Five things we must never do again
We must never again accept coalition with the Tories - Every time the party has entered into a coalition with the Tories it has come out seriously damaged. The one in the 1930s ended in a three way split and national irrelevance. This one might be worse. It is a near-death experience. We must never do this again. Why does this happen? Largely because we are a party built on values, not on protecting interests, and coalition with the Tories obscures the public's view of our values. We end up looking like a party of manoeuvre, caring only about holding office.
We must never again promote coalitionism - Much worse than entering a coalition is adopting the stance that coalitions are good in themselves because they bring 'stability'. If people want stability they vote Conservative. The final week of the 2015 campaign was ludicrous. Getting supporters to wave placards saying 'Stability' and 'Unity' was not only deeply illiberal (it looked like something out of Vichy France) it was also deeply stupid. It played into the Tories' main strength. A party such as ours, a party that wants change, cannot make stability its main goal.
We must never again push centrism - Saying that we are between the other two gets in the way of saying who we are and what we are for. Worse, it leaves us with a very small group of voters who believe that both the other parties are extreme. For all other voters, our argument reinforces the view that voting for us risks putting into power the people they were against. That is why we lost seats both to Labour and to the Tories.
We must never again ignore evidence – The party knew Nick was toxic. It knew that 'vote for us because the economy is improving' would not and could not work. But it did nothing.
We must never again fail to have the will to change - The party must never again refuse to change an obviously catastrophic course. It must never again allow itself to be bullied, bribed or bamboozled by a failed leadership into taking no action. Perhaps even more important, it should never again succumb to fatalism, to the argument that overwhelmed much of the party in 2014 that we had set our course and must accept whatever shipwreck came along.
Three things to do now
Clarify our values - We are a party of values or we are nothing. An effective party of values, however, needs to do certain things. The most important is to achieve clarity about its values. Parties that define themselves around collective interests (for example classes and nations) can afford to be vague about their political values – which both Labour and the SNP are. But we can't be vague. Some of our values are clear – internationalism, protecting individuality and non-conformity, hating bullying and the abuse of power, promoting environmentalism, protecting civil liberties and a love of democracy not so much because we think it efficient or effective but because it expresses a basic equality of respect for all individuals. But some of our values are not clear. Most significantly, what is our view of economic inequality? Do we, like Nick Clegg in his disastrous August 2010 speech, worry only about social mobility, or do we care about inequality of wealth in itself? I think most members do care about inequality of wealth, especially in its gross modern form. But the party is going to need to say so loudly and clearly.
Find new ways of promoting our values - Many people are now saying that we have to rebuild the party from local level, and especially through local government. But that is not enough. Previous eras of building up local strength too often turned into exercises not in promoting our values but merely in building up our electoral ground game. As we have just seen, a strong electoral ground game is no use against an overwhelming political defeat. We need new ways of promoting our values. My suggestion is that we need to organise the party in a new way, around campaigns that flow from our values, campaigns in which members can actively participate both at local and national levels. These shouldn’t just be clicktivism or public relations exercises. As in a local campaign to get something done, we should set out to make a real difference in the world. An immediate example is that we should organise our members to put pressure on MPs and ministers on the snooper’s charter, an issue on which the government’s small majority might easily fall apart. Similarly we will need campaigns to save the Human Rights Act, to preserve Britain’s place in Europe and, though it might be hard to win an anti-NIMBY campaign, against banning new onshore wind farms. We should also be campaigning against the forthcoming £12 billion benefit cuts and more broadly against state bullying of the vulnerable (something we seemed to have stopped doing recently). As in the original ‘dual approach’ to politics pioneered by the Young Liberals 45 years ago, we should be organising resistance both inside and outside political institutions, co-ordinating the two and encouraging citizens to join together to change policies and attitudes. We could even encourage members to choose topics for campaigns and facilitate campaign groups to emerge from the party. In the end, many members might think of their membership not just in geographical terms but also in terms of the campaigns they take part in.
Rebuild a core vote – One of the most disastrous aspects of the Clegg era was that just at the point the party was starting to develop a loyal core vote – roughly speaking, graduates, prospective graduates and the parents and grandparents of graduates – it launched an all-out attack on those very voters. But those voters are still there and still share our values. In fact, there are too few other people who share our values to make us a viable political force without them. So we have to win them back. Campaigning on issues connected with our values will help, but we also need to think about our policies in terms of values and our prospective core voters. That means a comprehensive audit of our policies to eliminate particularistic elements that have crept in over the years through lobbying or the accidents of geography. It is time for a clear focus on finding the natural supporters of Liberalism wherever they are, and rebuilding the party with them.