The days to come are going to be a severe test of the mettle and nerve of the party as we try to impress and connect with our voters. We are still a party of reasonable, idealistic souls set on improving our community, our nation in a way that balances individualism and free expression with the need to promote social harmony and the sheer joy of human togetherness. We are in a word still “Liberals”.

But we have been through some strange experiences that have scarred us and blurred the public view of who and what we are - so we fight under a burden. I am not talking about the perils of government and having to make tough decisions in severe financial circumstances. Nor am I talking about the misapprehension of those who formerly thought we were a brand of “Labour-lite”. I am glad people know we can make tough decisions and are not closet socialists. If our burden was just that, it would be not be heavy at all.

What slows our footsteps, weighs us down and holds us back in the polls is the result of the party falling under the spell of two dangerous enchantments or delusions.

The first enchantment was assuming that being a party of government meant being a party of the establishment. Some actually spoke of building a “Liberal Establishment” as though we had never thought there was something fundamentally wrong in the way the country was run. We now have a parliamentary party replete with knights and privy counsellors but no new by-election gainers. We settled for the parliamentary choreography, convention and culture of the old dysfunctional system - two sides, black and white politics.

The second enchantment was the spell cast on the party by the Orange Book - the view that there was a huge haul of votes to be won from polite Tories who might vote for us in droves if we mimicked the kind of rhetoric they favoured and the policies they warmed to - put the accent more on opportunity and less on equality.

These new, target voters were called “considerers” - perhaps Tories with socially liberal attitudes. Sadly they are still “considering” when canvassers call now, but will go and vote Tory as usual on the day. This dismal truth has dawned on people like Jeremy Browne but they will doubtless claim that the pitch the party has made to the considerers was not clear or emphatic enough.

This strange spell can be the only reason why we did not block the re-modelling of the state the Tories aspired to through pointless legislation like the Health and Social Care Act, the Academies Act, the creation of Police Commissioners; why we did not put the brakes full on when it was clear that charming Tory ideologues - like Oliver Letwin and Michael Gove were in the driving seat.

This confused many people who ordinarily vote for us and indeed join the party and who now the party is working overtime to win back. They cannot be fairly dismissed as mere protest voters or portrayed as Guardian-reading teachers, clad in leather-elbowed corduroy jackets. They are a mixed demographic but one thing they have in common is a belief in communal institutions which ensure a degree of fairness in society and a fear of where naked self-interest may take us all. It’s probably as vague as that.  

They know that success and failure in this world can be both fortuitous and fickle and that a good society is one which recognizes and responds to that. Opening a new world of opportunity and simultaneously weakening the communal institutions - local government, public control over the NHS, education - legitimately bothers Liberal voters.

The problem with modern politicians is that they pay more attention to economics than to sociology. In government the SPAD (Special Advisor), has often been more influential than the spokesperson, and it is to be expected that young, upwardly mobile, metropolitan folk who populate the policy teams, press corps and think tanks would overlook the wider public anxiety on these issues.

It is thus left to every candidate serious about his or her chances to provide the reassurance that the party nationally has so far failed to do. To be fair the national campaign messages endeavour to do much the same but have to cope with the fact that we have never quite recovered from the trashing of our own brand that occurred during tuition fees.

Successful candidates will need to get up close and personal with their electorate to make clear what they will or will not stand for. That means for every sitting MP defending and explaining their personal record in government.

More people will vote for a Lib Dem than will vote Lib Dem. With the prospect of more coalitions ahead some feeling for the candidate’s red lines, an appreciation of their underlying values is probably a necessary condition of success. Necessary but not sufficient - as an awful lot of voter contact and communication will be badly needed too. That’s where we can all offer effective help.

The next parliamentary party will have the onerous job of reviving the Liberal brand. It will help that it will mostly be grounded people trusted and liked by their own electorates. Liberals understand though that none of this happens by accident or some inexorable law of historical destiny. It hinges on the actions of many and the people reading this. You have a chance in the next few weeks to help determine the future character of the party and the fate of those who can shape it.

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  • Correction: “if that weren’t so, I’d have left the party”! Lost track of my grammar.
  • An excellent article. John might have added that David Howarth’s analysis from the British Election Survey shows that socially liberal, economically conservative voters could share a taxi. They hardly exist.

    I’m sorry about Robert’s charges. He’s right that our leaders have lost their way in – and perhaps before – government. But for a start, it shows precisely the kind of attitudes we must fight as Liberals, to talk as if a poor performance as a team in government and at HQ means “you have sold out”. We’re a party and a movement, much bigger than a few ministers and party managers and PR people. If that weren’t so, SLF wouldn’t exist. If that were so, I’d have left the party.

    It’s also clear to me that the SNP’s arrogance in power has exceeded that of the Tories or even New Labour, centralising and arming police against local wishes, bullying “off-message” people; so no-one with a trace of Liberalism, even if supporting Scottish independence, should consider them. Plaid Cymru, though, I’d consider if I were in Wal;es and had given up on the Liberal Democrats.

    Finally, that picture. Is John angling to become a pier?
  • I do not know to be honest I doubt many people see you as labour lite these days, but more or less the return of the Whigs. Being disabled I no longer bother to vote for you or labour or the Tories, if I was in Scotland I would be in the SNP, in England as yet I do not see a political party as yet UKIP is to far to the right, Labour is in the center to scared to move left or right the Tories are the Tories and the Liberals have become anything to the party that wants them or needs them,

    What a waste you have had five years in power and sold out…
  • Thank you John, and excellent analysis. I particularly appreciate the line about dismissing internal critics as ‘guardian reading teachers’. I am neither, nor a wearer of leather elbow pads, but I have offered a similar critique at times and been duly insulted by people who see any failure to tow the line as treasonable! We need to encourage not discourage our supporters!
  • @soclibforum tweeted this page. 2015-02-03 13:53:45 +0000
    John Pugh MP writes about two spells the Liberal Democrats are under and why they must be broken
  • Social Liberal Forum posted about Two spells that need to be broken on Social Liberal Forum's Facebook page 2015-02-03 13:53:45 +0000
    John Pugh MP writes about two spells the Liberal Democrats are under and why they must be broken