Since the general election, I’ve been awaiting the inevitable analysis of Lib Dem second and third places. But as I haven’t seen one forthcoming, I thought I would compile my own. Liberal Democrats stood in 631 constituencies – every one of the UK’s 650 constituencies, except the 18 Northern Ireland seats, and the Speaker’s seat. The one figure I have seen bandied about was that there were 335 Lib Dem lost deposits; or 53.1% of candidates put up by the party.
In his latest article, Ryan Coetzee has said that, despite our humiliating losses, we made a coherent liberal case to voters - offering them a stronger economy and a fairer society. Did we? I missed it. What we did talk about, however, was the records and offers of the other main parties, rather than discussing our own. "The Tories will cut far too much" and "Labour will spend far too much". All true, yes - but where are we in that? I fear, when you look at the results of areas where our data was horribly wrong, our campaigning did something awful. We activated the other parties' voters.
I have been trying to make my thoughts coherent, and they refuse to budge beyond a certain stage, so perhaps my readers can help me out.
For a long time I have been uncomfortable about the divide, constructed by people on both sides, between social and economic liberals. Two camps have emerged, not through the deliberate doing of any one person or group but through the manifold actions of many different people constructing barriers out of debating points. In my view there should be very little difference between social liberals and economic liberals. Both seek to maximise the good of ordinary people and to limit the power of the elite. Of all the simple statements about liberalism I have read in the last few days, and there have been many, I still find Conrad Russell's the most persuasive: standing up to bullies, of all kinds and everywhere.
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.
Unless progressives stop ceding the ground on austerity, the Tories will always capitalise on economic fear
Elections do not happen in a vacuum. Political pundits and seasoned campaigners can sit around regretting the use of a particular slogan or the flop of a particular photo opportunity, but the real issue is cultural; meaningful understanding of what happens in an election comes from examining the complex unity of social feelings and ideas that conditioned the choices that people made at that crucial, lonely, moment in the ballot booth.
It would seem that the over-arching feeling was one of fear: a deep-rooted apprehension about the economy. The financial crisis still casts a shadow over our sense of confidence and well-being, and we continue to feel the concrete reality of an anaemic economy. There are few people who feel like there is adequate understanding of why the financial crisis happened in the first place, and fewer still who feel confident in the regulatory measures that have been introduced to avoid it happening again.
The general election was truly horrific for the Liberal Democrats. Despite our huge losses, our party can recover if it follows these five steps.
1. Become a Movement with a Parliamentary Face
It is vital that we become a radical campaigning party again. Whether it’s concerning political reform, civil liberties, the environment or fairness, we must be visibly campaigning on those causes that will make Britain more liberal. Likewise we should be as active in protesting against regressive policies, something that the new Conservative government will give us many opportunities to do.
From the street corner to Westminster, we must make our campaigning voice heard loud and clear. We should become a Liberal Democrat movement with a Parliamentary face. One part grassroots movement, one part Parliamentary party. The grassroots movement for liberty, opportunity, and social justice, spearheaded by Liberal Democrat MPs in Parliament.
As if the scale of the Lib Dem defeat wasn’t bad enough closer analysis shows that the party did even worse, if that is possible, in seats with higher black, Asian and minority ethnic populations.
As a general rule, the bigger the BAME population the worse the Lib Dems fared. The national swing against the party was minus 15 percent, but it was minus 30 percent in some heavily multicultural seats.
Predictable maybe, but unless the Lib Dems address their ‘ethnic deficit’ this one-off protest could become the norm.
If the party do not reach out to BAME communities in the next term it will quickly see the brand become toxic, a byword for white middle classes who don’t understand or care for diverse populations.
The Liberal Democrats repeatedly ignored the warning signs that their strategy was not working.
- We have lost 45% of our councillor base since 2010 (we now have 2,257 compared with 4,088 in May 2010).
- We lost 71% of our MSPs in 2011.
- We lost 91% of our MEPs in 2014.
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.