The Liberal Moment

It is a huge paradox but the scale of the electoral disaster on May 7th was so great that it provides the party with the opportunity to reconstruct itself without any of the baggage of the past twenty years. The new leader has to have the intellectual security to be utterly confident in his Liberalism in order to underpin an arrogant stance as the leading opposition to the most poisonous and unprincipled right-wing Conservative party in my fifty years in politics. This is not a socialist moment, whatever the usual Labour suspects may parrot. But, perhaps perversely, it can certainly be a Liberal moment if the whole party can add an intellectual - in the broadest sense - foundation to its instinctive awareness of the rightness and the attraction of the Liberal society.

First, the depths of the electoral performance on May 7 need to be plumbed. The first General Election I have any memory of is that of 1950. As an eight year old in a very political family I remember the radio announcer stating for result after result, "and the Liberal candidate lost his deposit." As a child it seemed to me to be very unfair to the Liberals and it may have subconsciously encouraged my decision to join the party eight years later. At the time the deposit level was 12.5% - it is now the much lower figure of 5% - and the Liberals lost 319 of them. It was regarded as a total disaster for the Liberal party but if the deposit level was still 12.5% we would have lost 538 this time! There were many humiliating results, with 160 seats polling less than 3% of the vote. There were even three constituencies with less than 1% of the vote.

Part, if not most, of the responsibility for this debacle is the targeting strategy that has been imposed by headquarters on the party for twenty years. In 1997 targeting delivered 46 MPs for some 17% of the vote, ie more than twice the number of Liberal Democrat MPs than at the previous election and on fewer votes. Thereafter the number of MPs increased roughly pro rata with the votes achieved, with the apogée of 62 MPs with 22% of the vote in 2010. The price paid for targeting is the abandonment of great swathes of seats surrounding the targets with the concomitant consequence of derisory votes, in other words, precisely what happened on May 7th but only winning eight of the target seats, quite apart from asking the logical question as to whether the target seats should surely be self-sufficient after twenty years of special attention.

One regular refrain of electors has been that they want politicians who put country before party but, when the Liberal Democrats do precisely that, they clobber the party at the polls. It was right in principle to go into coalition in 2010, knowing that in historical terms of the political position of the party, it could only be with the party which has always been its main enemy. It was also accepted that the electoral risk was considerable and one recalled the comment of Mervyn King the then Governor of the Bank of England, just before the election, that "whoever wins this election will be out of power for a whole generation because of how tough the fiscal austerity will have to be." Even so, it is clear that at the recent election the electorate rewarded the Conservatives for the record of the government because they expected tough measures of them, but punished the Liberal Democrats because they did not expect such policies of them. It proved impossible to make a sufficiently persuasive case for the numerous benefits of the Liberal Democrat presence in government to create a separate case for backing the party. The constantly reiterated theme during the campaign of the "centre ground" and of preventing extremism had no traction, possible because it is an untenable philosophical position.

The ultimate irony of the past five years is that Nick Clegg made the Liberal Democrats a party of government but made the party irrelevant electorally. The party qua party failed to maintain an independent presence. It had occasional flurries, such as over the National Health reorganisation, but it made no consistent attempt to sustain the Liberal Democrats' separate political identity. The party largely permitted its ministers to assent to policies that were unsupportable by Liberals. The paradox is that had Nick Clegg made the splendid content of his resignation speech the theme of the campaign, the party may well have performed better. It must be said that he bore the stresses and strains of the leadership extremely well and in no way deserved the shoddy treatment he received from far too many commentators.

The gap in the party's armoury is not particularly a want of policy but rather a lack of material on the party's political philosophy expressing the kind of society Liberal Democrats want - and within which policy can be founded. A sacrificial commitment to Liberalism, such as kept the party going in the 1950s, and which enabled the party to win seats in the 1980s, requires a keen awareness of what constitutes a Liberal society. The key point is that the current situation - 8% of the poll and a tiny number of MPs - is not unique but has all too often been the case over the past half century. In the thirty years before the bad result of 1979, the Liberal party had similarly been at 8% or less in the opinion polls on and off for a total of ten years. In every such situation the party has regrouped, recovered its essential values and revived itself. It may well be the case in today's more volatile politics that this can be accomplished quicker than hitherto, provided that there is a sound basis for revival and an organisational plan for promoting it.

The Opportunity
Britain has arguably the most right wing Conservative Party since the war. It is dangerously nationalist and isolationist, it is insensitive to those in need, and it panders to selfish desires at the expense of any sense of community, public service or common citizenship. No talk of "One Nation" will make a difference - the Conservative leopard never changes its spots, it just rearranges their pattern from time to time. Its current list of promises will embitter swathes of families who need the help of the state for their basic needs, and will offend many individuals who have a sense of decency and fairness. When the actual effect of its policies is evident, it is going to suffer a significant loss of support. (The effectiveness of the Liberal Democrats in coalition in preventing much of these extreme policies being enacted may then well be realised but that will be history.) As Andrew Rawnsley wrote in The Observer (10 May 2015):

A vanishing majority, dissipating authority, a lot of cuts to come and expensive promises to keep, a fractured kingdom and an EU referendum that will split the Conservative party asunder. David Cameron should savour his 'sweet' victory while he can. History tells us that it will turn sour.

All the precedents are that a government with such a small majority will have it steadily diminished and removed by the attrition of by-elections over the years of the parliament. The Liberal Democrats need to be ready to fight by-elections wherever they occur, particularly the moment a vacancy occurs in a potentially winnable constituency.

The Labour party is in serious trouble. It has relied throughout its history on a core working class vote. Demographically this has diminished over the years but it believed complacently that there was still a significant swathe of people who had nowhere else to go politically and, however disenchanted they were with their circumstances, they would invariably vote Labour. With the success of the SNP in Scotland (and, for that matter, in votes if not seats, of UKIP in England), this election has brutally dispelled that assumption. All the commentaries since the election, from within and without the party, suggests that, fatally, Labour is looking for a strategy rather than a core belief.

The SNP has brilliantly focussed its strategy on the arrogant complacency of Labour and on the toxic alliance of the Liberal Democrats with the Conservatives. Even though, or perhaps because, it has delivered an SNP majority in Holyrood and an almost clean sweep of Scottish seats at Westminster, it is now paradoxically highly vulnerable. Nationalism is essentially a cul-de-sac which relies on continually feeding its dependants, inevitably at the expense of "outsiders", in order to justify what is fundamentally a non-ideological and essentially reactionary basis. Now out of the coalition, the Liberal Democrats are arguably in a stronger position than Labour to take on the SNP.

Because UKIP, with its appeal, in effect, of "back to the 1950s", could capture the "none of the above" vote, its comparative success was devastating to the Liberal Democrats. However, even in this election campaign it found itself in a huge and unresolvable dilemma: should it stick to its original focus on the UK out of Europe and, as a corollary, a virtual ban on immigration into the UK, or should it develop into a more mainstream party. It chose the latter and, while this did not affect much of its "Teflon" vote, it now appears to be tearing the party apart, as is the usual course of extreme right-wing parties. However, the lesson for Liberal Democrats is clear: we can no longer rely on capturing the protest vote but will have to make the cogent argument to counter the genuine fears that concern many UKIP supporters.

At this election the Green party became the haven for many idealistic and otherwise Labour supporters who saw the Greens as a party that was on the Left but was not a fringe party. The Green party position is not intellectually sustainable in that, as Ralf Dahrendorf set out (The Modern Social Conflict, 1988) the green imperative is not a separate philosophy but is an analysis of the acute situation that the planet is in. As such the green imperative must underpin the policies of all parties and, insofar as by being a separate party it leeches from the other parties those who accept that imperative, it actually damages the green cause. The Liberal party was always the party most aware of the green imperative and the Liberal Democrats can and must visibly become so again.

Britain is certainly not devoid of men and women who have a sensitive regard for the community as a whole and for those, at home and abroad, who are in need of assistance. Andrew Marr put it well in his New Statesman column after the election

Britain is brimming with relatively affluent (or at least comfortable) non-socialists who have a strong sense of community and social altruism. They support homelessness projects run by churches, they back local campaigns, they spend spare income not on bigger cars but on Oxfam appeals. They are good people. They just happen to be outside the immediate reach of the state. (The Night of the Wrong Knives, 15 May 2015)

Historically it is Liberals who have best understood this human trait and who have been able to recruit concerned individuals to work for political solutions to add to individual effort. The Liberal Democrats' current failure to make an impact on this constituency was palpably clear when the Church of England Bishops felt moved to issue their "letter" Who is my neighbour? at the outset of the election campaign. Presumably unconsciously, this is a remarkably politically Liberal analysis of the country's current malaise and of the Liberal prescription to transform it. It is simply a pity that it was not Liberals who were promoting it. It does with great if unconscious clarity, make the point of the kind of target Liberal Democrats should have for this appeal.

We have been here before, twice in my time, and have had the resilience and determination to recover. The problem was not that the electorate rejected Liberalism but rather that it was not offered it. The current leadership contest is a superb opportunity for candidates to articulate the party's vision and its values. It can be made the start of the party's revival.