by Michael Meadowcroft
Some of us who have been around for ever take a slightly more relaxed view of the party's present electoral difficulties. Certainly there is no room for any complacency, but a longer perspective is needed. A colleague last May in Leeds commented that it had been "difficult" on the doorsteps. It certainly was but my response was to compare it to canvassing when the party leader was on a charge of attempting to murder his alleged gay lover. Now that was difficult! I recall also that our poll ratings halved during the Lib-Lab pact of 1977-78 but recovered to their original level in the few weeks after the pact and before the following election.
At the election before I joined the Liberal Party in 1958 we had polled just 2.7% of the vote but, despite what some of the media enjoyed saying at the time, there was never a possibility that the party would disappear. And of course it recovered to achieve almost 20% of the vote less than twenty years later.
There is, however, a crucial difference today. In the 1950s Liberal activists understood what they believed and knew what the party's aims and purposes were. There was little pavement campaigning and less leafleting, but they were well able to argue the party's case and even to recruit and support members. Now we have hyper activity, candidates everywhere, a keen understanding of modern campaigning, but little understanding of the nature of the liberal society that all this effort is in theory working towards.
A political party needs members, despite the opinion of some "street warriors" that it is sufficient to have an army of deliverers, may of whom do not wish to join. Without members a party lacks a basis for briefing, training and advocacy - all of which are essential if its political arguments are to be successfully promoted. What is more, without a strong and committed membership it is difficult to find able men and women to be effective local leaders and to be candidates able to combine into a cohesive council group, The consequence is that all too often councillors have to try and run the party as well their elected responsibilities - sometimes, I fear, with the key incentive of maintaining their allowances.
All parties are struggling to recruit members but the current ill health of politics generally hits Liberal Democrats more than the other major parties who can still rely on elements of a class base. As it happens, liberalism - and here I follow Nick Clegg's emphasis on the word - is potentially the most attractive of political philosophies. All it lacks is the activists to promote it in literature, in debate and on doorsteps. The current membership situation is dire. In 1994 over 100,000 ballots were issued for the party's presidential election, by 2010 this had declined to under 66,000. Since then, if press reports are to be believed, there has been a further decline of 20%. In other words, membership has halved over eighteen years.
There are, of course, electors who join the party because they are attracted by local campaigning or are grateful to a Liberal Democrat councillor. Alas, the experience is that such members do not tend to last, not least because they are not imbued with a burning desire to create a liberal society in our highly illiberal times. All too often our local Focus leaflets have little or no policy content and, frankly, could be put out by any party - even the BNP. Many of our MPs and councillors are weighed down with casework, struggling to attend meetings and burdened with delivering vast numbers of leaflets themselves. It amazes me how few do actually burn out and give up, particularly given the perpetual tyranny of "Focus", which has to be put out more and more often to make up for the lack of a built up and dedicated Liberal Democrat vote.
Another disaster is the long term obsession with targeting. The concept seems self-evidently sensible and effective. Surely it is beneficial to concentrate all the party's resources on the key marginal seats? For a single election it may well be effective and deliver results, but the consequence of continuing it election after election is hugely detrimental. In the present political situation it means concentrating on fewer and fewer wards with an inevitably declining number of activists from non-target wards available to campaign elsewhere, even if they were prepared to move. If wards are not contested over a number of years then their activists rapidly wither away. In Leeds we currently write off three-quarters of the wards and, in a parliamentary election, seven of the eight constituencies. No wonder that when our poll rating went up by nine points thanks to Nick Clegg's performance in the first leaders' debate, it was impossible to harvest it. There is no real base left across the city.
This situation is not unchangeable. Community politics is not a frenzied end in itself but rather a tactic and strategy for promoting liberal values locally. There is no reason why every Focus leaflet cannot have a paragraph or two setting out why we do what we do locally. There is no reason why we cannot include political discussions on current issues in our local programmes. There is no reason why we cannot write and distribute to our membership statements on liberal values - with a reading list. There is no reason why we cannot, away from the actual election campaign, put leaflets out specifically looking for members, setting out our vision for society, our analysis of the current political situation, and why have taken the principled stand of going into coalition at the most difficult moment imaginable.
Finally, in the 1950s and 1960s party officers and staff toured the country going from association to association, reviving, educating and enthusing local members. Sometimes there was only a handful of colleagues present. It didn't matter - if just one of them was inspired it had a great effect. We urgently need to repeat that today, and, as ever I'm more than willing to play my part.