Asleep at the Wheel


The Liberal Democrats have lost interest in political visions and have a leader and structure that cannot deliver it

Dr Pangloss rules the Liberal Democrats. Everything works together for good. The party apparently progresses at every election and its future prospects are universally good. Parties always have to pretend to be optimistic but when the rhetoric requires party leaders, nationally and locally to hide the truth from colleagues it inevitably inhibits the action required to revive the party and to enable it to present a distinctive and attractive Liberal vision to the electorate.

The bizarre fact about the crisis confronting the Liberal Democrats is that the party not only does nothing about it but does not even appear to be aware of it. Judging from the statistics of election contests at which the party has only a paper candidate without any Liberal literature distributed, the base party vote is around a mere 2%. More than one in five of its candidates at the last, 2019, election lost their deposit, even at the low level of 5%. Even remarkable by-election victories, such as in Chesham and Amersham, North Shropshire and Tiverton & Honiton, no longer have a significant lasting effect on the party’s fortunes, with the party’s opinion poll ratings reverting almost to pre by-election levels within a short time. We were at 7% before the first of the three and the average rating now is just 11.5%.  Compare previous examples: large national gains after Orpington in 1962, and a decade later, the five by-elections between the 1970 general election, at which we polled 7.5%, and the February 1974 election thereafter with a national vote of 19.3% - the highest Liberal vote for forty-five years. The lack of a solid core vote and an ability to build on it ensures a miserable record of by-election seat retention. Since the war, up to the three recent successes, Liberals or Liberal Democrats had thirty-five by-election victories but only one, Richmond Park, is now still held. The situation in my own city of Leeds is salutary. The party is in a poorer electoral situation than when we won the first seats back on the City Council over fifty years ago. Last May the party failed to win a single seat in the old county borough area whereas in my time we held five previously solid Labour inner city wards. Seven of the eight Leeds constituencies are derelict and only three of the 33 wards are capable of mounting a winnable campaign. The party is now seeking to hide its failure by combining all the associations into a single city party!

Alongside the party’s failure is the manifest fact that the case for Liberalism is as strong today as ever, indeed the values that have emerged in society from the horrors of the Covid pandemic underline vividly the power of Liberalism: solidarity between individuals, the enhancement of community, the importance of the public service, human rather than economic values, the relevance of Keynesian economics and the necessity for internationalism. Sadly there is today no political organisation in Britain aware of the power of such Liberal values and capable of promoting them. The case is going by default because the Liberal Democrats have had no published document since 2002 setting out the context and arguments for the values that should underpin its policies and its election stance. The party’s autumn conference last year had a debate on the chapter heads of a planned document but nothing emerged thereafter. The abject lack of a Liberal political organisation capable of persuading the electorate and winning elections is allowing illiberal values, short-termism and politics based on slogans to damage our society and to diminish each individual’s life chances.

Policies are not freestanding or “one-offs” but are the topical application of the the party’s philosophy to current issues. The principled opposition to the Iraq invasion was not primarily concerned with the presumed existence of weapons of mass destruction but was a consequence of the Liberal doctrine of international law. The support for joining (and re-joining) the EU is an expression of Liberalism’s internationalism. The party’s leader is a natural Liberal and is a sympathetic and clearly a very decent individual but, alas, he is not a leader. No articulate exposition of a Liberal vision for society ever emerges and there is no passionate appeal to man the barricades for that vision. Long term recruits and candidates prepared to devote themselves sacrificially to winning elections come from being inspired by the vision rather than from specific campaigns. In my long experience leaders of local campaigns tend to remain in the party only as long as that campaign lasts unless they imbibe the Liberal reasons for the campaign.

Despite the deep unpopularity of the present Conservative government and the failure of Keir Starmer to capitalise on it significantly, the Liberal Democrats have languished at single figures or just above in the polls for over seven years. Twenty-five years of targeting has hollowed out the party and killed off the organisation in non-target seats. Very many constituencies have no viable local party and are incapable of reviving an association without outside help. But the party has no strategy for reviving the many derelict seats, indeed the problem is largely hidden by amalgamating groups of seats into a single association, only one of which is actually active. Without any presence on the ground the voter is not prompted to support the party hence the many embarrassingly derisory votes - and the ridicule of the party on topical comedy shows such as “Have I got news for you”. What has Liberalism done to deserve such treatment?

The initial Liberal context of community politics as an enabling and developmental force has been lost in the mountains of Focus leaflets without any political content and filled with bogus opinion polls, populist campaigns to mend pavements and save post offices and trite and negative claims that “it’s a two horse race”. Without building a positive Liberal core vote, campaigns have to deliver more and more leaflets until active members either give up or suffer burn out. Another effect is that the local government vote does not transfer to parliamentary elections. Even in Liverpool, a city with an enviable record of Focus saturation, the party has only ever won one seat - and that as a result of a fortuitous by-election. Today we have the remarkable local successes of the Hull Liberal Democrats, gaining control of the council and topping the citywide vote, but polling meagre totals of 5.3%, 6.1% and 5.6% in the 2019 parliamentary elections in the city. Joe Otten, a highly competent Liberal Democrat Councillor in the twenty-nine strong Sheffield City Council group, finished fifth in the election for the South Yorkshire Mayor.

The party has a formidable bureaucratic structure and, indeed, it spent an inordinate amount of debating time at the recent Spring Conference changing it. Much of the federal structure is replicated at English party level. There is a highly structured candidate approval system and a detailed appeals process. It is all very worthy but it has produced a party structure that exists to replicate itself. It takes an army of willing volunteers to take on the array of posts simply to maintain it. It is a structure commensurate with a nationwide national party which simply does not exist on the ground. What is needed is [a] a guerilla warfare organisation able to respond rapidly to political events and opportunities, [b] a unit able to write rigorous “vision” documents, drawing in Liberals from outside the actual party, and [c] a strategy team equipped with a systematic plan to revive derelict associations.

Finally, the ill health of the party is vividly demonstrated by its current passion for what is curiously called a “progressive alliance” aimed at removing the Conservatives from office and which requires the co-operation of the Labour party. Such an alliance is deeply flawed because [1] Labour is certainly not a progressive party, as those of us who have fought it in its industrial fiefs know only too well; [2] Labour dare not enter such an alliance as it would hasten its disintegration, [3] publicity for any Liberal Democrat link-up with Labour would diminish the number of transfers to us from Conservatives, and [4] it would inhibit and hamper any prospect of Liberal progress as a nationwide party. As it happens it would also demonstrate that I wasted fifteen years of my life winning West Leeds from Labour. I am not one who only points out problems and I have also set out the operational strategy needed for revival and have put it forward at national and regional levels since 2018 without it being accepted by anyone!

I had made my mind up to “retire” from swathes of various campaigns when I reached my 80th birthday last March in order to concentrate on personal writing and I wrote a final polemic to try and startle such party activists as exist into doing something about the state of the party. Even though it was published in Liberator and had a link published in Liberal Democrat Voice, there was no response apart from those colleagues of the same vintage as myself who also saw the looming demise of the party. I have never felt any difficulty in over 64 years arguing for Liberalism and I have written copiously on every conceivable aspect of the cause. I am deeply distressed - and angry - at the failure of the Liberal Democrats to be a powerful force for Liberalism.