At many a hustings meeting it was my Tory opponent – a Government Whip - who was ‘generously’ trying to ‘big up’ the ‘wonderful contribution’ of the Lib Dems to the Tory led Government, whilst I was fast peddling in a different direction trying to differentiate and distance myself from the Tories. I was also trying to use the hustings meetings to explain that I was just as, if not more, concerned as the other progressive candidates (Green and Labour) with the implications of another right wing Government programme, such as the follies of renewing trident, extending benefit cuts or healthcare competition, and delaying Climate Change action (as the only Party with a practical plan to do so with our 5 Green Laws and Minister willing to argue for a 50% target at the forthcoming Paris summit). It seemed to perfectly encapsulate the Lib Dem dilemma and challenge of differentiation, and the struggle to change public perceptions that we were anything other than Tory lite – which has little appeal even to soft Tories as it makes them more likely to vote for the real thing, rather than for an alternative.
But the challenges did not stop there. I was standing in a seat where we had built up to a strong second place in 2010, but with an increasingly withering local organisation – and trying to run an integrated campaign of local and national messages, but with serving councillors only re-standing on condition that they could put as much distance between themselves and the Party with the Lib Dem logo almost invisible on their literature. Training on connect (which unhelpfully crashed on election day), e-campaigns and other methods of voter connectivity have never really percolated down as far as Suffolk.
As far as the local media were concerned there was a complete Lib Dem blackout so my regular press releases were routinely binned – even when I got Norman Lamb down to my patch for a packed public meeting earlier this year the local media wrongly reported it as a Department of Health visit, rather than a local Lib Dem initiative. Much of the PPC support material produced by HQ was unusable and read like fake Government press releases (although the stuff produced by ALDC was much more useful). And then came the wizard of Oz with the heart and the brain – but doesn’t everyone remember that the wizard was a fake and the whole thing was a dream anyway?
Persisting, I got myself about as much as I could in every community, hired a bus for a day, and stood in the District and Town Council elections also. I ended up with many more votes than any other Suffolk candidate delivered and got elected to Town Council also. But the blandishments from the Party not to do any work, give over all my time to held seats and gracefully accept that I would lose badly anyway so my deposit didn’t really matter, came fast and often – I did make time to help Bob Russell and Norman Lamb, but not at the expense of my own campaign or of complaints about ‘why don’t we see any Lib Dems around here’. Also given that elsewhere in Suffolk some of the candidates were literally paper candidates I regularly stood in for their hustings also, the alternative being that Suffolk voters would be presented with an empty chair for the Lib Dems.
I come back to reality and the aftermath of the predictable meltdown with a determination that never again should we have to go through a campaign like this one. The Party’s running internal battle between economically and socially liberal visions needs to be sorted out for good – and in favour of the latter; the former can only give our votes away to the Tories. We have to be much clearer that coalitions can only ever be a means to an end not an end in itself – and think about coalitions more in terms of ‘coalition of values’, rather than a horse-trading of minor policy items which voters don’t always understand (who as a candidate has time to spend a whole afternoon explaining to every voter the details of the pupil premium?)
Our Westminster leaders need to spend more time building alliances with civil society and more time out in all areas of the country, rather than SW1 or the places they know – only in this way will they find out what voters really care about, or how the public understand what Lib Dems have done in Government. For example I was regularly told that my Party had been privatising the NHS with more to come via the EU and TTIP; now that’s a completely wrong take on coalition health policy, but it was the perception nevertheless.
Finally, our Party needs to treat local parties better and not as mere leaflet deliverers – unless you live near a Party regional office or hub it’s nigh on impossible to get access to training and support, and grassroots members feel completely out of the Party’s decision-making processes – expensive bi-annual conferences shouldn’t be the only way that members can engage.