I had wanted to include the phrase “growing pains” in the title of this post, but growing is not what is happening to the Lib Dems at the moment. Not in the sense of membership or votes, a small summer bounce in both notwithstanding. It is about becoming a more mature political party – and becoming more mature is always painful.
I am going up to the party’s conference in Birmingham tomorrow; I don’t know what I’ll find. Evidence of pain is everywhere. There was a moment in April 2010, after the first party leaders’ debate when we dared to hope for something spectacular. And this wasn’t just a media frenzy – it was palpable on the doorstep and in the streets. It has been downhill ever since, apart from the brief thrill of seeing the party enter government – though this left the voters unmoved, as opposed to party insiders.
Last May’s local election results were a massive trauma. Many of the party’s activists were in the process of winning the country over “one ward at a time”. They thought that by being relentlessly local, and doing a good job for their local voters, they would be insulated from the national tumult – something that has been by and large true in the past. So it was a really rude shock. Many blame the party’s MPs as shameless opportunitists who are out of touch with the voters and activists. And of course, it showed the party that oblivion is just around the corner.
And there’s everything else. Endless criticism on the papers; being the butt of comedians’ jokes (and worse) on the radio and TV. Taking responsibility for unpopular reforms in the NHS and education. I have an email today from a very long standing member who is about to resign because of the NHS bill.
And yet. These are all vicissitudes that Britain’s two most successful political parties, Labour and the Conservatives, (leaving aside the SNP for now) have long learned to take in their stride. It is part of being a grown up political party. It is part of mattering. At members’ meetings one of Nick Clegg’s favourite stories is what happened when the party went back to talk to the many voters that slipped out of the party’s grasp in last week of the General Election campaign. It amounted to, “These are tough times, and we need a grown up political party.” Enduring this type of pain is a necessary step to breaking through to the next stage of the party’s advance.
The trauma could kill the party, of course. But if you are part of it you need to be positive, and ensure that it doesn’t. The opportunity is palpable. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives are flourishing. If the party can hang on to something like its current number of seats, especially in a smaller parliament, then another hung parliament, and coalition opportunity, is odds on. Who needs electoral reform?
And the whole nation is in trauma. The good times just aren’t coming back. The apparent economic achievements of the last decade are proving hollow. Property prices will not rise endlessly to make everybody rich. We haven’t got the money for the public services we used to have – just as the demographic challenge is about to get much worse. Labour still haven’t come to terms with their failure, and seem to be stuck somewhere between anger and denial. The Tories are riven by divisions between a rampant but lunatic right, and the leadership’s more paternalistic vision.
If the Liberal Democrats can get their story straight, there is all to play for. There are signs that the party is slowly addressing this. The conference motions don’t really do this, with the Facing the Future motion on strategy (with its 17 priorities) a particular disappointment. The Quality of Life and Community Politics motions offer some light, though. But behind the scenes there is a furious discussion over the party’s narrative. Some good ideas are emerging.
Labour’s vision of a benign and overpowering government, aligned with rampant capitalism, has let the country down badly. The Tories are chasing after a fantasy of a little England run by an unfettered middle class. The Lib Dems can offer a sustainable future based on real empowerment of the people, in a proper international context. Go for it!