A few lessons from last month’s disaster
I’ve been thinking about the lessons the Lib Dems can learn as a party from last month’s debacle at the council elections and the AV referendum, and have come to a few conclusions that seem a little different from the consensus on the ‘blogosphere’.
We need to concentrate more on constitutional reform
Everyone seems to be saying “Well, we lost the AV referendum, that shows that the public don’t care about constitutional issues, so we should concentrate on bread-and-butter managerial stuff that people care about, and give up on Lords reform.”
Firstly, what people want and what is the right thing to do are two different things. This is undoubtedly the only time in my lifetime we’ll be able to get Lords reform – it’s not like we’re going to get a second term, is it? – and the way the system is set up directly affects all those things that people *do* care about.
Secondly, Lords reform is a far less controversial area than reform of the Commons electoral system. I’ve lost count (literally) of the number of times I’ve had this conversation with my dad, a typical Labour voter:
“I’ll never vote for that AV thing, it’s a load of rubbish, a miserable little compromise [thanks Nick...] and it’s just to keep the Lib Dems in power for ever. Now what you really should do if you care about democracy is get the Lords elected.”
“Well, we are doing that…”
“You only went into this to get AV and you’re not even going to get that, you should get the Lords elected instead.”
“We’re doing it as well…”
“Get the Lords elected instead.”
But also, a point to remember – more than twice as many people voted ‘yes’ in the referendum than voted for us!
For every Lib Dem voter there’s at least one more person out there who *doesn’t* yet vote for us but *does* like our position on constitutional matters. And those people are *passionate*. They voted Yes despite one of the most inept political campaigns I’ve ever seen or heard of (as Millennium put it, it appeared to be run by people who’d masterminded a lot of third place triumphs in General Elections for the Lib Dems, so they considered second place an improvement). The 60% who voted no didn’t, as far as I can tell, really care that much either way – they had a slight preference, and they expressed it, but many of them were voting to ‘get Clegg’ or ‘to break up the coalition’ or (in a few insane cases) because they wanted more radical reform.
When you’re on 17% of the vote, going after the 40% who passionately agree with you is probably better strategically – as well as being the right thing – than going after the 60% who mildly disagree.
We need to link our principles explicitly to our actions
Community politics works. It not only wins us elections, but it’s undoubtedly the morally right thing. Work with communities, find out what those people want, and help them to bring it about themselves, rather than imposing something on them. It’s both the liberal thing to do and an election-winning thing to do.
There was, however, a rather good cartoon posted on Lib Dem Voice recently, an old one from the 80s:
(Interesting that it’s an SDP politician. From what I can gather (being a small child at the time) they were rather less keen on the community politics stuff than the Liberals were in the Alliance days.)
There’s an element of truth in that, but it slightly misses the point.
People vote for us because they like that we get the potholes in their roads fixed. The problem is, they don’t know *why* we get the potholes in the roads fixed. WE know that community politics is a valuable Liberal tradition and springs from everything we believe in. THEY don’t know that. Which means then that people get upset when we act in unpredictable ways like going into coalition with the Tories rather than just being the slightly fuzzier, squishier version of Labour. Or WE get upset when people who tell us they’re lifelong Lib Dem voters also tell us they’re going to vote against AV, because they’re not interested in reform.
If I were to establish a rationale for Liberal Democrat ideology, I would start like this:
Each of us is on this planet for a relatively short period of time. In that short time, each of us seeks to lead a good life. But, each of us has a unique personality and so each person will have a distinct idea of what will fulfil them. Therefore, the only person who can decide what constitutes a good life is ourselves; it is not something others can decide for us. To be able to make those decisions, we need freedom – not merely an absence of restraint but the practical ability to exercise freedom; not merely a ‘chance’ at the start of our lives but an ability that lasts throughout our lives. Hence we should see freedom in terms of ‘agency’, which means the capacity of individuals to make meaningful choices about their lives and to influence the world around them.
Our political mission is therefore to ensure each person’s freedom.
Our starting point is our humanity. We value people above things; we do not make a fetish of the state or of markets.
We should rework our policies to better fit values like this (Jennie has a great suggestion re: employment law for starters) – right now everything should be up for consideration. We should look at all the old Liberal ideas like a citizen’s income (especially since we’re pretty much getting that with the benefit reforms), Land Value Tax (especially since Vince seems quite keen on the idea in principle), zero-growth economy (could easily appeal to the Green vote) and so on, and see if any of them are worth bringing back – possibly in a modified form, but worth consideration. Drug law reform. We’re down to our core vote, so we have little to lose – let’s try to have a genuinely radical set of policies to go with the people in the party.
(Note I’m not suggesting we actually go with any of those particular things as policies – I have very, *very* little knowledge or understanding of economics, and for all I know I’ve just said “why don’t we consider dooming the whole planet to dying of starvation?” – but they’re all ideas that have long had a currency in the Lib Dems and our predecessor parties, and so they’re the kind of ideas we should be looking at.)
But we also need to link those policies, and our actions in local government, to our principles in a very obvious way. We need to start talking about political philosophy.
I don’t mean we need to be handing out copies of John Stuart Mill [and Harriet Taylor], like the Gideons, or turn into a SWP-like debating society (“Well, I think you’ll find that Keynes said…”, “If you’d only *read* Michael Meadowcroft’s position paper from 1981, The SDP Are All A Bunch Of Bastards, you would *know* why you were ideologically wrong!”, “We must expunge every trace of reformist Grimondism from the party and get back to the true Liberalism of Lloyd George! An end to female suffrage!”). What I mean is that our campaigning should, along with saying *what* we’re doing, say *why* we’re doing it.
Come up with some simple bullet-point summary of Liberalism – four or five points, something like the preamble to the constitution – and make sure one of them’s on every page of every Focus. If you have “Lib Dems fight to save local schools” page, put something on there about the principles of valuing education and of valuing independence from centralised decision making. Nothing huge, just a box with a bullet point at the bottom – “Helping people to help themselves is one of the Lib Dems’ key principles. Find out more at http://libdems.org.uk/what-we-think “.
That kind of thing will, hopefully, help convince our voters to think more liberally and convince liberals to think of voting for us.
And finally, for now (I have some thoughts on co-operation with other parties, which might not be what you’d expect from me, but I’m saving them for later as this is long enough as it is):
Things are going to get better for the party
I know a lot of tribal Labour people who spent much of the last year attacking the Lib Dems quite viciously. After the council election (and the recent hatchet-jobs on certain Lib Dem MPs by the right-wing press) they seem to have stopped. The public mood appears now to have swung against attacks on the Lib Dems and more to feeling sorry for us. “They’re not that bad really.” “I don’t like that Clegg but it’s a shame that Councillor X lost hir seat”. Richard Herring (a comedian I like but who has been one of the more vitriolic critics of the coalition) said of the council election results “It’s like breaking into the Top Gear studio with a gun with one bullet and then using it to shoot Richard Hammond when Jeremy Clarkson’s right there”. Plenty of other people have said things like “I think the Lib Dems were just naive, they’ve been tricked by the Tories. It was their own fault, but the Tories are to blame.”
That may not sound comforting, but these are people who were spouting utter *hatred* about the party fairly recently. Some of them no doubt will again. But I think the attacks on us have started to lose public sympathy, and over the next few months we’re going to turn more and more into the underdog in the public’s eye. Which is not a good place to be, but it’s better than being the whipping boy.
[NB I have used the word tribal in this post. I dislike this word and consider it to have racist connotations. However, I don't know of a better word for it.]