by Michael Meadowcroft
At the election before I joined the Liberal Party in 1958 we had just six MPs and 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 we recovered to achieve almost 20% of the vote less than twenty years later. Those of us who joined in those far off days, and who surmounted the setbacks of 1970 and 1979 know that today we have again to take the message out to local associations, one by one.
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 members 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. As it happens, liberalism - and here I follow Tim Farron's and 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.
Without a philosophy that moves individuals to give up time, energy and money, and a vision of a free, compassionate and vibrant Liberal society which can transform communities and countries, there is now a real possibility that 2020 could see an even worse election result than 2015. Bear in mind that the Conservatives are determined to cut the number of constituencies and to impose a wholly self-serving alteration to rules for their boundaries which will undermine the benefits of incumbency to the detriment of our standard bearers. Without a healthy "core" vote there is no future for the party. In this context the recent paper by David Howarth and Mark Pack (The 20% Strategy - Building a Core Vote for the Liberal Democrats", July 2015) is vitally important.
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 - including UKIP. Many of our MPs and councillors have been 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.
One of my "heresies" is a belief that the long term obsession with targeting has been a disaster. The concept itself 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 local 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. No wonder that we poll badly in European Parliament election when the constituencies covered huge regions, in most of which we had abandoned the Liberal Democrat presence. We cannot have a healthy core vote and targeting.
The necessity for confidence
I didn't for a moment think in 1958 when I joined the Liberal Party and began, almost immediately, to speak and write on Liberalism, that half a century later I would still be trying not just to coax an unevangelised electorate to support Liberal values but more perversely to persuade Liberal colleagues to have confidence in their beliefs. With but few exceptions we have a more illiberal society today than at any time over those fifty years and it is Liberals who must bear the blame. We have manifestly failed to believe in those values and, as a consequence, have lacked the confidence to proselytise and to proclaim the most relevant and attractive political philosophy ever. It is not difficult to win the argument for Liberalism: the arguments are there, and they just need promoting with intellectual rigour and with an awareness of how to apply them in the wider community.
Policy is important and campaigning is essential, but we need an awareness and understanding of the basis for those policies and that campaigning. I am arguing, as ever, for a values-based politics and for enthusiasm and commitment in the vision of a Liberal Society. Manifestly the party is never again going to flourish primarily based on mindless activism and extra millions of Focus leaflets. Quite apart from the impossibility of maintaining the activity without burn out, or even of permanently outdelivering opponents, UKIP - and, in Scotland, the SNP - has now grabbed our anti-politics niche, often in identical wording to countless Liberal leaflets over recent years. UKIP spouts dangerous nonsense, redolent of 1930s right-wing scapegoating, but it is the Teflon party, and nothing sticks to it. It has no policies, only the two aspirations of getting out of the EU and stopping immigration. The UKIP mindset can only be defeated by an alternative vision of society - a pluralist, diverse, convivial, attractive and liberal society. We now have just four years to grasp and imbibe this view of society and to carry it to the country. The new document in preparation, and currently being co-ordinated by Duncan Brack, will be the basis for the subsequent policy building blocks.
The responsibility for creating a Liberal society rests with Liberals. There is no point blaming the Conservatives - today's society is what they believe in and will abuse power to sustain. It is what they are like. Nor is Labour to blame - they are a hegemonic party with no concept of pluralism and of the human values that inspire individuals and which underpin society.
We do not have to accept today's prevailing values. They survive only because there is a vacuum of alternatives. We have to believe passionately that a Liberal society can bit by bit transform how we can live. Alone of political philosophies, Liberalism puts human values ahead of economics. It believes in "the market where possible, the state where necessary." It does not blindly accept economic determinism but places economics at the pragmatic service of society. It understands that human nature is a mixture of selfishness and altruism and that the aim of politics is to enhance altruism and to diminish selfishness. It understands that we are "spirit, soul and body" and that culture and linkages are vital after food and shelter. It understands that electors want to vote for "right thinking" views and should not be bribed nor pandered to.
The 2020 election
If electors no longer believe electoral promises, the appeal must be on an alternative view of society, ie what kind of society will there be under a Liberal Democrat government?
We need to make a co-ordinated case for the revival and entrenchment of community values. We need to espouse real localism and the revival of local democracy. It is uniquely Liberal, necessary for democracy - and parties - to thrive and is urgent that it does so. We must not confuse local government with regional government - both are needed. A whole tranche of services should be returned to local (or regional) government, coupled with a mechanism to equalise financial capacity between local (and regional) authorities. Otherwise these authorities should be legally able to raise income from any source not specifically retained by central government - including land value taxation, the case for which is more valid than ever given housing price inflation and the shortage of building land.
We need to state our belief in the public service and to enhance the role of those who work in government - central and local and at all levels.
We need to look at bringing relevant services back within direct government responsibility over a set period of time. This would be generally popular. It should include bringing academies back within the purview of local authorities, as well as bodies such as the Environment Agency.
We need to have a process for re-examining whether currently privatised services could and should be brought back into the public sphere. It would be easy, and popular, to re-nationalise the railways and it could be accomplished without cost as current franchises fall in. It was narrow-minded ideology to prevent the publicly owned East Coast company even bidding for a new franchise.
We need to make the persuasive case for internationalism, not least the importance of the European Union and its role in maintaining peace, security and development, as well as dealing with the economic regulations required to deal with globalisation.
We need to have the great courage to explain that it is possible to enhance the public's health at a much lower cost than current NHS expenditure. For instance, it needs to be explained that virtually all mass screening is not cost-effective. Also we need to move progressively to "limited list" prescribing, which is beneficial both to the exchequer and to health. Also with regional authorities, most of the NHS can be devolved. As Enoch Powell pointed out forty years ago, unless the power to tax and the power to spend are in the same hands, it is impossible to resolve the problems of the health service.
We need to make the case for the vital role of the arts in a Liberal society.
We need to make the case for the Single Transferable Vote as the means of rescuing British politics and, in particular, changing the style and role of the political parties. All other PR systems, with party lists of one type or another, give more power to parties which is precisely what is not needed at the present time.
All the above are policies and approaches that can only be taken by the Liberal Democrats and constitute the party's Unique Selling Point. There are different levels of challenge inherent in the above points. It is up to the party officers to determine how brave it feels it can be.
When arguing for the Liberal case, each issue can be advocated under the rubric "Why vote for the parties that get it wrong when you can vote for the party that gets it right." This can be a running introduction over the whole campaign, applied in turn to each policy area.
Electors are not fools; on the contrary they are very shrewd, but if we do not make the case they will not have the view of society, and the arguments for it, on which they can exercise a judgement. We must take the case to them.