This is a long post – the version in my head is even longer – but it’s been gestating in various forms for a while and I wanted to get it out there while we’re thinking about the future of the party. To make it slightly easier, I’ve divided it into three parts – the first about the decisions the party made about its political positioning before 2010, the second about the decisions made with coalition and the effects they had, and the third about where we go from here.
Part 1: How did we get here?
‘Those who do not understand history are condemned to repeat it.’ If we’re going to look at where the party should go from here, we need to look at the process that brought us here, and for me that starts in the mid-90s as the party abandoned equidistance in favour of working more closely with Labour. Up until that point, our positioning had been best known by Spitting Image‘s Ashdown catchphrase: ‘neither one thing nor the other, but somewhere in between.’
However, after the shock of the 1992 election and the travails of the Tory Government that followed it, Paddy Ashdown began the process of shifting the party into being part of the anti-Tory bloc. This was rewarded with lots of tactical voting that led to the big by-election gains from the Tories, and also the party’s gains at the 1997 and 2001 general elections, only one of which (Chesterfield in 2001) came from Labour.
Things shifted after 2003 and the Iraq War. The party had already begun picking up council seats and councils from Labour, while losing ones gained before 1997 back to the Tories, but this accelerated, particularly in the North, culminating in a number of gains from Labour (and losses to the Tories) at the 2005 general election, coupled with a failure of the ‘decapitation strategy’ against senior Tories whose seats were perceived as vulnerable. After this, and particularly once Clegg became leader, the party began to move back towards ‘equidistance’.
That’s a simplified version of the strategy – there were lots of other currents going on at the same time – but I want to talk about it in general terms instead of getting bogged down in the details.
There’s a concept in the academic study of party systems, introduced by the late Peter Mair, called the structure of competition for government, which underlies other issues of the party system within a country. Part of it covers the way parties work together even while competing with each other in the electoral system. For example, in Sweden there are clearly separate left and right blocs of parties who tend to alternate with each other in government but a party from one bloc will not go into government with the other, while in the Netherlands, there are no clearly defined blocs so shifting between parties in government after elections is more fluid.
Britain’s post-war structure of competition was seen as being a very closed one, with just two parties competing for Government, and power alternating between the two. It had wobbled in 1974 and through the Labour government that followed, but reasserted itself in 1979. However, it broke down again after the 2010 election result, and we took the opportunity of that change to enter Government and formed the coalition with the Conservatives.
In the minds of many in the party, this was entirely natural decision. After all, we’d gone back to being equidistant between the parties, so we were free to choose whichever way we wanted to go, and there was no real way of forming a stable coalition with Labour. However, what I’d argue is that we catastrophically misjudged the mood of the public and their understanding of how the party system and structure worked. In their minds, we were still part of the anti-Tory bloc and so to line ourselves up with them was breaking our role in the system.
We’d convinced ourselves that returning to equidistance was right, but we’d failed to get that message over to the electorate – and indeed, our message to the electorate completely ignore that. In so many of our constituencies, we were fighting the Tories and putting out the message ‘vote for us to keep the Tories out’. Because the bulk of our seats were Tory-facing that’s the message the bulk of our voters got.
We also failed to notice that equidistant parties are incredibly rare in all political systems. People like to point at Germany’s FDP, but neglect to notice that they’ve only ever been in coalition with the SDP once, and that was over thirty years ago. The rise of the Greens as the SDP’s natural partner on the left since then made them a natural part of the CDU’s right bloc, not an equidistant party that can shift between the two of them.
There was a mismatch between the way we (especially the leadership) saw ourselves and the way our voters saw it. Joining coalition with the Tories exposed that rift.
Part 2: What the hell just happened?
It’s very easy to look back on May 2010 with 20/20 hindsight and imagine that everything that’s happened since then was entirely predictable. What we forget is that at the time nothing seemed predictable as the voters had delivered us into an entirely new political situation. Everyone was wandering in the dark and trying to guess the rules of this new political landscape, while the media – denied of the clear election result they expected – were howling at everyone to get on with it and give them something to report so they could move on to the next thing.
I still think the coalition was the least worst option available to us at the time and the other options on the table (confidence and supply, the rainbow coalition or just sitting it all out) would have led to a Tory majority government within 6 months to a year. However, I also think the process was ridiculously rushed and many parts of the decision-making process were made in the immediate post-election blur, rather than being discussed slowly and sensibly, giving much more time for a wider public discussion and a chance for us to assess the public mood.
The infamous Rose Garden press conference wasn’t a problem in itself. Indeed, it was probably a boon for the party in making Cameron and Clegg look like equals in the Government, and basic media management meant that they had to present a positive image at the start of the Government – imagine how bad it would have looked if they’d begun by looking like they could barely tolerate each other. The problem came with not seeing that as a temporary need at the time of establishing the new Government and instead taking that as the default mode for the party.
We completely messed up the politics of coalition. We were so determined to prove that coalition government worked that we let ourselves get caught up inside the machine and effectively went native. With a few exceptions, our ministers didn’t talk and look like liberals in government, but more like the government’s emissaries to the liberals. They decided their mission wasn’t to get as many of the wishes of the party and its voters into law, but instead to take what was decided by an increasingly remote government and attempt to persuade the party that that was it really wanted. Rather than justify compromises as the best we could get under the circumstances, we began talking about them as being somehow better than the position we started from and what we’d really wanted.
This led to the position of crowing about being ‘a party of government, not a party of protest’ which showed just how much wrong it was possible to combine into just nine words. The idea that these two ideas were polar opposites, the idea that the party was just about protest, the way it ignored the party’s role in local and devolved government over the decades, all combined to show that the leadership saw the party’s role as just another part of the beige consensus of the Governing Party of the elite consensus that dominates British politics.
All this led to the decision where we fought the election as a party of centrist managerialism, offering voters nothing more than the opportunity to split the difference between the two big parties. It’s not an inspiring vision, which can be seen by the way the slogans used to sell it kept changing. First ‘stronger economy, fairer society’ which then got ‘opportunity for all’ bolted onto it, which then was replaced by ‘Look Left, Look Right, Then Cross’ for the election broadcasts, which was then trumped by the ‘heart for the Tories, head for Labour’ gimmick which lasted till the final week of the decade when it was replaced by ‘Stability, Unity, Decency’ which sounded like the slogan of a dystopian dictatorship from Poundland.
The party forgot what it was for and the leadership tried to mutate it into something else during our time in government. The decision was made to let the necessities and limited possibilities of government define what our values would be rather than allowing our values to define what we would try and do in government. The message became a defensive one of managerialism and moderating other parties, rather than one of talking about what we wanted to do and what we stood for. We swallowed the managerialist mantra that the only thing people want from a political party is some form of nebulous competence, rather than making a liberal case for a liberal party.
Part 3: Where do we go from here?
I said on Friday morning that the election had been an extinction-level event. On reflection, it wasn’t quite that bad, but it would be easy to stumble on into extinction from this position. Centrist managerialism has been tested to destruction as a strategy and it has utterly failed. We’ve not just seen our number of MPs shattered, we’ve lost councillors across the country, slipped back to the fringes in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Senedd, and gone down to just one MEP.
It’s the worst position the party’s been in since the 50s and 60s, and back then we were able to grow in a gradual way because we faced almost no competition as the old voting behaviours broke down. There were no Greens and no UKIP, and the nationalist parties were only beginning to gain a toehold in by-elections. Now, we’re in an intensely competitive electoral battle, and hoping to gradually accumulate while we sit in the middle being neither one thing nor the other is not going to work. We have to stand for something, and be seen to stand for something – we have to make liberalism mean something to the people again.
I’ve banged on repeatedly for the past year (because Conrad Russell’s not here to do it) about how we as liberals need to understand that liberalism is fundamentally about power, and specifically about challenging unaccountable power and putting that power back in the hands of the people. In his resignation speech, Nick Clegg talked entirely rightly about how we risk losing the argument to ‘the politics of fear’, and one of the things that drive that fear is the utter powerlessness people feel, which causes them to lash out and blame innocent others.
Our first big post-war breakthrough came in 1974 with the message ‘Take power. Vote Liberal.’ and we need something like that as our core message, but not just a crude libertarian understanding of power that sees it only as something that comes from that state. We need to show that we’re about helping people take power over every aspect of their lives, in the economy and in society, not pretending that government is the only problem. The best way to counter fears is to give people the power to confront them and realise that they’re not a threat, and we have to be the party that will help people take that power back.
Coupled with that, we need to be the party of hope, optimism and positivity about the future. That means being a party that gives people reason to believe that the future will be better than today for them and their families, not just somewhere with more gadgets to fill their increasingly small houses in the diminishing free time they have from their precarious employment. We need to be the party that talks about how science and technology can transform and change society, bring real opportunity to everyone to live the lives they want, and not be afraid of offering people a radically different vision of society. Let’s not be afraid to bring out all those old radical ideas to the public – land value taxation, basic income, drug legalisation and all the rest – and not just offer a vaguely liberal tinge to the current consensus.
To deliver this, we need to review everything about the way the party works. The structures we have now are essentially those laid down in the late 80s, a period when the idea of mass membership parties hadn’t quite died and the communications revolution driven by the internet hadn’t begun. Starting from a blank slate we need to ask ourselves the question ‘if we were setting up a liberal political party in 2015, what would it look like, and how would it work?’ There needs to be flexibility in the way the party works, coupled with a structure that trusts members to do the right thing and doesn’t just regard them as foot soldiers to be directed from the centre.
With just eight MPs, we’re going to need new ways of working. Already, the media are barely mentioning us and we can’t assume that making worthy speeches in the Commons is going to change that. We need to be a force outside of Parliament, building alliances and being part of campaigns that champion liberal values against a Government that’s going to ride roughshod over them. However, we also need to recognise that we can’t do this on our own, and will have to work with others – we’ve shown coalitions in government are possible, so we should be willing to push them in opposition. When we’re in agreement with others, we shouldn’t let tribalism get in the way of doing so, and perhaps we should be considering that we’re going to need to consider electoral alliances if we want to achieve the reforms we want.
I’ve gone on for long enough here, and this is just part of starting the debate about where we go from here. From my perspective, if we’re going to survive and thrive we have to be a radically-minded party that’s willing to be different and challenge the consensus. Liberals shouldn’t be afraid to take risks, and we’ll have to take plenty of them if we’re going to make this country a better place.
(If you’re still looking for things to read about the future of the party after that, I’d recommend David Howarth, Alix Mortimer and Jennie Rigg, but there’s plenty of thoughts out there right now)