Friday, May 22, 2015

The Stages of Grief: the journey to Constitutional Liberalism

Tim Farron has, famously, compared the resilience of the Liberal Democrats in the face of discouragement to the supposed indestructibility of cockroaches even after nuclear war. Paddy Ashdown too, often praises the strength of will of the activists of the party. In the face of the worst general election result in more than half a century, the surge in membership applications for the Liberal Democrats is a small sign of optimism after the disaster. Yet the scale of defeat is so large that to rebuild in any conventional way will take many decades. Indeed, with the significant economic, social and demographic changes underway in British society, the grim truth is that a recovery in the fortunes of the Liberal Democrats may not be possible at all. Meanwhile all of us are working through the stages of grief that this defeat has caused us.

The lessons of both the coalition and the general election are slowly emerging from the smoke of disaster, and the first lesson is that this defeat, far from being the result of any actions of the party in government, has in fact been a very long time in the making. Indeed one can argue the case that the tipping point in the fortunes of the party dates back to the election of Charles Kennedy as party leader, over a decade and a half ago. Certainly the Liberal Democrats would not be the first organisation where the end of a charismatic spell of leadership- in this case that of Paddy Ashdown- showed up weaknesses that had been less obvious before. Although under Kennedy's leadership the popularity of the party surged after it took the risky but principled step to oppose the Iraq war, the fact is that organisational problems were already emerging. It was not just the rapid turnover of the leadership, following Charles' alcohol-mandated removal in favour of Ming Campbell and then Nick Clegg, there was also the rapid turnover of Chief Executives, after the long reign of Chris Rennard, the brief reign of Chris Fox and then Tim Gordon. The bitterness caused by the allegations against Lord Rennard was at least as toxic to the Liberal Democrat brand as the vexed issue of tuition fees- and alienated far far more activists, members and supporters. 

The fact is that the 2015 General Election disaster was merely the latest of a series of Liberal Democrat setbacks, which actually long antedated the advent of the coalition. Local government results were becoming fairly ho-hum even before the 2005 general election. Let us not forget too the result of 2005: where, although the Liberal Democrats advanced by 11 seats, the Conservatives even under the reviled Michael Howard, were able to gain three times more, and the Liberal Democrat "decapitation" strategy was almost completely unsuccessful. The 2010 election brought further disappointments, and indeed the loss of five seats. Subsequent elections have seen the near wipe out of the party at every level, from local councils to Scottish and Welsh parliamentary elections, to European elections. The 2015 defeat merely completes the cycle.

So although many will point the finger of blame for the wipe-out on the actions or otherwise of the party in government, in fact the crisis is even more deep seated, which is, arguably, why the Nick Clegg apology strategy failed- it did not address the real reason why the British public has been turning away from the Liberal Democrats for far longer than the term of a single Parliament. In my view the problem is the failure of the party to articulate a single coherent message. The ambiguity of the Liberal tradition is partly a function of the ideology and partly a function of the confusion of the members themselves. Liberalism is not a grand theory, it is a set of principles about how to approach the business of government. 

The fact is that there are roughly equal numbers of members who focus more on equality than freedom; as against those who focus more on freedom than equality or those who focus more on community than either equality or freedom. Our generally well educated activists understand that this debate remains unresolved, but the voters do not and sense that different messages are put out in different places. The bitterness of the battles currently taking place on Liberal websites and blogs reflects this unresolved conflict between so-called social Liberals and so-called economic Liberals. For me it is not that either side has the monopoly of truth, it is that there is still no agreed language to negotiate the divide.

So, if it has not been possible to define the party ideology in a crisp sentence- and believe me it has not been for want of trying- there has also been a stunning failure of strategy. The guiding principle of the party, pretty much since inception, has been the need for wholesale reform of the system of government and the business of the state. For my part it is the urgent need to radically reform our constitution that has driven my membership dating back to 1979. It is not just the need for a new electoral system, but for a new system of control over Whitehall; the end to a Parliament with any appointed or hereditary component whatsoever; a radical decentralisation of power; the creation of a genuinely Federal country and the complete package of change that is now a century overdue. We achieved a coalition and were not able to gain a single one of our key agenda points. No House of Lords Reform, no change in the structure of the Cabinet or of Whitehall and most crucially of all, no fair votes. We were outmatched and out played by the Tories at every point and despite our record of competent managerialism in office it is that failure to achieve constitutional change that has been the major cause of the scale of our defeat.

Now it is to that auld sang of constitutional reform that we must return, if we are ever to recover. Simply put there is no doubt that the popularity of the political class- or rather lack of it- is such that the idea of radical change is a pretty easy sell. Furthermore, the fact of having so few MPs will make it impossible to cover the full gamut of the work of government. It seems to me that we should make a virtue of necessity and instead of expending too much effort on the old social vs economic Liberal argument, we should unite as constitutional Liberals.  This is not to say that we should abandon internationalism, human rights, pro Europeanism and all the other definition points of Liberalism, but rather all of these should be defined within a single message of the overwhelming need for constitutional change. Furthermore there are a lot of votes now up for grabs. The success of the SNP and the 3.8 million votes cast for UKIP underlines the volatility of the electorate, which is now more than willing to abandon long-standing allegiances. Yet both UKIP, now mired in post  election recriminations and even the SNP face a real challenge to keep their new voters loyal. 

The SNP have still not achieved the majority of votes cast at a general election, and their success- so flattered by the electoral system that has given them all but three Scottish seats despite gaining less than 50% of the vote- will come under pressure after it becomes clear that they have very little room for manoeuvre. A bare 9 months on from the last referendum, there is no chance of any repeat during the course of this Parliament and thus the door to independence is still closed. This gives the Liberal Democrats, whose results in Scotland were far less bad than the rest of the UK, the possibility to regroup. I shall leave my thoughts on the future of the Scottish Lib Dems for another blog, but suffice it to say, I believe that the relatively stronger position that the party has can become a foundation for recovery, even as soon as the Scottish Parliamentary elections next year.

As for UKIP, the EU referendum in expected 2017 may keep them alive, but to be honest, I doubt it: they lack the ruthlessness killer instinct that has driven the SNP forward. The rise of UKIP unquestionably diluted the USP of the Liberal Democrats as the party of none of the above, their growing weakness gives us a future opportunity to gain the "sod-'em-all" vote back.

Meanwhile there is the question of Labour. London-centric, middle class and out of touch they too had a dreadful election. Nor does their future look particularly great. Away from London they held a mere handful of seats in the South, and their hold on Wales is beginning to look like it might go the same way as Scotland. The Labour leadership campaign has seen several of the more interesting candidates falling victim to the media or the difficulty of the process itself. Though they have the crumb of comfort of knowing that they did far better than the Liberal Democrats, there seems little sign that the workers party can make more than cosmetic changes to themselves. Andy Burnham presents himself as worthy and slightly dull: he won't frighten the horses, but is not likely to scare his opponents either. Certainly the idea of a "big open and comprehensive offer to the Liberal Democrats" to create a platform for Radical reform is unlikely to come on his watch. Labour has long ago lost "the vision thing".

So although the demand for reform is clearly out there, the Liberal Democrats, through necessity and a certain amount of luck could be well placed to lead a movement for constitutional reform. It is certainly going to be topical as the issues of Scotland and the EU move up the political agenda. The Lib Dems too are well placed, since although the party is divided on other issues it is fully united on this one. So as we continue the journey from denial to acceptance, there is emerging the first glimmer of an open, if unconventional road to recovery.  


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