by Michael Meadowcroft
I approach this subject, as with other key political issues, as a working politician who seeks ways of getting from problem to solution and who therefore regards values and policies as key parts of the "toolkit" which must underpin tactics and strategy.
Scottish colleagues must be prepared to translate my references to particular authorities and elected bodies into their governance structure!
The party is at a crucial moment politically and electorally. The appalling results in Scotland and in the North of England last May were largely a consequence of the public's antipathy to the coalition government. The anti-Liberal Democrat tsunami swept out many excellent representatives.
The lesson of the 5 May 2011 elections was clear: in the present political circumstances candidates cannot expect to survive, let alone prosper, on the politics of the ostrich: ie ignore everything outside one's constituency or ward; concentrate on being an excellent MSP or Councillor; and be committed to frenetic activity. There has to be much more attention to creating a Liberal electoral base and to taking on the national arguments. We have to maintain the duality of promoting party values and supporting the coalition government.
One thing that has typified my fifty years plus in Liberal politics has been a curious lack of confidence in Liberalism on the part of Liberals! It is very frustrating, particularly given the wealth of literature there has been which explains, expounds and applies Liberal values. What is even odder is that the more Liberal policies are shown to be right, the quicker Liberals retreat! The best recent example is the solid Liberal opposition to the Iraq invasion. How many electors today know that all Liberal Democrat MPs voted against the invasion? Other examples are the opposition to ID cards, the early espousal of European unity, the emphasis on the environment and sustainability and the importance of secure and integrated communities.
One Liberal Democrat Council Group Leader in Yorkshire, with whom I have had certain disagreements, apparently refers to me as the Dinosaur for espousing what she regards as outdated attitudes! This is partly because I have two particular heresies.
The "Tyranny of Focus" has become a huge handicap, particularly when allied to every current gimmick. Leaflets, preferably delivered hourly, containing no more fundamental policy issue than the filling of potholes or the need for immediate attention to unlit street lamps, are deemed to be the guarantee of success. This espousal of "non-politics" is populism not Liberalism. Any recruits "Focus" encourages, and even those that join because of good casework, tend to slip away after a few years. Total party membership has declined by some 40% over fifteen years.
"Targeting" of key seats has had increasingly disastrous effects on the party. I accept that it helped to win a number of additional seats in 2001 and 2005 but it is doubtful that it had a similar effect in 2010. The consequence of targeting over the years, particularly where it has been applied to specific wards, has been to abandon vast areas. It has laid waste to three quarters of Leeds in which we now have virtually no organisation.
Such tactics mean that when, as after the first leaders' debate at the general election, our poll rating went up by nine points, it was impossible to garner it because we had no campaigning activity in the vast majority of areas.
I also have a feeling that the introduction of significant allowances for elected members, whilst valid - though perhaps not in the current format - has had an insidious effect on the argument between concentration on defending seats and supporting good candidates in weaker seats.
Liberalism is not a widespread instinctive belief amongst the public generally, even though the potential Liberal vote is high, but it exists amongst a minority and it is those individuals that we have identify and recruit. What the present superficial campaigning does not and cannot produce is the individual Liberal, committed to his or her community, determined to expose the failures of Conservatism and Labourism and to work for a Liberal society, who is determined to win his or her ward, however long it takes. It is these individuals who previously kept the party going and who ensured that we won new seats. I am sure that they are still there and can be attracted by good, sound literature. Recruitment, based on canvassing following on from delivery of such good literature on values and policy, should not be confined to a handful of seats.
I am not pretending that we have yet succeeded in Leeds, indeed the signs are that the party is still seduced by hyperactivity on parochial issues, but we have spent two years putting a structure in place that seeks to ally campaigning to well-based political party. Its components are:
Before planning policy literature there are five questions to be asked:
I firmly believe that we need to be confident in our beliefs and in their power to transform. We need to "Read-Write-Publish-Distribute-Debate," urging the media to play its role in the political process, but not reluctant to rely on our own resources if necessary.
There is a desperate need today for Liberalism and we have to create and sustain a party capable of meeting that need.