By Andy Mayer
Earlier this week Michael Crick reported on a critical article by Torbay MP, Adrian Sanders, in the latest edition of left-liberal magazine, Liberator. The thrust of the piece is that the party has “irrevocably damaged our public image… fractured our core vote, alienated a generation of young voter…” and needs
“better organisation on the ground… (to) fight for backbenchers’ rights… (and) to return to what the party is all about. A devolutionist, anti-authoritarian, internationalist, pro-environment, fair-tax, socially progressive Liberal Party in the tradition of Beveridge… we need the leadership to start acting like the leadership of an independent political party…”
It contrasts with a piece by Charles Kennedy in Prospect, where he has reservations, but has “learned to love the coalition”.
Noises-off so close to an election are rarely helpful, but the Sanders’ analysis that the public perception of the party for fair dealing and integrity has been damaged by the last year is one widely shared. The Leadership’s failure to prepare the ground for the difficult decisions of government has made Nick Clegg’s life far more difficult than say for Tony Blair or David Cameron, who fought and won their internal battles before doing largely what they said they would in Government.
I agree most with Adrian most in respect of the importance of consulting widely when taking decisions. The Leadership’s style of consultation sometimes means they only finds out about a serious problem when the angry mob are waving the pitchforks outside the castle.
But consultation means precisely that. After consultation, decision-making is best left to decision-makers.
If the decision goes against the consultees, they usually still complain they weren’t adequately consulted.
There’s quite a bit of that in grass-roots complaints about the leadership for as long as I can remember.
Sanders is also right to note that where the party has campaigned well locally it will mitigate the general trend.
His own result (+5%) in 2010, in a Conservative target seat, increasing his majority by squeezing Labour (-8%), underlines how electorally important a credible “we’re not the Tories” message is in some seats.
His concerns then, cannot be casually dismissed.
I’m not sure though where they take us, or whether he’s taking enough personal responsibility for the trust problem he identifies.
First if that really was how ‘the party used to be’, it should be noted it entirely failed to deliver a majority liberal government. It was creaking as a saleable proposition in 2005, where gains were well below expectations.
A party where “keen, idealistic and uncompromising” grass-roots activists ran the party in the “tradition of Beveridge and Keynes”, and not ministers “driven by special advisers, who never have to face an electorate” or “opportunistic careerists”, is crowd-pleasing, but nonsense.
The party has never been grass-roots run, or the creature only of the centre-left that he describes. We are a coalition. Tensions between the different traditions, between the leadership and leading activists, are nothing new. Careerist opportunism is more a necessary qualification for entering Parliament than doing the work of the back-room professionals who help it happen.
It is also never likely that the party would have achieved majority government “street by street, ward by ward”. The party’s widely copied campaign techniques burn through volunteers nearly as fast as they waste paper. They work best when negative rather than positive. They become unsustainable when Liberal Democrats hold power and have less time to campaign. A rather more serious operational issue in the last decade is how little the party has learnt from our opponents, not how much.
Nor would the party’s reputation for honesty, consistency or integrity be enhanced by ditching the coalition at the first sign of unpopularity. Just being, ‘not the other lot’, or ‘the real alternative’, is a strategy than can only last as long as you don’t hold power. In power it is inevitably going to make you look hypocritical.
There is a tension then between what worked in Torbay, and what works in the national debate. 326 people all attacking ‘the establishment’, making local spending promises in the hope the magic money tree will provide, does not a coherent Government make.
Complaining, ‘our government has failed to deliver all the impossible things I promised on the pretext I’d never have to actually deliver’, is at the heart of the problem facing the party. The discipline and accountability of ministerial office is far starker than that required to be an effective local campaigner, particularly one in permanent opposition.
Trust further can only be restored slowly, by evidence of deed.
It is delivering deficit reduction over the next four years, the stated purpose of this coalition, rather than Adrian’s suggestion of a string of rent-seeking “private members bills”, that is the road back.
The kernel of truth in what Sanders has analysed then cannot purely be put on the leadership. Local and national policy populism is as much to blame for the lack of preparation for coalition, and public disquiet after the event. Adrian’s solution, essentially more of both, would make the problem far worse.