by Michael Meadowcroft
Why is it that the Liberal Democrat party is permanently weakened by its members' lack of faith in Liberalism, even more than the Liberal party before it? We have the most powerful and attractive philosophy on the planet and we have the best record of policy development and yet we are permanently agonising over pacts and arrangements with opponents and with targeting a handful of seats. I never thought when I joined the Liberal party in 1958 that after sixty years of battling for its values and policies it would still be necessary to convince party colleagues of the relevance of those values.
Is it any wonder that we are unable to maintain even double figures in the opinion polls and are largely ignored in any political discussion on the media? Anyone wanting to read about Liberal philosophy and values will struggle to find any material. All he or she will get from party headquarters is the preamble to the party constitution. The booklet developing this stirring document had to be published here in Leeds! And the basic party document on which it is based dates from 2002! The best statement of Liberal philosophy currently available is Liberal International's recent "manifesto" which is available on line: https://liberal-international.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Andorra-Liberal-Manifesto-2017-FINAL.pdf.
Following Paddy Ashdown's sad death we had the story retold of his recruitment to the party following two hours of persuasion by that iconic bobble-hatted canvasser forty-five years ago. But how many canvassers do we have today capable of explaining liberalism at length? I suspect that being reared for decades on the meagre gruel of the Focus leaflet has cast virtually all understanding of the party's values and of its view of society into outer darkness. This all the more lamentable given that the huge gap in British politics today calls for a committed anti-conservative party, based on pluralism, internationalism, human values, sustainability and on diminishing poverty and deprivation - precisely what Liberalism is.
Because we were not a viable alternative party at the 2017 general election many electors who were determined to vote the Conservatives even went right across to Labour, despite its hegemonic authoritarianism and its illiberal statism. The lazy conformity that places parties on a Left-Right spectrum, stretching from state control to laissez faire capitalism, does Liberalism no favours. The real spectrum that reflects political reality actually runs North-South with Liberals at the diffusion extreme and both other parties at the opposite end embracing a concentration of power. We simply have very few points of contact with the Left-Right axis and this leads some naive colleagues to fall into the "centrism" trap.
When it comes to policies which are uniquely ours we are even more timid. We have the record of being the only party with a 100% opposition to the Iraq invasion, support since 1955 to being part of a united Europe, a long term commitment to taxing land values, to worker co-operatives, to devolution and to electoral reform, plus a long record on civil liberties including opposition to identity cards and the personal data they would encompass. Our mantra should be, "Why should electors vote for the parties that get it wrong when they can vote for the party that gets it right." The sad fact is that we do not make electors aware of this?
All this was coupled with twenty-five years of the targeting strategy that led to 375 lost deposits in 2017 and has virtually destroyed the party in a majority of constituencies. It is the absence of an active campaigning presence that means that we are not on the media and the public map. The targeting strategy succeeded once, in 1997, but thereafter it increasingly hollowed out the party. It reminds me of the surgeon's statement after an early heart transplant: "the operation was a success but unfortunately the patient died." The task of reviving the party is going be hugely difficult. We may well eventually reap the electoral benefit of our lonely support for a united Europe but how will the party be in a position to draw such people in? We were not able to profit from the "I agree with Nick" leaders' debates in April 2010 when our poll rating went up by 7% overnight, not least because we did not have the organisation on the ground in a majority of constituencies. Our vote slipped away in succeeding weeks.
My belief that we have to have confidence in our beliefs and in our capacity to promote them in every constituency requires a determined focus on fighting elections showing that confidence. Clearly we have to consider our response to any post-election arithmetic which may well require compromise but a high popular vote adds to the strength and influence of our elected MPs. It is, however, always and in every situation damaging to abandon the electoral field pre-election. The party has always suffered from alliances and arrangements. From the Liberal Unionist split after 1886, the MacDonald-Gladstone Pact of 1903 which fatally gave Labour its initial parliamentary party of thirty MPs, the Lloyd George Coalition Liberals of 1918, the Liberal Nationals of the 1930s and right down to gifting over half the seats to the SDP in 1983 - for what benefit today? The Liberal party has invariably been too "nice" and too generous to those who would destroy it. There is an old blues song which sums it up: "I'm tired of fattening frogs for snakes." We must stop doing this and instead start believing in ourselves.
It is high time we again studied our Liberal values, abandoned any inferiority complex and fought every constituency with a candidate who believed in them.