OK, so it's the Euro elections, where the Liberal Democrats *usually* under perform. OK, so this does not mean that UKIP will form the next government, and OK, so the Tories, less so, and Labour, more so, face problems with the implications of the results too. Nevertheless there is no getting away from the fact that the 2014 European elections have been a thoroughgoing disaster for the UK Liberal Democrats. I feared, going in, that we would be down to three MEPs, in fact we only held one, and that by the skin of our teeth. So there is no easy way to gloss or spin this- it is a massive blow.
We have- had- extremely good and well respected MEPs, but in the end this election was not about Europe. Even as UKIP made major advances, the latest polls, for the first time in years, if not decades, show support for staying in the EU outstripping those who would leave. Most voters cheerfully accept that most if not all the UKIP MEPs are pretty useless, lazy and hypocritical. Some may even be fully fledged loonies, racists and fruit cakes, but that is not the point. It was "politics" in general that the punters were making a statement about, and UKIP has definitively stolen the Lib Dem clothes of being the anti-politics party.
The problem is not, as some of the so-called "Radical Liberals" have been unhelpfully declaring this evening, that the voters are rejecting "the Orange Bookers". Even if we had been able to join with Labour in 2010 and the Social Liberal agenda had gained a decisive advantage, I believe we would very likely be in a pretty similar position. I will not say that this is simply because some deus ex machina dictates that smaller coalition parties always get damaged, because I don't believe that to be true anyway. Rather, we have contaminated our brand, to use the unlovely language of marketing, because we have failed to articulate why we do what we do. The compromises of coalition, whether with right or left, are messy, but we have not explained our core values to the voters. Without that clarity, we have come to look opportunist and dishonest- only in it for the power, not for the principle.
To be fair Nick Clegg has tried to speak up for Liberal values, and often in a way I totally applaud. Nevertheless the failure of the AV campaign is now revealed as the precursor to disaster. Our failure to achieve even the first tiny step on the road to real constitutional change was the critical moment in the life of this government, and all the pupil premium, tax free rates and other policy wonk esoterica that have been our declared successes are, I am afraid,so much ash. We are a party that at its core believes that the UK needs complete reform, and if all we do- as I believe we do- is simply provide better administration, then we water down our core message to irrelevance. So-called Economic or or so-called Social Liberals were united by our commitment to Political and Constitutional Liberalism, and as it now seems by not too much else.
The bitterest irony in all of this is that the anti politics wave of UKIP (and indeed the brief frisson of the prospective Clegg surge in the 2010 election campaign) shows that large number of voters share our determination that something radical must be done to shake up not merely the administration of government, but the fundamental mechanisms of politics. By taking on the messy compromises of government and yet failing to articulate our radical, reforming anti-Establishment agenda, we have ended up, in Bill Newton-Dunn's felicitous phrase, "talking complete bollocks".
So we have blundered into a disastrous trap.
Well first things first, this is not a good time to panic and it is an even worse time to go though a leadership election. So Ros Kayes, Lembit Opik et al- put a sock in it. Clegg made a balls up of the Farage debate, but otherwise his resilience is not far short of astonishing. On the Euro results we would be down to a handful of MPs and a generations work would have ended. However, the locals are- barely- a bit more encouraging: on those numbers we are in the 30-40 MP range, which is bad, but frankly in the 1970s and 1980s, we would have felt pretty chuffed. Critically, the vote for both the Tories or Labour may not be much above 33%, and the two parties will be evenly matched. Even if UKIP gain a few MPs, as now, for the first time, seems possible, that will only add to the pressure for electoral reform. In other words, it may be that we can get a second hung Parliament and most improbably, a second bite of the cherry. Obviously that has got to be the goal that we pursue relentlessly and that means that we need to hold our nerve for the next 12 months, despite the thumping we just received.
Nevertheless we need to back away from the minutiae of policy wonkdom and articulate a constitutional and political vision that is worthy of the party of Gladstone. The one encouraging thing about these results is the election of a UKIP MEP in Scotland- it is a poke in the eye for the SNP that reinforces the likely narrative of a No victory in the Scottish referendum. Yet that referendum should not be the end of a constitutional process- it should be the beginning. Lib Dems should be speaking up now for a British constitutional convention that addresses deep and unpopular problems, like the lack of an English Parliament or Parliaments, like the mess of weak and competing local governments, and -of course- the need for voting reform. These are core Liberal values and if we gain ownership of them now, then we can help to lead the debate, not- as we were in the AV vote- the victim of the debate.
So we can't return to coalition as usual, and no, we can't start bickering with the Tories, because that would look manufactured. We can -must- start talking about the things we would do differently, and that is not policy details, but political vision. We need to sell the big picture, the visionary narrative and show the determination to change the political system, not merely administer the current system more effectively.
Can we do that?
I don't know, but I do know that negativity and bickering is for losers. We are now so few that we know most members of the party by sight. The other parties are in barely better shape. We have to consider a whole new way of doing things, but I believe that Liberal vision, properly articulated, can be inspiring to a new generation of supporters, and to be honest, what have we got to lose now?