It often seems that the political left here in Britain wants to take Britain back to the 1970s, with its nationalised industries, high taxes and free ways with government money. In one respect they will have their wish after yesterday’s General Election. The Liberal Democrats have been more or less destroyed as a political force – reduced to their state in the 1970s, leaving English and Welsh politics mainly a battle between the Conservative and Labour parties. That the left were still trounced, even with the Lib Dems disposed of, may give leftists pause for reflection, though. They should not take much comfort from the triumph of the Nationalists in Scotland, based on a leftist manifesto.
I want to take some time to reflect on the Lib Dem catastrophe, and on the remarkable results of yesterday’s election. But in this day and age quick commentary is valued more than considered analysis, and this blog makes some attempt to bow to that demand. So here are my first thoughts.
First: it hurts. Really hurts. I have supported the party’s leadership. Four defeats I feel acutely. Simon Hughes in Bermondsey – whom I helped yesterday. There can be no MP with a similar record of local service. I also helped Ed Davey in Kingston & Surbiton in the campaign. He achieved his seat after requiring a Chair’s reference from me! I had high hopes of two younger candidates, whom I had the privilege to serve as agent in the last five years when they were part of the party in Wandsworth: Layla Moran (Oxford West & Abingdon) and Lisa Smart (Hazel Grove). All were swamped by the anti-Lib Dem tide. There are plenty more tragic losses.
A number of my Facebook friends have criticised the leadership in their first thoughts. The “neoliberal” policy outlook which made coalition with the Tories so much easier (in this context the term means going along with austerity policies, and some mildly market based reforms of public services); the decision to play for the centre ground in electoral appeal; keeping Nick Clegg on as leader after he became politically toxic. By and large these criticisms come from team players in he party, whom I respect. They have been holding back for years in the name of party loyalty. So I can’t begrudge them voicing their frustrations now. But I supported the leadership on each of these issues. I am not sure that the party could have avoided an equally bad fate by doing things differently, after the hospital pass of the 2010 election result.
If the party hadn’t entered coalition with the Conservatives, it would have invited the question of what the party was for. No alternative coalition was on offer. The party helped soften austerity policies, which were simply a recognition of economic and political facts – the size of Britain’s state was unsustainable. The pitch for the centre is a fact of life in our current electoral system. Parties who made a sharper appeal to values, the Greens and Ukip, fared disastrously -and Labour’s more value-driven appeal left voters cold. Changing Nick Clegg as leader would have destabilised the party’s achievements in government. If I have a serious criticism of the the party leadership, it is that it dropped political reform from its central platform – a process started by Charles Kennedy, but continued by Mr Clegg. Whether that would have made much difference is another matter.
Let me draw further reflections on this wreckage:
- The national political story trumps the local one. One favourite Lib Dem myth is that the party can achieve power one ward at time: in other words based on local record of campaigning and action. But in elections in each of the last four years Lib Dems have been swept away at all levels of government, based largely on the party’s national popularity. The party is nothing without its local record – but that is not sufficient.
- The party can be rebuilt. But it must focus on a vision of tomorrow, and not recovering its glory days. The party must draw in younger supporters and let its agenda be guided by them. And especially its representatives must be a more diverse bunch. All this points to different styles of campaigning. Us oldsters are facilitators now, not leaders.
- One thing we can learn from the past is that the misfortunes of Labour and the Conservatives can give the party strength. Both these parties are fragile coalitions. If one of them fractures, as Labour did in 1981, something with real political momentum can be created. But to benefit the Lib Dems must be able to reach out to those formerly belonging to other parties.
- This election reminds of 1992. I will reflect on the striking parallels in a future blog (though I have been saying this for years). That election created a crisis of confidence on the political left. We must remember the sequel though. The Conservatives won against expectations, only to crash to their worst ever defeat in the following election, which was a triumph for both Labour and the Lib Dems. The Tories are riven by similar divisions over Europe. Something similar may happen again.
With the Conservatives in power, political reform will not be high on the agenda, except to extend central executive power yet further – though I do hope they start thinking more creatively on a new settlement with Scotland. And yet I think there is no more important issue for Britain.
And that’s enough for now. I will now have to endure the gloating of Lib Dem critics. And after that being treated as a political irrelevance. It seems that my political commitments bring almost nothing but pain. But I keep hoping for better. This blog will go on.