The end of an era. Now for the renewal

Rock bottom. That’s how it feels to be a Lib Dem right now. The loss of all but one our Euro MPs, including class acts like Graham Watson, Sarah Ludford and Andrew Duff, – on top of a number of wipe-outs in the London locals – is a bitter pill indeed. Only our MPs now have to face the wrath of the post 2010 electorate.

There is something else that I feel acutely, especially here in London. It’s the end of an era. That era started for me with the Lib Dem fight against Lambeth Labour council. The party came from nowhere in the 1990s to leadership of the council. There were similar dramatic successes in Islington, Southwark, Brent, Haringey and Camden. Longer established strongholds of Richmond, Sutton and Kingston also advanced to power. Now only Sutton acts as a beacon. Small groups hang on in Southwark and Haringey, and the party remains a force, albeit diminished, in Kingston and Richmond – but the rest is almost complete wipe-out. I know many excellent councillors, devoted to serving their electors, who have now been turned out for, mainly, faceless Labour party hacks. and the loss of Sarah Ludford completes the awful picture.

There are two things that strike me from a survey of this wreckage.

The first is the failure of the party’s European election strategy, to promote itself as the only strongly pro EU party, in contrast with Ukip. This was a core vote strategy, and I strongly endorsed it as the right way to approach elections held under proportional representation. Indeed the party closely followed the advice set out by this blog a year ago – after the calamity of its confused London Assembly campaign in 2012. The result was strikingly similar to that earlier disaster. Actually support for keeping the country in the EU has risen, according to the opinion polls. It wasn’t a case of the party losing the argument over membership. But pro-EU voters did not accept that as a reason for voting for the Lib Dems. They seem to have voted for Labour and the Greens (who have mollified their previous Eurosceptic stance), and even the Conservatives. It was not enough to overcome the perceived toxicity or irrelevance of the party’s brand. Optimists in the party, including me, have assumed that the party’s unpopularity was a mid-term thing that governing parties always endure. Well it is clearly much deeper.

The second thing as that the party’s decline is not uniform. In some areas the party made a powerful showing in the local elections. Sutton in London; also Eastleigh, Cheltenham, Oxford and Watford – as well as up in Cumbria. In most of the places where the party did badly, it had the air of an exhausted old guard trying to fend off newly invigorated opponents. The Labour Party in many areas, notably Islington and Lambeth, has renewed itself, learning many lessons from earlier Lib Dem campaigning. Meanwhile the Lib Dem organisation was weakening. The councillors were spending too much energy being good councillors, and no enough rebuilding the hinterland. They hoped that being good councillors was enough to ensure being re-elected; ordinarily it might be, but not against a well-organised and well-funded opposition, especially when the national tide is out. The places that succeeded had engaged heavily in renewal. They maintained dense social networks, and had strong local leadership. Sometimes (I think Cambridge would be an example) the party did all these things and it was not enough – but without them failure was certain.

So what next? Ironically the election results show that the country needs a party espousing liberal, internationalist values more than ever. Ukip is the anti-liberal party, and the Conservative and Labour parties are now being urged to ape its views on Europe and immigration to win back lost ground. Neither party was strong on liberal values in the first place, and they will now be worse. The Greens’ record on liberal values is somewhat untested – they do have some illiberal strands of opinion – but they have failed to advance beyond the margins. They don’t have the organisational oomph, and have failed to deliver popular appeal. So Liberal Democrats do not need to doubt their party’s reason to exist.

Top of the agenda for the party now should be long-term renewal. This means recruiting motivated activists and donors. The party should hone its liberal identity to show that it is the only political movement that properly stands up for modern, liberal, internationalist values, with a priority for sustainability and humanity, rather than national and class identity and gross national income. It also means concentrating remaining organisational resources on this – and especially on recruiting and sustaining supporters in the areas where it has a weak local base. A positive online presence and organisation will be key; to much is left to moribund local organisations.

There is one more act to play in the party’s coalition ordeal: next year’s general election. The party needs to hang on to as many of its parliamentary seats as it can. Local MPs often provide the local leadership that helps the party to sustain itself. But hanging on to MPs and plotting the next coalition government should cease to be the leadership’s obsession. Rebuilding the party comes ahead of that.

And what of the leadership of Nick Clegg? Many say that he has become toxic to the party’s image – representing all that they dislike about the party. He enjoys being in power too much, and, so the public thinks, he compromises too much so that he can enjoy that pleasure. He is identified with too many coalition compromises that supporters hate (on benefit reform, legal aid, NHS reform, to name a few). He does not have a deep enough understanding of the local leadership and community politics that will be required to rebuild the party. This may be so, but somehow ditching him now seems to be the wrong thing to do. It reeks of panic. There is no obvious replacement in the wings. The party needs to rethink what it is, and what it stands for, and to choose its leader accordingly. That debate can start now, but the sensible time to conclude it will be after the 2015 election. I am not supporting calls for his resignation.

I feel very bruised. But I also feel that the country needs the Liberal Democrats to be there. We can renew and rebuild the party. And in a funny sort of way, I am even looking forward to the task ahead. I want to help.

5 thoughts on “The end of an era. Now for the renewal”

  1. I think it was a major error to make Clegg the centre of the Euro election campaign. it should not have been Clegg vs Farage: our side should have been represented by one of our MEPs. And MEPs from the other parties should also have been invited to participate, so that the discussion became about different political visions of the EU. Although our election leaflets in London did put Sarah’s picture on and mention some things Lib Dems specifically are doing in the European Parliament, there was absolutely NONE of that from the national campaign. Nick Clegg didn’t even handle the debates with Farridge very well: he failed to challenge Farage’s lie that the EU was unaccountable. This was in a European election campaign, and he FAILED TO MENTION how we could vote for the European Parliament and its power to, e.g. sack the Commission and veto legislation. And he said that he wanted the EU to remain essentially as it was. Utterly bone-headed, especially for an ex-MEP.
    And putting Clegg at the front of the campaign meant it was associated with the party at Westminster and the Coalition. We should have emphasized the INDEPENDENCE of the party in the European Parliament from the Coalition. I’ve no doubt that the media would still have wanted to make everything about the party leaders. But we needed to resist this tendency and fight on the actual issues, led by the people who were actually standing for election. We failed to do this, so our campaign message, such as it was, appeared to be that we were uncritical supporters of the EU led by that guy who has broken all his promises in government.

    1. Easier said than done, Alex. The big networks would not have taken live debates by anybody other than the party leaders. The MEPs did challenge their local Ukip MEPs to debates, and these were refused, or attracted so little publicity that they needn’t have bothered. And local literature and campaigning did focus on the MEPs. I’m afraid the media (to say nothing of the other parties) chose to focus on Clegg – and he had to come out fighting. BBC radio, for example, only interviewed the party leaders. Of course they should have interviewed the MEP leaders (which would have included Farage…).

      But the party of IN message failed to deliver votes for us. We thought it would work because Ukip were making a stand as the party of OUT. Actually emphasising the work of our MEPs would have presented EU supporters with a reason to vote for us – if only there was a way of getting that message through. The Greens did it – but though they were more successful than us they hardly took the country by storm.

      1. Maybe the media would have if we had focused on the work of our MEPs and quietly talked up their achievements. But I’m leaning towards the idea that this might have actually been better than being attacked, which is what actually happened. Namely, perhaps Clegg has become such a liability that his appearance on the TV screens loses us votes, and it would have been better for him not to be involved and have no-one talking about us.
        Yes, the Greens did better than us. And they are (notwithstanding this election result) a smaller party than us. They are clearly good at pitching a campaign to voters who actually think about the issues that matter at the EU level, and/or actually encouraging people to think in those terms. Our ideological outlook on EU-level issues (I mean in terms of conventional, left/right lines, rather than just whether you are pro or anti EU) is not exactly the same as theirs, and I think we would have got some support especially from Con/LD waverers by emphasising our pro-market credentials alongside our support for the EU.

        1. The first sentence should begin, “Maybe the media would have ignored us if …”

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