Where we go from here: some thoughts for the Liberal Democrats

When I joined the Liberal Democrats towards the end of 1995 it had 24 MPs. I’ve often said that fortunately I wouldn’t see that few Lib Dem MPs again. Even reading the worst opinion polls for the party over the last parliament I didn’t believe I would see that few. Yet here we are, on just eight MPs.

One of the things that’s been hard over this parliament has been to see all the electoral progress that has been made by the party over the 19 years I’ve been a member fall apart. For some people, the successes of the opposition parties has galvanised their resolve and made them want to fight harder. For me, it’s taken some of the fight out of me and made me thoroughly depressed, although there is more to that than just the party’s electoral performance, but that’s another post. I sort of assumed that if the results were absolutely awful it would be time for me to gradually walk away and do something else with the next 19 years even though I’d continue to stay on as a member as it is too engrained in my DNA now.

What I’ve found remarkable however is how that’s not been my reaction. Perhaps it’s been the realisation that all Lib Dems have been hit by the result, not just a handful. Perhaps it’s been the reminder of how awful majority Conservative government is going to be, just as it was when I first joined the party, and that there’s a real need now to stick up for the things that I think are important and that they don’t. I think the surge in party membership has also helped give me some real optimism about the party’s future. Plus the discussion from many people in the party on Twitter, Facebook and on blogs about where we go next has made me find that my thoughts are not heading towards giving up but towards where we go next. So in that spirit, here are a few random collected thoughts from me on that subject.

This was intended to be a brief summary, but on each point it became quite lengthy, so apologies for that. The list is not comprehensive, and I expect I’ll come back to some ideas that are missing or not properly explained. It’s certainly not fully thought through, nor is it all original, but it’s my bit of putting on record what I have going round and round in my mind at the moment and what I’d like to see from the party and whoever we elect as our new leader.

NO RECRIMINATIONS

One thing that I’ve found tough over this parliament is the increasing tendency for some Lib Dems to blame other Lib Dems in public and in a manner which we would never tolerate in a workplace or if it was said face to face and indeed has upset us when the opposition parties have behaved like that. That’s not to say there shouldn’t be debate and argument, of course there should, that’s what politics is partly about. But personal blaming and especially when it’s aggressive or questioning people’s motives simply demoralises those people who are actually trying to do their best and do the right thing.

Recriminations have been fairly muted since the General Election result, but they’ve certainly been there. It’s not all about Nick, but I would also hate to see us reach the point that Labour has with Blair where the name of their most electorally successful leader ever is now anathema within the party. OK, Nick didn’t have anywhere near the success of Blair but he has many qualities that we look on favourably. We should go forward with ideas, and yes we can contrast what we want in the party with what came before, but let’s not make it a personal blame game.

OWN POLICY AREAS

The inevitable compromises of coalition has meant that our reputation in certain policy areas has suffered, but now is a good time to get this back. But, apart from a few notable exceptions (Greg Mulholland on beer is one) what we’ve never really done is truly and absolutely own certain areas. These could be big clearly Lib Dem issues such as human rights, political reform and internationalism, but they could be really small specific ones that aren’t ideological particularly, such as the example I’m about to give.

When I worked for a newsagents there was a Tory MP who kept popping up in the magazine that all newsagents read with his latest campaigns to support them, so as a newsagent (and these are people who talk to a lot of other people) you knew he and his party were on your side. We need to do this sort of thing. It shouldn’t matter how obscure it is, it doesn’t matter if it’s really specific or really big, but we need people and/or groups to lead on it, to really understand it, to really know and meet the key people in it, to organise events, to bring new people in to the party because of it, to run campaigns on it, to help provide materials so local Lib Dems can also own the issue in their area. There’s so many things we can do. Some should be led by individual MPs and peers, but others could just as easily be done by keen party members who are prepared to take on that national role.

MEMBERSHIP INVOLVEMENT

The party has its cliques. But as I’ve argued before, getting a rid of cliques is hard as we are naturally drawn in to friendship groups, but we instead need to bring more people in to the cliques. It’ll build loyalty to the party through friendships and contacts within the party, make people more forgiving when we make mistakes and it’ll use people to their full potential. I’m continually amazed how many of our members have some quite impressive positions, expertise or interests outside of the party that the party doesn’t know about or make use of and our party is the poorer for not using those skills.

The party will be conducting a review of the party structure, but if we believe that our structure (which is nowhere near as confusing as the notorious organisation chart would have you think), is the main problem we won’t make any meaningful progress. People shouldn’t need to be elected to a committee to feel they can affect the way the party works and we shouldn’t have to have major reviews every few years. We should, on an ongoing basis, set up more ‘task and finish groups’ that look at particular topics for a short time and use the skills, knowledge and interests of members and the experience of those outside the party to come up with proposals on policy, campaigning and organisation that can be put in to practice. We should also have informal groups that anyone can participate in that have a constant dialogue with our party spokespeople and staff and can be consulted with as and when a specific issue arises. Our SAOs and AOs are a natural starting point for these, but there are so many other areas that these don’t cover and people shouldn’t feel that not having joined one prohibits their involvement. Anyone can have a say and anyone’s idea should have a chance of being taken up, and to achieve that we also need a lot more openness, not just about formal decision-making but about giving people the information about what the party is doing (after all we preach it often enough in public).

PERSONAL DEVELOPMENT

The party has always run extensive training programmes at party conferences and other events, and has to a more limited degree also provided online training. But these have largely focused on specific campaign skills. We need more personal skills too. If people can feel that they are learning useful skills from the party that they can use in other walks of life, it’ll be another incentive to be active. But the big benefit is also in giving people the confidence to go out there and make a difference for the party.

Many politicians are surprisingly shy and Lib Dems have a tendency (despite what I said earlier about blame) to not want to offend, and so they avoid certain situations. Two examples – I’m firmly of the view that a reason why we don’t recruit enough in certain ethnic minorities or social groups is because local parties don’t have the confidence to go in there for fear of getting it wrong because it’s not their comfort zone. Another issue is that many of us are shy to admit we’re Lib Dems when we’re unpopular because we don’t feel confident in articulating it to a (potentially, but often not so much) hostile audience. This means that our side of an argument doesn’t get out there, whilst the other parties aren’t that reserved. We should help people develop these different skills to go alongside how to campaign to win, whilst accepting not everyone will be able to be good at everything.

BUILD MORE ROBUST LOCAL STRUCTURES

To be fair, this isn’t something new as it’s been part of the KPIs of all held and target seats for a while, but it’s something that was becoming a problem even before this parliament. There are many areas that won an MP in 1997 with an enthusiastic team when we were riding the political wave. The trouble is that 18 years later these local parties are becoming hollowed out and are still the same people doing it but they are now much older, their circumstances have changed and they can’t cope with the demands of another intensive campaign.

We should want people to actively campaign if they want the team to win, but we should also expect them to do it out choice not obligation, a pace that they can cope with and that they shouldn’t need to sacrifice everything else in their life to achieve it. I was once the crazy activist who helped the party whenever I had free time and disparaged those who didn’t, but life moves on, my energy levels haven’t been what they should be, I’m older now and I need more in my life.

I’m conscious however that to do this isn’t easy as we need many more people to build a campaigning force to be reckoned with whilst not putting too onerous a burden on a handful of people. It may need a different approach and perhaps we should accept that our rebuilding process needs to be steady and gradual making sure that every step on the way is really bedded in and sustainable before we expand further. This won’t get us quick wins but the alternative is to continue in the way that we have – losing lots of MPs when we’re less popular, losing massive majorities every time our MPs retire, or gaining council control one year but losing it again just four years later.

MAKE OPTIMISM AND POSITIVITY OUR DEFAULT OPTION

I believe that optimism is in our DNA. We believe that generally the world is a good place but that it can be even better and bad things do sometimes happen so people need support to get things on track. Optimism is one of those Lib Dem traits that Nick referred to in his excellent resignation speech. But, we don’t necessarily campaign in the same way.

I’m not going to say that we shouldn’t ever do negative campaigning or that we need to sometimes say we’re against things not just what we’re for, or for that matter that occasionally campaigns will be personal, (I’ve run some of those campaigns myself). But perhaps we really need to think more carefully about how we style some of what we do. Use positive language, don’t be hypocrites or deliberately misinterpret and always have an alternative plan. We’ve often won campaigns through bringing together everyone who is opposed to the establishment or a particular proposal, but as soon as we then retain power ourselves it all falls apart, because not everyone agrees on what the alternative is. If you want to be in power, you are always going to upset some people, but if we bring people with us as part of a vision rather than just through sharing a common enemy it will be more lasting.

At a time when people are generally anti-politicians it will also pay for us to be seen to be about bringing people together round something we want, rather than around something we don’t want. It’ll help us find those people who are truly liberal. This isn’t a plea for the sorts of earnest, vague, staid and old-fashioned campaigns about issues that no one cares about that people used to run (and in some places still do), that made Lib Dems feel good but never won any votes, but it’s a plea for a different tone to our politics and we should campaign for the other parties to do likewise as they’re often even worse. This may be the area where most people disagree with me and is perhaps a sign of me changing, but as I’ve got older I’ve remained as tribal in my political affiliation, but grown to hate more the unnecessarily partisan behaviour in political campaigning that people use.

COMMUNITY POLITICS IS STILL VITAL

After a criticism of our campaigns, I want to move on to one of the best sides to our campaigns – community politics. Many Lib Dems continue to do this well, however we sometimes badge things as Focus or community politics when it’s not, and the opposition parties are beginning to copy that. I don’t believe the opposition truly understand it, but superficially it looks similar, and so it’s even more important we do it right. Community politics done well will not only bring together liberals, but it will succeed in uniting them with those who aren’t liberal but care about what happens in their community in a more positive way than the campaigning I referred to in my last point.

Community politics does however need to evolve, and the internet and social media is a part, (but not the only answer to that), and I do actually think there are geographical areas where there are many liberals but where community politics may not resonate that strongly. We also need to recognise that communities are becoming less and less geographical and so we need to find ways to work within those communities with which we share a common cause or values (see my earlier point about owning issues).

This has been a collection of my more immediate thoughts on where we go now. No doubt, I’ll have many more ideas, indeed I’ve been collating some of them for a while. My fears are that many ideas, such as mine, involve lots more people to help achieve them, and that’s not something we readily have to hand, even with the membership increase that we’re currently seeing. As someone who has been a regional chair I know how hard it is to find the people to fulfil some of the existing jobs, and many local parties are dead or at least only half-heartedly exist, which may deter some of the new people who are joining. I am also absolutely convinced we need to resist the idea that we must move to be a party of the left now we’re out of coalition. Whilst I consider myself centre-left, like many liberals I have beliefs that cross the political spectrum and I don’t see being a liberal as being about being left versus right, but something different. And that is something that we need to find a way to articulate that appeals to people and keeps them with us no matter who we may end up working with in a future government.

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3 comments

  1. I write as a former member of your party, and since the election, a Labour member. I was dismayed when, for the sake of a few years in the sunshine, you got into bed with the nasty party, only to become Cameron`s patsys. You allowed Cameron to get the whole PR thing out of the way so quickly that it was doomed to faliure. Then, inexplicably, you supported, or at least didn`t try to stop, the wicked bedroom tax which has seen disabled people thrown out of their homes. Many people voted Lib-Dem to keep out the Tories, and instead you let them in. This, and the bedroom tax, was why you imploded.

    I hope Mr Lamb wins the leadership election, as he looks every bit the university professor as did Joe Grimmond, the leader when last Lib-Dem Mp`s could be numbered in single figures.

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  2. John – a belated reply. You will find many Liberal Democrats who agree with you on the issue of the bedroom tax, although I think the reason why the party did so badly was settled long before that came along. The act of going in to the coalition with the Conservatives, which you also clearly have a fundamental disagreement with, was the thing that we never recovered from, and all the subsequent compromises that were seen as betrayals.

    Personally, I’ve always fundamentally disliked the Conservatives and much of what they stand for (far more so than Labour, with whom I so have many other issues). However many Lib Dems believed at the time, and continue to believe, that going in to coalition was still the right thing to do (and I’m not someone who gained any benefit from us having done it). It was how we handled coalition that was the bigger problem, but I think by then the die was largely cast anyway.

    I find it interesting thought that you were keen for Norman Lamb to be leader, given he did vote for the bedroom tax.

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