The Liberal Democrat catastrophe in last week’s British General Election (57 seat to just 8), has a rather bewildering sequal. A membership surge. More than 10,000 new members have joined since the election, as the total membership shot past the 50,000 mark. In my not very active local party some 95 joined. We only had about 120 to begin with.
I haven’t met any of these new members yet. Some are old ones rejoining; most are not, apparently. These membership surges seem to be something of a feature of modern British politics. This surge is dwarfed by the one the SNP had after last year’s Scottish independence referendum; but more similar to one the Green Party had earlier this year. It seems to be a matter of the party’s current voters choosing the moment to rally round – rather than floating voters suddenly being persuaded.
Encouraging though this is, it must not stop the party asking hard questions about itself. Now is the best time to have a far reaching debate. Labour’s failure to take on such a debate after 2010 was one of the reasons it failed this time. And for me the biggest question is how the party seeks to influence national politics.
Until now our strategy has been this: establish a base in local politics, based on very localised campaigning, preferably using the idea of community politics. The party then selects a parliamentary candidate who builds on these roots, makes extensive local contacts, and then wins based on being a “good chap” (and somehow it usually is a chap, and a white middle class one at that) working hard for the local community. The weaker of the two main parties would first be overhauled, and then their supporters ruthlessly rounded up on the basis that it was a “two horse race”. The bar chart supporting this at the top corner of every leaflet became an institution.
Sooner or later this builds up into being a decent block of MPs, who achieve national influence by entering a coalition government. One day the party might lead such a coalition. and then govern on its very own as a majority. This strategy has been called winning Liberalism one ward at a time.
The flaw in this approach has been exposed brutally. At the General Election the question that most voters want to determine is who leads the national government. This trumps the “good chap” card. In Bermondsey voters told the party that they loved Simon Hughes but did not want to risk another Tory government, even one moderated by coalition with the Lib Dems. In Kingston they said that they liked Ed Davey, but that they wanted to stop a Labour government over which the SNP could exert a stranglehold. The trouble is that the party has drawn in a lot of voters only loosely aligned to the party’s core values, many on a purely tactical basis to stop whichever major party they disliked most. And the party drew such support from both Conservative and Labour inclined voters. After coalition with the Conservatives, Labour inclined voters felt betrayed and deserted the party. The Tories then moved in on the weakened party and mugged it. The same would have happened the other way around if the party had formed a coalition with Labour. And if the party had stood aside? Then what was the point of electing those MPs? Both major parties would have attacked on the basis of it being useless flotsam.
So what to do? One idea that has been doing the rounds is to build the party’s core vote. That means clearly articulating the party’s core beliefs and drawing in much more loyal support on that basis. This is contrasted with the much weaker “centre ground” strategy of defining the party on the basis that it is in between the other two. Well, yes. The party needs a core of motivated activists – and there is a clear set of values around which the party can base itself. But how wide is the appeal of those values? The party’s standing is now about 8% of those who voted (or 5% of the whole electorate). In the Netherlands, which has a more diverse and plural polity, the party’s closest equivalent, D66, gets about this level of support. Can the core be expanded much beyond this? The party still needs to persuade those less convinced of the party’s core values to vote for it – which brings it back to local action and the centre ground (i.e. being everybody’s favourite second preference). Building the core is not wrong – it just doesn’t help much.
The key point is this. The party cannot go into an election without a clear position on who it wants to lead the next government – perhaps stated in the negative (i.e. which of the main parties it is against). Simply saying that the party will wait and see won’t cut it. It’s abdicating from a decision that most voters want a say in. That brings with it a host of further questions and problems. It would surely limit the party’s electoral appeal in marginal seats. It ushers in questions about pre-electoral pacts. But avoiding the question invites doom.
And I think this leads to a second question. How much to we want political reform? Electoral reform to institute a proportional voting system and more pluralistic politics; some kind of federal system to place the the nations and regions of Britain on a stabler constitutional footing; more devolution of power to local and regional level; making it harder for big donors to influence politics; a directly or indirectly elected upper chamber. Such reforms used to be at the core of the party’s pitch to voters – especially under Paddy Ashdown’s leadership in the 1990s. Subsequent leaders felt that such reform attracted too little public interest, and that the party should focus more attention on “bread and butter” issues, like education and taxes. The party did have a problem in those days: political reform was focused on electoral reform, and the party’s position looked self-serving.
Nowadays people profess a greater disillusionment with politics (though participation in General Elections seems to be creeping upwards) and this might be channelled into political reform. But a reform programme stands a better chance if it has cross party and non party support. If the party wants political reform it must place it back at the top of its agenda, and make it the basis of any alliances or pacts it makes with other political parties. If it doesn’t, and it has to be admitted that the British public is still quite sceptical about reform, then the party needs to find another defining issue around which to make its relationships with other political parties clear.
The big game is this: the party needs an electoral pact with one or other of the two major parties. Or with a breakaway from one or other of these parties. At the moment that looks a distant prospect. But we have time. Something like the breakthrough needed happened in 1981 when the SDP was formed and then allied with the Liberal party. That peaked too soon and failed. But it showed that new ideas can catch the public’s imagination and turn the system upside down. The SNP has achieved this in Scotland, albeit by a different route. It is possible for hope to trump fear.
But what the party mustn’t do is go round the same old merry-go-round again.