversity, albeit that total membership is still down, as it is in other parties, especially the Conservatives, whose activists in some areas have defected en bloc to UKIP. 

If the Lib Dems can win the race to modernise their campaign in key seats, then the outlook  for the party is not so bleak. So the cheerful Liberal activists on the wind swept front at  Brighton are not whistling in the dark, and as so many times before, those who predict-, in fact hope- that party faces its demise will, as before, be very disappointed. the "dead parrot" remains very much alive.

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