Waterloo Lodge in the snow
Michael Meadowcroft & Liz Bee

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Beads without string

by Michael Meadowcroft

Hardly anyone knows what holds Liberal Democrat policies together and the party bores and baffles the public. Michael Meadowcroft suggests some solutions.

Forty years ago the party had been devastated by the result of the 1979 election. We had climbed back remarkably from the even worse result of 1970 to poll 19% in February 1974 on the back of five successive by-election victories. Had we fought every seat the Liberal vote would have approached 23%. Disappointingly in October that year the vote fell back to 18% despite fighting almost every constituency. We struggled through the next five years of the Labour government, including the Lib-Lab pact and we dropped a further 4.5% with just 13.8% of the vote and only eleven MPs in 1979. We set out on a carefully planned three year strategy which, alas, was cut short by the alliance with the SDP in 1981.

The situation today is worse than in 1979. In last year's general election we polled only 11.3%. As a political party the Liberal Democrats are virtually dead. The party languishes at 6% in the polls and makes hardly any impact in the media. The party has virtually no core vote. At last year's general election 423 of the party's 611 candidates polled fewer than 12.5% of the vote. In other words seven out ten Liberal Democrat candidates polled fewer than 1 in 8 of the votes cast - the previous deposit level. I believe that most of these constituencies lack any viable organisation, ie a constituency association that campaigns, develops a strategy across the constituency and is a "self-starter" in terms of a minimum of election activity. There may well be one or two individual wards that function but what makes it worse is that the enforced adherence to targeting over twenty years has meant that even where a ward previously elected Liberal Democrat councillors regularly it often now has only a nominal vote. Once a ward has been lost there is seldom a broader organisation able to revive it. There are many dedicated Liberal Democrat councillors who survive on casework, campaigning and incessant Focus delivery but without encouraging an adherence to Liberal values - indeed in most cases community campaigning has reversed the original concept of empowering communities and is now a type of "clientalism" where casework and local issue campaigning are now relied for the votes to survive. Even in local government the party has great difficulty in holding seats: in 1996 we had 5078 councillors; today we have just half that number – 2527. We have a tiny parliamentary party of brave MPs trying to cover the whole range of subjects plus a larger group in the Lords also speaking on behalf of a Liberal constituency that barely exists. The retention of seats, targeting or not, has also been appalling. For instance, today we hold only Orkney and Shetland of the seventeen seats we held during my time in parliament, 1983-87. The party has an impressive structure of committees at federal and national levels but it is all a facade without an activist political membership underpinning it. Finally, it lacks an up-to-date statement of its basic philosophy and values which is essential as the foundation for the development of policy and the inspiration of its candidates and officers.

Need for action
I set out the current situation as it is as starkly as possible in an attempt to concentrate attention on the steps required to rescue Liberalism and to build a movement capable of confronting the post-virus country we face and of creating a society that understands human values and believes it worthwhile working with us to promote them. If we do not grasp the party's desperate state we will simply stagger on to a fourth election result similar to the past three. At the heart of the problem during and after the coalition was the lack of a deep understanding of what the Liberal Democrats were based on and what was the unifying thread that pulled together all its policies and campaigning. No-one in the electorate knew what Liberalism was, and few amongst our members could explain it. We put forward policies in isolation and, whether or not they were good - which most of them were - they were not related to a unifying view of society. Take the party's passion for British membership of the European Union. In terms of our election campaign it virtually stood alone. It was a great policy and potentially had the support of a majority of the electorate but we lost out because it was unrelated to our fundamental belief in internationalism, and to a Liberal antipathy to Labour's hegemonic and centralising socialism. We had little to say to voters not keen on Remain, and the fear or Corbyn drove many of "our" voters to the anti-EU Conservatives.

It is the existence of a philosophy that defines a political party and if we identify, research and put forward good ideas simply on each's merits we might as well be another think tank similar to Demos or Compass. But we are not Liberals because are in favour of a united Europe including the UK; not because we opposed the Iraq invasion; not because we oppose identity cards; not because we favour worker-co-ownership; not because we support a tax on land values to return to the community the finance it creates; not because we are passionate about pluralism, not least in the need for a powerful local government; not because we understand the need to enhance the status of the public service; and not because we favour a fair and powerful electoral system. It is the opposite way round: in every case of these policies, all unique to Liberalism, we support them precisely because we are Liberals. Without this awareness, and without an up to date statement of Liberal philosophy in today's context, we will always struggle to create a separate, positive and attractive presence and we will be unable to attract individuals in the community who are Liberals but who are as yet unaware of it. In particular, in any coalition it will be impossible to maintain our identity both within and outside it. The test question for each and every policy is whether it is a step, however small, towards our ideal of a Liberal society.

New leader's first priority
Unless the leader wants to inherit a moribund party the first priority is to establish the party's identity Before we can consider and adopt a revival and development strategy we must first update the application of the party's philosophy to today's challenges. The last such statement was adopted in 2002 and in the past eighteen years there have been immense changes at both the international and domestic levels, The task of drafting, discussing, adopting and promoting a new statement is urgent and is a priority. This up-to-date statement is required before the party embarks on a comprehensive exercise in reviving local associations. We need to be able to lay the foundations for a strong, firmly based political Liberal party so that, in the future, individuals will be able to say, "I am a Liberal", just as many on the Left say, "I am a socialist."

Following my time in parliament, I spent twenty years undertaking missions for the UN, the EU, the OSCE and other organisations in thirty-five new and emerging democracies across four continents. Many of these projects were based on securing elections that were sufficiently legitimate to secure stable progression to successful representative democracies. In most cases all we managed was to buy time in the hope of enabling the necessary structures and practices to develop in place. Few of them used the time and the main, though not the only, reason was the lack of political philosophy. It is clear that political parties based on tribes, religion, regions, charismatic leaders, a liberation movement or even on a policy package, a country's democracy will be ephemeral because they lack a coherent basis to formulate and sustain effective government policies. I believe that no political party has been successful over any length of time unless it is based on some level of philosophy.

Practical steps
We need to put in place:

In the present state of the party and, indeed, of Liberalism I cannot see any alternative to a pro-active strategy as set out above. The question now is how do we shake the party's leadership, its officers and its top staff out of the current complacency. Rather than await the election of a new leader, the party needs to start getting the strategic structures in place now.