Last week I tried to focus three months' growing frustration at the lack of focus (or focus) from a Liberal Democrat party still shell-shocked from its May cataclysm.  It ended up, half-jokingly, being a parody of a tired party campaign-by-numbers format: the 'Six to Fix'.  As so often with such a device, I quickly realised, it missed the point. It doesn't matter if you fix the internals of the engine if the thing doesn't move.

The three months have coincided with a bigger challenge I had set myself.  While I had just about held onto my party membership under Clegg, unlike many other social liberals, I had cancelled my direct debit.  So any actual renewal involved positive physical effort.  My membership was due in September.  Three months on, and such is the chaos in the party HQ operation (one of the six) that it hasn't even emailed out a reminder.  After Syria, I am a lot less likely to renew, although the Federal Policy Committee's deliberations and adoption of a motion I authored has tempered the position somewhat.  

It is as much about the political as the moral judgment.  The Syria vote was for Parliamentarians an exercise in voting for people to be killed - whichever way you voted.  The most difficult choice of all.  However, it is one of a set of recent decisions (I will not repeat what I've previously written) in which positioning appears to have triumphed over a Liberal analysis of the issues at hand.  And in the politics of 2015, when trying not to upset anyone is neither realistic nor attainable as a political strategy, second-guessing your opponents is a strange response to an existential threat to your party caused by a failure to connect with the electorate.

Apart from the dire need to set out Liberal values at their absolute core - something Tim Farron has done admirably well over the refugee crisis, but less well on Trident and Syria; there is another need.  A strategy.  A sense of direction that means something to an electorate offered a different set of political choices into which traditional space for Liberalism does fit - I believe - but not as naturally or easily as it has done for a generation.  Direction that goes beyond mere dismay at the predictable Tory unpicking of honest work done in Government - as I have witnessed at first hand the Tories and their mates with vested interests unpick the reform of the tied pub sector.  Direction that talks to people as human beings, too; doing what Labour failed to do under Miliband and remains a difficulty for them, especially while those handling Jeremy Corbyn keep him away from the media.

The debate underpinning this strategy will involve - it cannot duck - taking on the unspoken divide at the heart of the party.  For while British Liberalism has always been and remains a proposition of the centre-left of British politics, it has always been at its most successful when it is able to appeal to all liberals.  It achieved this, however unwittingly, under Charles Kennedy's leadership by engaging liberals and the wider electorate as never before; but at a time when the Labour Party was disappearing down every illiberal rabbit hole it could find and the Tories were no more palatable a mainstream electoral proposition than Nigel Farage.  It should not use the arrogant and divisive language of former party staffers describing defeated colleagues and volunteers as 'fuckwits'. (And isn't it funny how losing 25,000 members was not regretted for one moment, but losing one seldom-heard-of person to his Tory home generates howls of outrage?). 

Neither should it obsess on the internal Labour Party debate to side with one faction of that party, as Farron has seemed to do in recent months - do that and you look irrelevant at best, or irrelevant props for the Tories at worst.  This is not 1981 or indeed 1983.

In Wales Kirsty Williams has at least carved out a tactical political space for the party.  A limited but appealing political offer wasn't enough in May, however, and her colleagues urgently need to broaden this offer as a more cohesive team. Meanwhile, in Scotland it is unclear what reasons there are for voting Liberal Democrat, outside the sadly few areas where the vagaries of first-past-the-post mean Liberal candidates stand a chance of getting elected.  For the list top-up vote which is all (realistically) the hope people in many areas have of using their vote positively, the Lib Dems have not even chosen a full list of candidates.   Their leader has spent much of the year telling party members, patronisingly, to suspend critical faculties and do whatever their leader tells them.  That there is little if any policy that describes what a Liberal Scotland looks like is down to a number of reasons, but leads to a feeling (which most Scottish Lib Dems would instinctively revile, but probably agree has some truth) that the party is a branch office of the Westminster operation.  A more enlightened unit might want to think a little more strategically and start to set out the sort of radical ideas that the Westminster establishment would revile, and that the innate conservatism of the Nationalists would never allow.  The possibility of implementing Land Value Tax highlighted in the cross party Local Tax Commission report would be a good example of this.

Of course, those who term themselves 'centrists' would never do such a thing.  Adherents to this meaningless term unconnected to Liberalism would be too busy looking over their shoulders, currently to the right (as their 1980s predecessors Messrs Toynbee and Owen did to their left).  It is notable that they do not tend to call themselves liberals.  Not for them the business of providing political leadership and the intellectual rigour of providing the solutions to the problems facing people in Britain.  They are more comfortable abusing others on social media and claiming the most illusory political purity for a concept that, like El Dorado, does not even exist.  Most are still on the Nick Clegg Kool-Aid; I hope a suitable antidote can be provided when they eventually hear of the election results of May 2015.  As a strategy, centrism under First Past The Post is the equivalent of standing on a busy road with no central reservation, shutting your eyes and hoping you don't get mown down by a truck. A non-strategy based on a non-ideology, in short.

And in London Caroline Pidgeon's bid to be Mayor has been torpedoed before it began by a torrent of 'friendly fire' from libertarians about the Uber taxi system - largely accusing her of saying things she didn't say.  That Uber debate could have been part of a useful wider debate around the respective limits of free market economics and regulation in the Internet age; indeed, given the dubious practices in much of the taxi trade across the UK, a doubly interesting one where Liberals of all kinds could have led.  Instead, that debate did not take place (the party's London region evidently didn't feel it important enough), so it was substituted by an absolutist slanging match on the cruder forms of social media, devoid of facts or evidence.  The protagonists, some of whom called for a Re-Open Nominations campaign to block Caroline's candidacy just months before the London elections, preferred personal abuse to rational debate. Is that the biggest issue in London?  Of course not.  Is it utterly shameful to torpedo a campaign across the biggest city in the country for narrow ideological purism?  Of course it is.  Especially when that city is home to a disproportionately high number of the Lib Dems' new members.  Caroline must have felt vindicated when she topped the poll for the London Assembly list by a huge margin, whereas her incumbent colleague lost his place.  I hope she is now able to concentrate on spreading a very positive Liberal Democrat message to a city that really needs it.

Liberals, meanwhile, have some important decisions to take.  Some actually transcend intra-party lines.  Chairing the housing debate at the party's conference struck me as one such, where the debate had moved.  Liberals had a tendency to be in favour of housing, except in their ward.  Only one of the 80+ people applying to speak in the debate wanted to make that point.  Some talked before the debate about the need to review or reclassify the Green Belt, to create additional housing land.  However, nobody dared submit a card to speak on it.  I would have welcomed that debate and called anyone wanting to make those points (and years ago when representing part of the Green Belt on David Cameron's council, I spoke and voted in favour of reviewing it).  The realities of building the number of homes Britain needs, in the places they are needed, are in England at least understood by neither the Tories nor Labour.  The opportunity of providing a positive and for once more unified vision is there for Lib Dems of left or right.  For those and other obvious reasons the policy review is not a 'business as usual' exercise: it must be attuned to tackling the threat the party faces, support the long-overdue building of a core vote and wider campaigning.

It should be apparent to most Liberals now that the party's place in political debate, in Parliament and the broadcast media in particular, is sadly much diminished.  To remain relevant is an existential challenge.  Recovering the pre-2010 electoral position will not happen of its own accord.  So we need to make the argument in both intellectual and campaigning terms.  Too little is happening on either front, although there are some good signs - not least Norman Lamb's leadership on an issue too many Liberals have ducked, that of reforming Britain's archaic drug laws.  The highlight of my post-May year in politics (of a small field) is the Lib Dem decision to break with convention in the Lords and try and block Tory tax credit cuts.  It was a moment of genius that broke with the past under Clegg and years of accepting measures that increased in-work poverty (an inexplicable contortion that helped the Tories win the election).  It also showed up the timidity of Labour in Parliament.  Most importantly, it resulted in change.  Liberal Democrats should keep running with that baton and describe a future in which the working poor are supported and encouraged.  No other party would do so.  Those who support Tory welfare cuts will find it uncomfortable.

Part of the problem Tim Farron inherits is an intellectual vacuum on key issues like welfare or the economy, because the party has feared dissent (originally for different reasons).  It can no longer be silent on those issues and I am confident the party, through formal processes, will create a thorough and civilised debate on both.  Quite unlike the depressing fudge on Trident, in fact.

The second challenge is in campaigning.  The articulate vision Tim has set out on housing and refugees has met no internal dissent; it now needs to be broadened and turned into reality, actual bits of paper with which the party can reconnect with the general public.  After too much campaigning that has been inconsistent and values-free, there is a golden opportunity to go and show what Liberal values are and what the Liberal Democrats stand for. So on top of the inspirational speeches, we need the materials from which come leaflets and street stalls.  Physical engagement with real human beings, not the often illusory engagement with self-selecting groups on the internet.  Materials that not only oppose this wretched Tory Government - and we need to do that too, to point out it was us and not Labour who secured the U-turn on tax credit cuts, for example - but materials that set out positive Liberal alternatives, based on our values, and get people out campaigning in communities

And after all, what point is there in a party without values?  They become weathervanes; directionless, prone to manipulation and abuse - devoid of any reason why anyone would possibly vote for them.  Precisely, in other words, the criticism I heard of the Liberal Democrat in the 7 held seats I knocked on doors in April, and from non-party friends and acquaintances since.  

Although this has been the hardest year for British Liberalism, certainly in my lifetime.  I want to end on an optimistic note, taking some less than optimistic words from my much-missed colleague Simon Titley.  In 2011 he wrote that 'the Lib Dem vote is like a bath with the taps left on and the plug left out. Consequently at each successive election, the party has to put a disproportionate effort into winning its previous vote afresh. It can’t build out from a base because it hasn’t got one.'  

At last, the post-Clegg era gives us the chance to put that right. 


Showing 8 reactions

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  • Apologies for not responding earlier.

    Hazel – the optimist in me would like to think you are right, and that this is possible across the country. Sadly, experience suggests the party internally is getting less tolerant of dissenters even when those are constructive. The current debates about how to go about Parliamentary candidate selection are an example (and the decision to rush the debate forward rather than consult on a range of options has exacerbated this). Many battle-weary activists lack the inspiration from which derives the motivation for ‘one more heave’.

    Ian – I hope the preamble to the General Election review offers some hope. While the party signed up to coalition, the review quite rightly picks up a number of the howling errors made in government. In terms of setting out an agenda, SLF has tabled a wideranging economics motion to Spring Conference in York which is based around the principles you and I (both) espouse.
  • As a former Cllr and PPC who has put my head above the barricade on several occasions, I am disappointed by the attitude of a number of people who reject the Liberal Democrat Party because of their “personal” views . I totally agree with Gareth in his notion that we have lost our way, and need a strategy which fits the needs of the public not ourselves. This will not change if people with valid and logical views stand on the sideline and shout vociferously. at the those of us who get our hands dirty. If your Liberty, your freedom to be who you are and the wherewithal to make it happen matters at all you should be inside the Party and influence us with positive ideas, tactics and support. That’s why I joined my Regional Executive to make positive change happen.
  • Trying to find out how this system works!

    Hear, hear Mr Epps;
    As one who returned his membership card in disgust when he realised what the coalition really meant I am glad to note that there is some discussion going on about how to pick the LibDem party off its knees. The country desperately needs a voice between the drift of the Labour party and the destructive venom of the Conservative party.
    I am unlikely to return to the fold until it is quite clear that the party repudiates the mess it made in agreeing to the terms of the coalition and sets out an agenda of the centre left based on representing individuals – citizens, not subjects – against vested interests be they big unions, big state or big business. This was the message I received in the days of Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy as leaders. When I retired and moved to Somerset I was really pleased to find myself in a constituency which had just returned an LD MP.
    For the first time since I had stopped voting ‘old’ Conservative after the Selsdon conference (yes I’m getting on in age) my vote really counted.
    At the last election I repudiated the LD party and in desperation voted Green. The Greens and UKIP did rather well in this constituency and wiped out the LD vote, so now we have a Tory. It gives me no pleasure but in my book the LD party’s grandees deserved the thrashing they got.

    With the Labour party probably pressing the self destruct button and the Tories the national destruct button there is a golden opportunity to do again what the SDP-Liberal merger achieved, which was to carve out a genuine role in the centre ground. Will those who are involved in devising the LD party’s future strategy/vision/philosophy be able to come up with a credible message and, equally importantly, find ways of transmitting it to the public?

    Incidentally I recently had a light bulb moment while contemplatiing the Corbyn phenomenon, the LD mess and a comment in a book about Danish electoral turnouts being over 70% while ours are trending below 50%. We moan about the English (British is another matter) repudiation of the existing political system. If we had achieved proper proportional representation we could contemplate a parliament with substantial UKIP and far left Labour representation but then there would centre parties of pink, yellow and blue hues which would be contesting the gap in between. This would scare the wits out of our machine politicians but enfranchise many more voters and perhaps produce a healthier and responsive political climate. The current glaring misrepresentation and fragmentation may be the right timing for educating the public in the democratic benefits

    Well, I am not now an LD party member so I am perhaps an unwelcome intruder but I thought I would comment on the thread of discussion about the many thousands of moderate lefties who abandoned the party at the last election. The why is self evident.

    Having found this forum I will continue to monitor it to see if there is any light at the end of the LD’s dismal tunnel.
  • Rob,
    I was referring to the way the London Uber debate was used during the selections for the Mayoral and GLA candidates (about which more can be said, but probably on another day). That some party activists spent weeks or months attacking Caroline, mostly in public on social media, often without having read what she was actually saying, was indeed shameful and damaging. That a debate was held at the end not the start of the year was bad management.

    The motion, though, would be helpful in other parts of the UK where corruption sadly is part and parcel of the taxi trade, in framing a debate which is also about localism and its limits.
  • There’s lots of good stuff in here but your characterisation of the London Uber debate is just wrong.

    The London Region debated Uber at our Regional Conference in November, and passed a policy motion, that I’ve pasted in full below.

    As you’ll see it strikes a good balance between our general belief in competition and the power of technology to improve the world, with the challenges that it can pose too, especially around tax evasion.

    I’m sure different people will have different views on the exact balance of regulation – but the idea that we ducked this debate, which also came up in the London regional hustings among other places, is completely wrong.

    Conference motion

    Conference notes:
    • The growth of the digital economy and its growing importance as part of London’s
    economy.
    • The increased use of digital technology in improving the safety, convenience,
    availability and value for money of taxis and private hire vehicles through services like
    Hailo, Gett, Kabbee, Uber, GetTaxi, Green Tomato and MiniCabster.
    • That Private Hire firms are not currently under any duty to provide wheelchair-friendly
    cars.
    • That Transport for London are currently consulting on new rules for the regulation of
    private hire vehicles.
    Conference believes that:
    • London needs a thriving taxi and private hire sector.
    • Customer safety must be the paramount concern in Taxi and Private Hire licensing.
    • Technology has a useful role to play in improving the services to passengers and
    reducing costs.
    • All drivers and minicab firms should pay the requisite tax on UK earnings and that the
    use of technology to track journeys, and in some cases fares, will help to improve tax
    compliance.
    • All taxi and Private Hire drivers should have a level of basic competence in English so
    that they can communicate easily with their passengers.
    • Firms which provide large numbers of Private Hire Vehicles (such as Addison Lee and
    Uber) should be obliged to provide a substantial number of wheelchair accessible
    vehicles.
    Conference welcomes a number of elements in the TFL Consultation, including:
    • The requirement for Private Hire drivers to speak English.
    • The proposed 100 new taxi ranks by 2020.
    • Improved enforcement of rules against ‘touting’ and unlicensed drivers.
    • The proposal that a copy of the Hire and Reward insurance must be displayed / carried
    in the vehicle at all times
    • The proposal to establish an Ombudsman type role for complaints about Private Hire
    Vehicles.
    However, Conference does not support artificial restrictions on Private Hire which will not
    improve safety or customer service in particular :
    • A forced waiting period after booking.
    • Restricting the information that can be seen on apps – unless it can be shown that an
    App is not generally displaying accurate information
    • Forcing drivers to only work for one firm.
  • There’s lots of good stuff in here but your characterisation of the London Uber debate is just wrong.

    The London Region debated Uber at our Regional Conference in November, and passed a policy motion, that I’ve pasted in full below.

    As you’ll see it strikes a good balance between our general belief in competition and the power of technology to improve the world, with the challenges that it can pose too, especially around tax evasion.

    I’m sure different people will have different views on the exact balance of regulation – but the idea that we ducked this debate, which also came up in the London regional hustings among other places, is completely wrong.

    Conference motion

    Conference notes:
    • The growth of the digital economy and its growing importance as part of London’s
    economy.
    • The increased use of digital technology in improving the safety, convenience,
    availability and value for money of taxis and private hire vehicles through services like
    Hailo, Gett, Kabbee, Uber, GetTaxi, Green Tomato and MiniCabster.
    • That Private Hire firms are not currently under any duty to provide wheelchair-friendly
    cars.
    • That Transport for London are currently consulting on new rules for the regulation of
    private hire vehicles.
    Conference believes that:
    • London needs a thriving taxi and private hire sector.
    • Customer safety must be the paramount concern in Taxi and Private Hire licensing.
    • Technology has a useful role to play in improving the services to passengers and
    reducing costs.
    • All drivers and minicab firms should pay the requisite tax on UK earnings and that the
    use of technology to track journeys, and in some cases fares, will help to improve tax
    compliance.
    • All taxi and Private Hire drivers should have a level of basic competence in English so
    that they can communicate easily with their passengers.
    • Firms which provide large numbers of Private Hire Vehicles (such as Addison Lee and
    Uber) should be obliged to provide a substantial number of wheelchair accessible
    vehicles.
    Conference welcomes a number of elements in the TFL Consultation, including:
    • The requirement for Private Hire drivers to speak English.
    • The proposed 100 new taxi ranks by 2020.
    • Improved enforcement of rules against ‘touting’ and unlicensed drivers.
    • The proposal that a copy of the Hire and Reward insurance must be displayed / carried
    in the vehicle at all times
    • The proposal to establish an Ombudsman type role for complaints about Private Hire
    Vehicles.
    However, Conference does not support artificial restrictions on Private Hire which will not
    improve safety or customer service in particular :
    • A forced waiting period after booking.
    • Restricting the information that can be seen on apps – unless it can be shown that an
    App is not generally displaying accurate information
    • Forcing drivers to only work for one firm.
  • Social Liberal Forum posted about What the Liberal Democrats need for 2016: a strategy on Social Liberal Forum's Facebook page 2015-12-30 15:26:37 +0000
    Gareth Epps writes that what the Liberal Democrats need for 2016 is... a strategy
  • @soclibforum tweeted this page. 2015-12-30 15:26:33 +0000
    Gareth Epps writes that what the Liberal Democrats need for 2016 is... a strategy http://www.socialliberal.net/what_the_liberal_democrats_need_for_2016_a_strategy?recruiter_id=7837