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. 

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  • I agree with David. Just sent this email to a former Lib Dem MP: Dear XXX,

    I am so very sorry about the result for you, for your team and especially for your constituents in XXX. I was awake for the declaration – it was desperately sad to see.

    I wanted to be able to campaign for liberal values and to support you and people like you. So this General Election was very tough. I thought long and hard about what I should do. I really wanted to be able to come and campaign for you. In the end I could not, not because I don’t like and support you, and value and respect everything you have done for XXX over so many years. I really do. It was because I felt that the Liberal Democrats while in government had lost their values, had taken their supporters and activists for granted, because those in parliament and high up in the party made the mistake, as Labour did, of believing that a cry to activists of “Trust us, you know we share your values and instincts” was enough to remove principled doubts about illiberal and regressive policies in government and the lack of clarity about the party’s values in this election. In my opinion this attitude displays an arrogant disregard for the reason so many of us join a political party in the first place. It’s not about winning anything, it’s about making a stand for the values we hold so very dear.

    Coalition inevitably involves compromise. That does not excuse, in my opinion, a failure to articulate and stand up for liberal values at the very point when the best opportunity presented itself. The legal aid cuts have removed the possibility of a fair trial for hundreds of thousands of people. They leave vulnerable people, including victims of crime, domestic violence survivors and those without jobs or with homes at risk, without representation. The Justice and Security Act has made justice a myth for those who accuse our government of complicity in the most serious violation of human rights. Extending the Closed Material Procedure to any relevant civil claim has undermined, possibly fatally, the principles of the rule of law. It will take decades to undo this, if indeed it is possible at all. The shameful and entirely unjustified restriction of judicial review passed with Liberal Democrat support, including yours, will now make holding this regressive government to account even more difficult.

    The election was a very cruel and undeserved result for you and for so many of your colleagues who have served your constituents so faithfully for years. Sadly it was not undeserved in terms of the broader electorate, because what was it that the party offered? Seeking the so-called centre ground of politics (which arguably is well to the right of centre) does not inspie people, nor does it offer an opportunity to innovate. Blandness was not going to be enough to persuade people to support a minority party. The feeling amongst the public was, I think, that noone really knew any more what the Liberal Democrats believed in or would stand for in government. Eleventh hour policy red lines are no substitute for core values. The Labour party too has lost its way about who and what it stands for, and is paying a similar price.

    So I truly hope the Liberal Democrats take the opportunity to consider what it is the party actually believes in, what it will stand for, what it will not compromise on, no matter what. There has been very little of this in the last few years. In an FE meeting I attended in 2012 Ryan Coetzee said “I don’t believe in red lines”. This remark perhaps goes some way to explaining their very late appearance in the Lib Dem campaign. He may not believe in them, but many people, including the unaffiliated public, do. We believe in them, we need them, we rely on them through thick and thin because, without red lines, we are confused and lost. The things on which we will not compromise make it clear where we stand, and the things for which we can be relied.

    The party also needs to do some serious soul-searching about whether it really believes in substantive equality, meaning genuine fairness and opportunity for all, or simply formal equality. In my opinion the latter, sadly still advocated by many in the Lib Dems, leads to a situation where, if, for example, an institution has many more of one group than others in positions of power and authority, those in power point to the underrepresented and suggest it is their fault that they are not able to make progress. This is to ignore the reality of inequality in our country. The impact for the party is to deny the Liberal Democrats really talented principled voices who can relate to, speak for and so appeal to the diverse communities in our society for the good of all. There remain people in positions of power within the party who I believe should not have the privilege of membership, let alone public office.

    I am still a liberal, and a democrat. I have thought deeply in the last few days about whether I should rejoin the party. It is too early to say whether the failures I have set out here will be taken on board by what remains of the party hierarchy. So I will not be one of those rejoining the Liberal Democrats in a post-election rush of support, much as I understand and respect those who do. I hope still that one day the Liberal Democrats will become again the party of principle, standing up for what it’s members really believe in and what the preamble to the constitution states as its invaluable purpose.

    I urge you and all others with strong voices in the party to make saving the Human Rights Act the first campaign you take on as a red line.

    I hope you have a very good rest and send you all best wishes for the future,


  • This twit called Richard Reeves said, “Any attempt to position the Liberal Democrats as a party of the centre left after five years of austerity government in partnership with the Conservatives will be laughed out of court by the voters – and rightly so. Anybody who wants a centre-left party will find a perfectly acceptable one in Labour. The Liberal Democrats need centrist voters, “soft Tories”, ex-Blairites, greens.”

    Well that worked well didn’t it Clegg & Co? With many of you I spent 25 years building the Liberal Democrats, from the ashes of the merger. A bunch of Tim nice-but-dims have destroyed it in 7 years flat.
  • There is no contradiction between supporting PR and opposing coalitionism. Minority government is a perfectly acceptable outcome of PR. In New Zealand, for example, PR was introduced in 1996, since when there has almost always been a minority government.
    The consequence of being against coalitionism is, however, that the argument for PR has to change. It has to be that parliament needs to be more representative, not that the government needs to be more representative. It also implies arguing for a stronger parliament in relation to the government, which is a position I for one very much support and which the party has supported in the past.
    In 2011, New Zealanders voted to retain PR, so it seems that they at least like having a stronger parliament.
  • Where does this leave our commitment to electoral reform? To campaign for PR is inevitably an acceptance of coalition or near-coalition government in perpetuity. To abandon it now (when UKIP would be the main gainers rather than ourselves) would leave us trailing a movement which is just gathering momentum, and leave it looking like it was only ever a matter of party self-interest and not a principle at all.
  • Some good stuff here and I think your approach is right. In these dark days for the UK under the Tories there has to be a place for the voice of Liberalism.
  • Social Liberal Forum posted about david howarth: thoughts on the way forward on Social Liberal Forum's Facebook page 2015-05-09 19:11:51 +0100
    Thoughts On the Way Forward by David Howarth
  • @soclibforum tweeted this page. 2015-05-09 19:11:46 +0100