Friday, May 08, 2015

From a Party of Protest to a Party of Power to... What?

In the course of the mid twentieth century the Liberal Party, that great organ of the Victorian state was destroyed. In his 1935 book, "The Strange Death of Liberal England", George Dangerfield analysed the course of social and political change that had altered the course of the country and in the process destroyed the Liberal Party. Of course the factors that lead to the Liberal eclipse were both long and short term, and as a work of history the book is a commentary on a whole raft of social and political evolution.

From the 1960s onward, the Liberal Party began to recover. It established itself as a party of protest, of practical pavement politics, and from this niche it made steady progress up until the 2005 election. The impact of the vote against the Iraq war moved the party into a new position as a radical conscience, as it had been during the Boer War, which created the conditions for the Liberal landslide of 1906. In 2010, however, the party did not achieve a landslide,  though it advanced in votes, it fell back in terms of seats. As we know, the electoral maths created by the First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system more or less compelled the Liberal Democrats to accept David Cameron's offer of a coalition. We were warned that the consequences of such a coalition would not be good for the junior coalition partner, and so it has proved. Massacred in previously untouchable local government strongholds, removed as all but a nominal force in the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the European Parliament, the general election result of 2015 is merely the latest catastrophe to befall the Liberal Democrats. Yet the scale of this catastrophe is overwhelming. David Cameron has secured a small majority in Parliament with about 37% of the vote, but while he has defeated Labour, he has destroyed the Liberal Democrats as a party in serious political contention. The defeat may yet be epochal and represents the worst result in nearly two generations. For 8% of the vote, the party has virtually no voice left in the House of Commons.

The collapse is sudden and shocking, and yet it comes as the end of a much longer process of decline. It is quite clear that the tactics-turned-principles of pavement politics, which were a Liberal innovation of the 1960s are no longer effective against a mechanized, well funded campaign. The way we fought the general election was like fighting email with a carrier pigeon, and it may be that we simply cannot afford to play in this highly tech-heavy battle. In that sense the message is bleak indeed- even the much vaunted Manatee system was simply an expensive and clumsy gimmick in the face of far superior Tory voter ID techniques. Canvassing and leafleting too have lost their potency- so the Liberal Focus stalwart of the past decades no longer works. The other parties stole our clothes, learned the lessons and improved, while we have not. Of course we knew we were in trouble- Simon Hughes told me even two years ago that he feared for his future. We fought a campaign of "60 by-elections", and it failed beyond even our worst despair.

The problem of political tactics emerged because of a failure of our message. Our "Look Left-Look Right" split-the-difference moderation was uninspiring and reflected a failure of vision. The reason I am a Liberal Democrat is because they have a vision of individual freedom that is as critical of an over mighty state as it is of over mighty corporations. The need for a complete recasting of the structures of power is the central tenet of our party and has a resonance that moves far beyond the worthy dullness of pupil premium, triple lock, and fiddling with tax thresholds that were the managerial core of a hollow manifesto. Vince Cable trumpeted the need for thousands of new tax inspectors, and did not understand that the UK tax code is the worst in the developed world- an expensive disaster crying out for Radical, Liberal surgery. Our platform was timid moderation and not Radical and not even particularly Liberal. 

The problem was not that the Lib Dem ministers were not good. In fact they were genuinely excellent: They were energetic, bright, innovative- they enjoyed the practice of power and they were good at it. Yet in the end they did not, indeed could not, reform the system they were trapped within. Steve Webb and Ed Davey both have a claim to having been genuinely reforming and skillful administrators, yet despite this they were tarred -unfairly- as being more of the same political practitioners, or even Tory-Lite, which they truly were not. We offered effective, nuanced government, but we never explained the root principles that drove these decisions and our failure to do so allowed our opponents to characterize the Lib Dems as hypocritical and mendacious.

If, before the 2010 election, we had been told that the Tories would win the 2010 election on a minority and the election after that with a small majority, then that would not have seemed particularly surprising. Labour, under Gordon Brown, had clearly lost its way. Yet that seemingly probable prospect of 2010 is in 2015 actually the result of major political shifts. The big churn between the Lib Dems and Labour was perhaps inevitable at some time, because no matter which way you cut it the Liberal traditions are anti-Socialist, and the party is not now and never was "Labour lite"- but it sometimes tried to look that way. Yet more serious has been the rise of UKIP, and to a lesser extent the Greens, which has eaten the Liberal Democrat lunch as the party of protest. The market for "screw em all" populism has never been more crowded and our bunch of tolerant, open minded activists were never that convincing in the role anyway.

This catastrophic result will need far more detailed analysis than this relatively short blog can give justice to, yet as the dust settles, there are several contours that we can see concerning the future. I suppose the first thing to say is that in the end this is not the worst, nobody died, it is not Nepal where lives have been ruined, perhaps for generations, by the earthquake. Nevertheless, the challenges facing the UK have just got a whole lot more serious. The emergence of an unfettered SNP- largely as a result of FPTP- poses an existential challenge to our country. David Cameron now has only a horizon of one term, and with most that set to be dominated by his unnecessary referendum on the EU, many of the most deep seated problems will continue to fester- not least because the fractious Conservatives may provide less stable government than the multi-party coalition has done. Cameron will seek to go after he has achieved the landmark of winning his cosmetic concessions and his nominal referendum. Meanwhile the economic crisis- distorted housing market, creaking banking system, failing investment, poor productivity and all, will be kicked down the road for another successor to tackle or avoid as they see fit. There is, after all, an awful lot of ruin in a nation.  With Scotland in a truly awful economic condition, the Tories also think that they can cut a deal with the SNP that keeps some version of the UK intact- though this trusts a lot to the SNP, a party that seems to rely on listening to the voices in their heads when it comes to economic reality. Meanwhile a party on 37% of the votes can wield 100% of the power, so to put it politely our democracy is imperfect. The Liberal Democrats have some good answers to these constitutional and economic conundrums, but for the time being we will not be listened to even if we were able to put them forward. David Cameron's second term could be as difficult as John Major's - and there is always "events, dear boy, events" which could really blow both the country and the party off course. The real possibility of Putin launching another European war, which could go nuclear, the break up of the Euro or even EU, post Grexit- all pose systemic challenges to the UK. In the 1980s and 1990s, a Parliamentary majority of 12 would have seemed barely adequate, and John Major's majority of 21 in 1992 was inadequate for the term of the Parliament. In hindsight this Conservative victory may seem as Pyrrhic as that of 1992.

That is as may be, it does not alter the fact that this election the Liberal Democrats have had calamitous losses. Those MPs who have lost will need Herculean efforts to return, and in the end, the cost in effort, family life and the financial sacrifices that are required make it a pretty poor bargain. Anyway many will simply think, "why should they?" when the voters seem unprepared to recognize the sheer blood and guts it takes to be a good Member of the House of Commons, still less a good Cabinet Minister. It will probably take a whole new generation of leaders to recover, and that recovery process, so fragile as we have seen, could also take a generation.

I think in the end, perhaps one of our biggest failings was not to be frank enough with the electorate: Biggest thing you can do to help the NHS is to stop smoking and go on a diet, in other words to take some personal responsibility. We failed to say this, we kept trying to feel the voters' pain, and to be honest it was an unctuous and slightly nauseating spectacle. We offered jam today, tomorrow and every day, never showing that it was necessary to make a choice- and while this is true of all politicians, we were supposed to be more open and honest than "all politicians". Pandering to a sense of victim hood is childish and unconvincing- and I firmly believe that the rise in the vote for UKIP (a subject, perhaps, for a later blog) is to some extent attributable to their cheerful lack of political correctness. As an aside, I think that people resent the restraint laid on expression by a dogmatic and narrow self-selecting elite, and the hounding of some figures for what they say rather than what they act on is not what a Liberal party should stand for. Through misplaced libel laws and self censorship, the UK has lost the freedom of speech that we should have.

And yet, and yet.

For all the faults of the campaign, for all the timidity of the platform, for all the errors and omissions, the fact is that History may judge the Liberal Democrats far more kindly than the electorate did yesterday. It has already almost become the conventional wisdom that Nick Clegg laid down his party for his country- it was an honourable decision, supported by a full vote of the membership, to go into Coalition. Maybe no good deed goes unpunished, and to say the least "mistakes were made", yet I personally am extremely proud of our Ministers and our record in government. If our practical achievements were not everything that we would have wished, at least we brought to the table intelligence and decency and that atmosphere is what helped the Coalition government to be a success. It is only a pity that the Liberal Democrats have been robbed of the benefits of that success. Strangely, as the scale of our defeat has become manifest, there are signs of buyer's remorse amongst the electorate- in a few hours overnight over 650 people joined the party.
Now we will go through a leadership election. It will be contested. It will not be easy, indeed it will be a test that will determine whether the party can weather the blows we have taken or whether we cease altogether to have any political relevance. I will await the ideas and the pitches of the prospective leaders with interest and an open mind, because to be honest taking on the leadership in such circumstances is an horrendous burden. The decimated Parliamentary party will need much support from outside- and of course our financial position will be much weaker going forward too. The Lords will be another area of concern- not least because as members retire or die they will not be replaced. The denuded council groups- for, alas our defeat has included another massacre of councillors- will no longer be able to make the contribution to the organisation of the party and the development of policy that they once did. The challenge for the new leader will be formidable to say the very least. It will be months before we will be able to begin to try to engage with the voters once more.

"The people have spoken- the bastards", and although the system is crooked, and the media even more so, and we may say that the voters have been hoodwinked by fear, the fact is that in the end it was a free choice, and the country- even if it survives in its current form- must take the consequences. The system is so bust that everyone knows that they must think tactically to achieve/avoid certain outcomes. In the end the non Conservative majority did not have the discipline or the understanding to do the right thing in the country as a whole, while the clean sweep for the SNP in Scotland comes despite them gaining a bare majority of the vote. Tactical voting under the current system may be negative, but ultimately it is not a luxury, it is a necessity, and far too few understood this. 

In the end, I don't know how we come back. I have no answers. I am wounded by the loss of so many dear friends: Ed Davey, Danny Alexander, Bob Smith, Steve Williams and so many others. I do know that I was and remain a convinced Liberal and Liberal Democrat. I have been a proud supporter of Nick Clegg and remain convinced that he has served our country decently and honourably. I want the Liberal voice to be at the centre of our political life. I want our party to gain further opportunities to serve. I believe we can rebuild and recover, but it will not be easy and may not be possible at all without a profound rethink. So we go back to the drawing board and start again. We need to understand the wider social and political context of our defeat otherwise this election will indeed be epochal and the "Death of Liberal England" will be a final reality. The smallest glimmer of hope is that, as the 2010 "Cleggasm" showed, the volatility- some might say, the shallowness- of the electorate is still out there. It has been our curse, maybe one day it may be our redemption.   

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