Friday, March 01, 2013

Lessons of Eastleigh


When all was said and done it really was a close one, and another week, maybe even another day or two and it could easily have been another result. Be that as it may, the party dug as deep as I have ever seen it do, and the relentless commitment and hard work of thousands of volunteers with spectacularly good organisation on the ground made the difference. 


Set against pretty much the very worst that the party could face from pretty much the very worst of the British press, the result is -frankly- something close to a miracle for the Liberal Democrats.

The party has saved itself from the brink.

Now we owe it to ourselves and the country to set out a renewed, coherent Liberal agenda. Personally, I want to see a commitment to fair tax, which must also mean simple tax. We must stop the state trying to do too much, but make the commitment that whatever it does do, it must do with excellence. Among many other things, that means accepting the need for radical health care reform. It also means radical education reform-  challenging the vested interests in private sector education. Above all we must have another attempt to update our constitution in order to promote the rights of the individual above the rights of big government or big business or even big Europe for that matter. 

The experience of government has been a sobering one, but in the next two years we should put it to good use in crafting a new and practical agenda for radical reform- putting the rights of individuals at the heart of our community and national politics.

So in congratulating Mike Thornton MP and in grateful thanks for the immense efforts that Liberal Youth and the Scottish Liberal Democrats- and hundreds of others- have made, we should make sure that the new energy that the party is showing can now be put to the service of renewing and strengthening the Liberal agenda so that we can prove worthy of the victory in Eastleigh and a genuine contender for government in 2015.

That task may prove easier now we see how genuinely unpopular not just the Conservatives but also Labour still remain. 

The Tories had a terrible candidate, yet they still had a huge pile of cash and more than sufficient organisation to inflict a defeat upon the Liberal Democrats- in the end, as we know, they came third. As for Labour, they too had "candidate problems", but the result is exceptionally poor for them. Of course, as the UKIP vote shows, there is still a general feeling of "a plague on all your houses" among the electorate at large. 

Yet, partly because the Liberal Democrats have been so much under attack, and seen the price paid in election after election over the past two years, the victory at Eastleigh is particularly sweet since it proves not merely that the party is likely to survive, but that it has very tough roots indeed. That will change the media narrative. Instead of speculating whether the party will have any MPs after 2015, the message will subtly alter to asking how many MPs they will have, and whether that will be enough to disrupt a single party majority. The more that it seems probable that the next Parliament will also have no overall majority, the more difficult it is to dismiss the Liberal Democrats in the way that we have been dismissed by our political enemies over the past two years.

This is why we now need to craft a new agenda- not just for the current Parliament, but for the 57th Parliament of the United Kingdom, to be elected in 2015. 

I know that Eastleigh will energize the party as a whole- I am sure we can now work to rebuild our organisation and to recover the friends we have lost and the trust we forfeited. We must do that particularly by recovering the Liberal integrity of our ideology, somewhat compromised in coalition. However the joie-de-vivre that this by-election clearly held for a new generation of Liberal Youth activists is obvious; and for those of us who have campaigned in too many elections to count, it is certainly heartening to see.

It is a very sweet victory- and perhaps it may yet mark the turning of the tide.

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