The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance and conformity.”
Thinking about the last few days, I take a look at my membership card and read the motto of the Liberal Democrats and feel confident about the future. Yes, we have lost swathes of amazing and passionate MPs, especially, Lynne Featherstone, for whom I volunteered over the election campaign. Parliament will be at a loss without her. Over the last 5 years we have lost councils, really dedicated councillors and MEPs whilst in coalition. The election result was an unmitigated disaster. However, it is from here that we need to build up our party once again.
My heart goes out to the amazing, wonderful and inspiring volunteers and activists who worked so hard over the election campaign. For me (also being a volunteer, running a number of committee rooms and action days) it was an absolute pleasure to work with them, from running the stuffing machine (nicknamed Brunhilda), to writing, stuffing and sealing those blue envelopes, delivering literature, making phone calls, driving back and forwards around the constituency, bringing in food, hosting action days, staying up until the wee hours, entering data on Connect (I can still hear the beeps of the bar code scanners!). These volunteers make up the party and are invaluable – they need to be celebrated and it is a unique factor of our party, this local grassroots activism which we need to continue to foster and to develop. They are the true heroes of our party and they are the people who will be vital to the rebuilding process.
There are a number of reasons why we suffered this monstrous defeat; the largest of which was the coalition. Whilst I agreed, tentatively, with the Conservative-LibDem coalition in 2010, recognising that it was in the interests of the nation and that a minority government would be of extreme risk nationally – this argument has carried no weight with the public. I grew up in a country where coalitions at all levels of government are the norm, however the concept is alien in the UK. I still believe that coalitions are a good thing, forging political consensus, bringing opposing parties together and sharing differing viewed. However, the most successful coalitions in Europe, I use the example of Austria and Germany, have been the so-called ‘Grand Coalitions’ between centre-right and socialist parties (SPÖ & ÖVP in Austria and CDU/CSU & SDP in Germany). Smaller parties are often the victims of coalitions, for example the FDP in Germany. Similarly the FPÖ in Austria following the 2000 coalition (ÖVP & FPÖ), whilst the party was not small, in terms of number of seats, it suffered an existential crisis of being in government, having been a party of opposition and saw its numbers drop significantly at the subsequent election. Similarly the Austrian Liberal Forum’s electoral pact with the socialist party (which saw it guaranteed a seat in parliament if it did not contest the general election) saw its total demise and eventual merger with NEOS, which has proved to be moderately successful at the recent general, European, and local elections.
The British political system, however, is not suitable for successful coalition politics; years of adversarial politics, the two party system and first past the post have meant that the concept of working together to achieved something simply does not happen. Look at, for example, Norman Lamb’s attempts pre-2010 for a cross party consensus on social care.
It is clear that the public wholeheartedly rejected the reasons put forward for us going into coalition with the Tories, tuition fees and the bedroom tax will long linger in the ears of our canvassers. Furthermore the national messaging on the election campaign did nothing to assuage this, we dealt with the decision on tuition fees far to late and the constant mea culpa did little to satisfy those who held the party responsible for the changes to the tuition fee system. Although I personally agree with the policy, it was so badly messaged and packaged that we would lose the argument regardless how many times the politicians apologised.
In my humble opinion the largest mistake made in the campaign was that the national messaging fought a campaign in the assumption of another hung parliament. Our message thus read as “we’ll join anyone in government”, even though the polls pointed towards a hung parliament, creating a whole election campaign around this message was a grievous mistake. Which undermined so many of our local campaigns. We should have campaigned in what we do best. Local politicians for local people. We should have been saying: We exist to represent our constituents, to fight their fights, to stand up for them and to hold to account the government and councils that do not do this, to utilise the 1970s slogan of the Australian Democrats: “Keep the bastards honest.” That is how we have won and can win elections. Locally many candidates fought on this, but the national messaging undermined the local efforts. So many times people said to us on the door steps: “we love Lynne, the local Labour Party are inept and we hate the Labour-run Council, but we are voting nationally so voting Labour.” I am not saying that we should have ignored our record in government, it was guaranteed to loose us a significant number of seats – Anyone who thought we would win seats, or retain close to our previous number of seats were living in cloud cookoo land!
Moving forward, I have come to think that the blood bath we faced on 7th May is actually the medicine that the party needs (it was and still is utterly heartbreaking and devastating – after being awake for close on 24 hours, in a count walking around urging our volunteers to keep smiling whilst cameras were pressed in our faces, and all we wanted to do was weep.) The election result gives us the opportunity for a complete root and branch reform and rebuild of the party. We need to harness what we have learnt over the last five years of government, and also what we have learnt during the election campaign. We need to be better at recruiting and retaining volunteers – as I mentioned above, they are the heart and soul of the party. We need to ensure that they feel, by being involved, by becoming members, they are enfranchised in the party. Conference, which despite my many years of activisism I have still not attended (I am set to attend, hopefully, this year!) needs to be less alien to them, it needs to be open, and we should make it far easier for people to be involved in the decision making process of the party; for example, by electronic means, online national voting, skype speeches by activists who can’t make it to conference.
I also think, emulating the Austrian and German systems, the leadership of the party should be voted on annually – whilst in the Austrian system it is essential a coronation of the leadership (often with the incumbent leader receiving 97% of the vote – wouldn’t that be great?!), I think it would also ensure the legitimacy of the leader, and also mean that any dissatisfaction can be addressed democratically at conference, rather than in the back corridors. Yes, it might meant that a leader is voted out earlier than expected – but then if the leader doesn’t have the support of the party membership, how can they expect to get the support of the electorate.
My overall message (whilst slightly rambling), is that despite the horrible result, we need to build the party up from what we have learnt, we cannot and shouldn’t forget the impact that a coalition government has had on our support, we have to be honest with the public. We should say about 2010: “at the time, we thought we were doing the right thing for the country, but we have now learnt that it was not what our voters wanted, we let them down. Although we managed to get a lot of our policies enacted in government, this still didn’t make up how badly we let down those who voted for us in 2010. Moving forward we still seek to build a fair, free and open society and we now dedicate ourselves to the people of the United Kingdom to do this. In parliament, in Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, in the GLA and councils throughout the country we will work to “keep the bastards honest.””