The party has been taken over by opportunistic careerists, and its real
supporters must act to save it, says Adrian Sanders
The Daily Telegraph recently published one of its usually scurrilous stories,
stating that Nick Clegg had ordered a radical re-branding of the party including
a new logo, new name and new approach, amid further rumours that ‘senior’ Lib
Dems were plotting a coup.
Apart from the usual problem of being almost entirely untrue and based on
anonymous sources, the story posed a very prescient point. The Liberal Democrats
are in trouble.
The problem is not wholly electoral. Council by-elections where we have a track
record and work hard show we can hold our vote. The May elections might not be
the Armageddon some have predicted for the party. Certainly, canvassing in my
patch looks better than the last full-council elections in 2007.
It is more a crisis of confidence and image, both within and without the party,
and this will be far more damaging in the long term.
Our grassroots activists are keen, idealistic and uncompromising. It was
inevitable that any coalition would raise a level of discontent; it simply has
so many more political ramifications than entering coalition at local authority
level – although it is there that you will find the professional advice based on
experience for how the leadership should be operating nationally in order for
the party to survive to the next election.
We could have done so much more to explain what we were doing, highlight the
successes, and more importantly show that we were fighting for what our members
and voters believe in.
We have also irrevocably damaged our public image. Public perception is hard to
build up but very easy to lose; it is also remarkably potent, far more so than
having fair and equitable policies or decent, upstanding candidates. We have
spent more than 20 years building up an image of trust, of straight talking, of
looking for radical policies that go to the heart of the social problems that
have befuddled previous governments, and most importantly of listening to and
working with people at a local level.
The way the party took to the coalition and the way it has behaved in government
have shattered all of this and we now face the brutal realisation that we have
fractured our core vote, lost a generation of young voters, and alienated
thousands of tactical voters in seats where it makes the difference between
electoral success or failure.
The message on the doorstep before the election was often “I support another
party, but you seem to have more integrity and do more for local people so you
have my vote.” Now it is “I used to vote for you, you still work hard for your
local area, but you are discredited and lied just like the rest of them.”
These people can be won back where we are able to communicate with them on a
regular basis. It’s the tens of millions of voters we have no contact with, who
get their political information from our opponents or their supporting
newspapers, who are presumably behind the opinion polls showing us losing up to
two-thirds of our support since the general election.
This is what it comes down to. The televised party leader debates in April last
year showed the potency of offering something that wasn’t just like the rest.
Our campaign wasn’t planned or run well enough to capitalise on this bounce and
our actions after the election showed that, rather surprisingly, we were just
like the other parties.
Better organisation on the ground, planned months and years out from the
election, might have seen us gain rather than lose seats.
Indeed, it seems like the leadership has done all it can to copy the method of
governance of Labour and the Conservatives.
Our grassroots has been effectively divorced from having input into what the
party leadership does. What our ministers do is often driven by special
advisers, who never have to face an electorate, and while some are very good and
understand this, others seem to have a cosier relationship with journalists than
the parliamentary party.
It is as if we had never even thought a coalition would occur before one
actually arrived. This is astonishing; while some of us have always viewed the
march to Downing Street as a slow, street by street, ward by ward, council by
council, constituency by constituency battle for an eventual majority in the
House of Commons, those who never believed in community politics and couldn’t
ever imagine a majority Lib Dem government were totally unprepared; the party
machinery was thrown into disarray, and it has still not recovered.
There were too many consequences of this. One was not having a plan for the loss
of Short money that paid for Liberal Democrat policy research and the ongoing
ability to challenge a better resourced Conservative or Labour half of any
coalition. Another was parliamentary party unity; we managed to split almost
four ways on tuition fees and, to come, we have the challenge of unity over an
NHS policy that should never have seen the light of day.
The lack of engagement between leadership and party is of some concern; I don’t
believe the leader spoke to our ministers in the Foreign Office or Ministry of
Defence before going for intervention in Libya, let alone sought out opinion
among us humble backbenchers before any decisions were made.
Not that parliamentary party meetings are fit for such a purpose. They are not
much of a forum for debate given the constraints on the leader’s time. Questions
are taken three or more at a time, with the leader’s answers rarely addressing
the detail of the expressed concerns. Consultations when they occur are merely
presentations on which MPs can comment. I’m sure there have been occasions when
the parliamentary party has changed government policy since May 2010, it’s just
that I can’t recall any.
With no debate, the party strategy of distancing itself from the ‘yes’ campaign
so that it was not seen as a Lib Dem campaign has been U-turned in panic just
weeks before the poll, on the orders of those who oversaw our poor general
election campaign and recent disastrous parliamentary by-election performances.
Since the sidelining of Chris Rennard, the talented campaigners in Cowley
Street, the regions and Hebden Bridge must feel like the proverbial lions led by
How on earth do we recover from this seemingly downward spiral?
The Telegraph suggests re-branding, but re-branding is what has got us into
trouble. Over recent years, our leaflets have moved from yellow or gold to Tory
turquoise, our strategy has moved from ground war to air war, and our leadership
has gone from principled long-term party servants to more pragmatic, dare I say
it, opportunistic careerists.
We don’t need to re-brand all of this, we need to sweep it away and return to
what the party is all about. A devolutionist, anti-authoritarian,
internationalist, pro-environment, fair-tax, socially progressive Liberal Party
in the tradition of Beveridge and Keynes, offering a non-socialist alternative
to the Tories and campaigning for a society where none are enslaved by poverty,
ignorance or conformity.
We need the leadership to start acting like the leadership of an independent
political party that just happens to be in coalition, not the leadership of a
coalition that seems to forget it has an independent political party to take
We need to fight for our backbenchers’ rights to challenge legislation from the
Liberal Democrat perspective, submit amendments and force them to the vote where
We need to support Lib Dem MPs with private member’s bills aimed at saving
lives, not cave in to Tory ideological anti-regulation objections.
We must stop acting as if we are in awe of the Tories. We need to remember, as I
have written before, that the Tories need us to enable them to govern far more
than we need to be in government.
The real challenge is that we seem to have let our party be taken over by a
culture that has diluted our basic principles. In the eyes of the public, we
have misplaced our integrity and lost our way.
It really has come to something that a ‘yes’ vote for an electoral system the
party doesn’t support might be viewed by some as a vote of confidence in the
leader. I doubt that’s the kind of rebranding those behind the Telegraph story
had in mind, but it’s where their actions could lead us.
Adrian Sanders MP describes himself as having “represented Torbay in the Liberal
interest since 1997”
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