Two generations work down the drain
My blog has been somewhat silent for a while (although I started several posts and then left them unfinished! Not sure if that was laziness or indeterminacy?) – but I feel a need to comment upon the enormous failure of the Liberal Democrats in last week`s General Election.
For a life-long Liberal (I stood in a mock election at school as Liberal candidate in 1964, when there were only 6 Liberal MPs!) last week`s debacle was heart-rending to say the least. So many hard-working individuals suffered the brutality of a first past the post system that is way past its sell-by date – Simon Hughes, Adrian Sanders, Vince Cable et al – losing seats that had been hard-won by community politics in by-elections and elections long, long, ago.
Also the loss of 10 out of 11 Liberal Democrat seats in Scotland raises huge questions about the electoral system, leaving large numbers of Scots unrepresented in Westminster
For the record, though I have retained an underlying sympathy/empathy for the Party, and stood in several elections both Westminster and European from 1979 through to 1997, I stopped paying dues to the Liberal Democrats in 1998, when I left to concentrate on establishing the Institute for Sustainable Development in Business at Nottingham Trent University as its founding Director.
Before then I had been Chair of the Green Lib Dems and the Lib Dem Peace Group for a number of years. I mention these things because, for me, the inherent problem started way before the 2010 general election and any analysis of what just happened needs to be set in its historical context – there are distinct parallels with the situation the Liberal Party went through in 1930/31, too, which need to be recalled.
The hypothesis I suggest that is at the root of the debacle is twofold. First is the general point that the “centre-ground” of UK politics, in my lifetime, has shifted quite seriously to the right following Thatcher`s premiership and the subsequent rightward lurch of the Labour Party under Blair. The second half of the hypothesis is that Clegg and his party analysts chose to “accept” rather than “challenge” the positioning of the centre ground. As a result they calculated that by holding the Conservatives nearer to the centre they would be able to play the “acting in the national interest” card following a stint in coalition. Clearly that message failed to resonate with voters.
May I just add that I am making these points, not with 20/20 hindsight, but I raised the essence of these points back in 2010 when the coalition was first formed – see my blog post of 2013 which carried three sets of reflections I wrote in 2010 before writing a regular blog.
My decision to leave active party politics in 1998 was partly to do with my work (see above) but largely to do with the fact that the Liberal Democrats had already become far less radical than the party I joined way back when. In other words, even before 1998 the strategy of the party, under Paddy Ashdown, was to move increasingly rightwards towards the shifting centre-ground of politics. So, instead of positively radical positions on nuclear weapons and nuclear power, which had been finding resonance amongst a significant part of the electorate, the party was trying to be more central than the two major parties. And the centre space was getting smaller and continued to do so since then.
When Nick Clegg took over it was after a couple of very uncomfortable years in leadership terms with a number of muck-raking events, so he worked hard to establish what came to be known as a “radical centrist” approach for the party. Unfortunately the word “radical” used in this combination has come to mean something very different from what radical meant to me as a life-long Liberal.
Think tanks using the term have referred to parties which are prepared to do something radical in order to take the central ground. In other words they would “radically” change an element of policy to make the shift, but, generally the shift would be significantly towards the centre from wherever it had been before. Or, they would radically eliminate loss inducing policies their party had had before, whether left or right leaning previously. Or, they would radically ignore the Old guard, as Nick Clegg did, when negotiating for a place in coalition. Thus, for me, being a “radical centrist” is not an enamouring trait.
Unfortunately the “radical centrist” approach was adopted aggressively by Nick Clegg in his leadership of the negotiations with the Tories in 2010. In tactical terms it clearly worked in the sense that the Conservative party leadership felt comfortable enough to accept Clegg`s team as part of a working coalition. Sadly it failed in strategic terms for the improvement of the politics of the United Kingdom.
If you have not already seen it, I would commend David Steel`s commentary in the Guardian of the 12th May as a pretty damning indictment of Nick Clegg`s leadership. Since you can, of course, read it for yourself, I shall not repeat everything that it contains, but there were several points worth highlighting here. You can find the original at…
The points I would emphasise are these:
• “Long before the 2010 election Clegg announced that in the event of a hung parliament he would talk first to whichever party held the largest number of seats and he repeated that this time” – this prevented Clegg from talking to the outgoing PM first and Steel`s point is that this effectively diminished his negotiating power with the Tories and let down most voters` perceptions of why they might have voted for the Lib Dems in the first place – the realignment of the left in politics.
• “With all his knowledge and experience of European politics Clegg should also have been more aware of the folly of rushing to government formation.” It looked rushed because it WAS rushed – more reflection was needed, and I was shouting that into the TV screen at the time.
• “The most obvious reason, for which he later made fulsome apologies, was the about-turn on student fees … The reason this volte face was catastrophic was nothing to do with student fees … we had lost trust as a party, one of the few tangible assets we had especially after the Kennedy/Campbell decision to oppose the invasion of Iraq” For me, this is the biggest single reason the Lib Dems were devastated in 2015.
Steel lists other points as well, but these are the ones that resonate most with me. The electorate are much more “knowing” than they are normally given credit for. Let me just give an example from my own past experience as a candidate which tells me this. I stood in the Nottinghamshire seat of Broxtowe in 1983 against Conservative minister, Jim Lester, and we were delighted to gain second place with over 25% of the vote. My experience in that election standing in the shopping centre was that at the beginning of the campaign electors would casually circle widely if they could, so they did not “get caught” but towards election day people were coming up to me to talk voluntarily and wish me luck.
Then I stood again in 1987, with hopes high that we could improve on the 1983 vote and maybe, just maybe, get close enough to snatch the seat. For those too young to recall, or those with failing memories, the 1987 election was fought by an Alliance between the Liberals and the Social Democrats and we had been flying high in the opinion polls, so things were looking good. But then, quite early in the campaign, the question was asked… “If you are in a position to take the Balance of Power would you support the Conservatives, led by Mrs Thatcher, after the election?”
David Steel said “No” and I cheered. Then David Owen said “Yes” and I groaned. The behaviour of Broxtowe`s electorate was immediate and tangible on the ground. When I stood in the shopping centre looking to speak with voters at the beginning of the 1987 campaign people were coming up to me, as they had at the end of the 1983 campaign and things were looking bright. The morning after the Balance of Power question had been posed created a totally different feel and people suddenly were avoiding talking to me, walking in large avoiding circles so they did not get caught! It was utterly remarkable and I spent several letters and phone calls to HQ trying to get the Liberal leadership to change David Owen`s mind on this, but to no avail.
As David Miliband just said in the same Guardian newspaper “There’s absolutely no point in blaming the electorate. Any suggestion that they didn’t ‘get it’ is wrong. They didn’t want what was being offered.” This was about the Labour Party offering of his brother this time around but clearly can also be applied to what happened in 1987. (And, of course, to what happened just last week to the Lib Dems!)
The results in 1987 spoke for themselves. The Alliance had a net loss of one seat back to 22 seats and the vote declined by 2.8 percentage points to 22.6% and I lost nearly a thousand votes and slipped back into third place with 22.1% of the votes. The Liberal Democrat share of the vote in Broxtowe in 2015 was only 4% in fourth place behind UKIP. Hey-ho lackaday!
So, there you have it. My political high-spot was back in 1983 when the Liberal Party increased its number of seats from 11 to 17 and I achieved a second place with over 25% of the vote. We walked back from the count, after dawn, to the house of our good friends Brian and Tricia, where we were staying and the sun was rising on a wonderful June morning, June 10th – my 36th birthday! We were also celebrating more than twice as many seats as the successor Liberal Democrats managed to win in 2015 from a much higher base of 56 MPs. Enough said.