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345 – Danger stalks a damaged party
08 April 2011 (20:30:10)

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.

IRREVOCABLY DAMAGED

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.

INTO DISARRAY

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 donkeys.

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 into consideration.

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 appropriate.

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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