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Lib Dem disaster – you may as well blame the bird


A lot has been said (and written) about why UKIP performed so well, and the Lib Dems so disastrously, last week. Much of the Lib Dem analysis has focused on the curse of coalition,  the thorny issue of Europe/migration (where the voters are merely misguided/stupid/plain wrong) and, more latterly, on playing the blame game -it wasn’t the message it was the messenger.

Sorry – it is none of the above. It is the simple fact that people don’t know what the Lib Dems are about …and don’t care about the things the party seems to care about, or simply disagree with them. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but people have had enough of bossy Europe, don’t want a nanny state that treats them like children and couldn’t give a toss about electoral reform.

In opposition, the LibDems were the party of protest – the “none of the above” party. With no one else on the block it had an easy ride.  It possibly didn’t matter that whilst some Lib Dem policies straddled the vast majority of its members – opposition to the Iraq war.. a stance against ID cards.. internationalism (although even there we all have our views on how to define that) – the rest of the policies were a mish-mash … a little bit liberal a little bit social democrat.  But no clarity. No one really knew what the Lib Dems stood for, (apart from “none of the above”) . To overcome this dog’s breakfast, each Lib Dem nuanced the message on any individual policy  to try to weave a cohesive message – inevitably sounding increasingly like political automatons than real people. The “curse of the coalition” has been simply to expose the fact that the Lib Dems don’t have a clear and simple proposition. (And no! asking the electorate to reward the party for making the ultimate sacrifice of going into coalition and/or for putting a stop on some Tory policies wont cut it)

Well now there is a new kid on the block. UKIP – which has an extra-ordinarily clear and simple message and (potentially devastating news for Lib Dems) it extends well beyond Europe and immigration.

Jeremy Brown summed it up pretty well on Question Time :

” …When it comes to globalisation our best prospects for being successful as a country are to be outward looking and internationalist, but I think there is a perfectly legitimate opposite view, and that is the view that UKIP put forward.

But that is not just what UKIP represent. And I think that the political classes and the media elite need to understand the state of mind of a lot of people, particularly beyond London, who are voting for UKIP… Now some of them may be racist or sexist. I am sure some of them are.

But I think some of them object to being told the whole time by that elite, what they should eat, what they should drink, what they should say, what they should believe in. And I think Nigel Farage for quite a lot of those people is just a big two fingers stuck up to what they feel is a hectoring out of touch elite. Now they may be unreasonable, they may be angry beyond the point they should be, but I think politicians in the other parties need to spend a little bit of time reflecting if there is a protest vote, why people are wanting to protest, and not just bandy all those people as being racist or what ever it might be.”

Actually I am not sure that UKIP opposes being “internationalist and outward looking” – they have a different solution. And to be honest I don’t agree that people are “angry beyond the point they should be” – I think the voters have a right to be bloody angry – and show it. But Jeremy is right that the UKIP rise much much more than being anti-EU.

Dig below the media caricature of UKIP and the message is plain and simple (and potentially rather attractive) – Return more power to an accountable Westminster – and deliver a Westminster that will interfere less. Of course there are some pretty unsavoury characters within UKIP and some rather unpleasant utterances from time to time. But the party is very young and voters (who are not as stupid as the elite seem to think) are willing to look past their mistakes in the belief that something exciting, clear and refreshingly straight-talking is being formed.

If the Lib Dems are to survive in any shape or form they need to stop being the party of “stop” or “none of the above” and find an equally clear, simple and human message that voters understand – and just to be clear …ideally one that a reasonable number of voters agree with and care about.

That is not a revelation. Many have been saying the same thing for some considerable time. The question is how to get to that point.

I think it is simple. For too long the Liberal Democrat party has been a party of fudge, priding itself on being a party of process, committees and sub-committees seemingly oblivious to the fact that this is the very heart of the problem. There are too many people with a slice of power but no accountability. Nick may be called leader – but he is in effect little more than the chief spokesperson – the face of the party – you may as well blame the bird as the leader for the disastrous results last week. As for conference… the party declares itself democratic but denies the vast majority of Lib Dem members the opportunity to vote on policy . That is not democratic that is elitist. You have to be one of the “in-crowd” to obtain a magical voting card – and have the means and opportunity to up-sticks and get to some far flung place to exercise that right.

And it is the elitism that permeates the very heart of the Lib Dems that sucks. We have bumbled along allowing too many elites on too many committees to exert power without any responsibility. They rejoice in getting one over on the leadership at conference- even when that message is out of kilter with the rest of the party, or indeed the wider voting public. And if they can get conference to pass a motion to form another panel or sub-committee to investigate x y or z policy, providing they can fill it with their buddies, they are in clover.

The Lib Dems has become a party run by smug middle classes who think they know best on everything. Better than the leadership, better than the constituents our MPs are supposed to serve.  If we allow the leadership to be batted from pillar to post and forced into pledges and promises they don’t agree with or cant deliver by countless numbers of committees and policy groups, voted through by a minority of activists at the seaside, we should not be surprised that the result is a disjointed message, political double-speak and a hopeless mass of contradictions. We are a party of freedom of speech but voted in favour of Leveson’s press restrictions (we hate Murdoch). We are the party who says “trust in people” but support the plain packaging of cigarettes and appear to want a fizzy drinks tax ( we only “trust in people” when they agree with us).  We want to champion “hard working” people – but heaven forbid that those people are sufficiently successful in their endeavours that they become rich because we will tax them to hell and back (basically we all work in the public sector).

While the Lib Dems play introspective sixth form politics, UKIP is getting on with the business of telling people what it stands for. Maybe that is because the smoking, drinking, straight-talking leader of UKIP is actually allowed to lead – not just be a figurehead. I am sure that Nick will say he has more power than that… perhaps… but not much.

Egos need to be crushed. Committees slashed. Decision making on policy and manifesto returned to those who are accountable. A camel is a horse designed by committee – and at the moment we are one sick-looking camel.

10 Responses to “Lib Dem disaster – you may as well blame the bird”

  1. Jamie Says:

    At least one ego has been culled today. Result ?

  2. Barry Stocker Says:

    Will said Angela, all great points. I can just add that we are also over dominated by people who can only see pro-Europe as pro- centralising EU federalism and agreeing with the Commission, and people who are too focused on electoral systems and political structures rather than the broader less formal ways in which politics can be accountable and inclusive. Unfortunately the attitudes in the party about how to run it, that policies should be made by committees and imposed on the leadership, party democracy is power for people who go to conference and like minded people on committees, it’s fun to humiliate the leadership at conference and refuse to admit that broader consequences are an issue, and so on, are so deeply embedded there is no hope of changing them. Looking from Istanbul, so with admittedly imperfect knowledge, I can only see more of the same after the next general election. Clegg scapegoated, back to the incoherent but self righteous politics of opposing everything unpopular and evading the reality of difficult trade offs, a strange mix of maverick individualism and knee jerking banning of the sort of things we don’t like or Experts think are bad for us. I can only presume that culture and the most leftist policy expressions of it will draw strength after what looks an inevitable set back at the next general election, the only question being how dramatic that set back is. I guess the more dramatic the set back the bigger the ‘grassroots’ i.e. conference going activist circles reaction will be. Is there any sign of hope that Liberal Vision types will have more impact, when as far as I can see all the signs are the other way?

  3. Angela Harbutt Says:

    I think you are right about the party seemingly dominated by those who embrace pro-centralising EU federalism – though perhaps they are just the passionate few – I find it hard to believe that the majority don’t realise that the EU project over-reached itself and in desperate need of reform.

    I am no particular fan of Nick Clegg – he has made mistakes – not least backing Leveson. But it is difficult to see what any leader could really do given the internal fights he has had to face.

    In all honesty it may be too late for Nick to seize hold of the party to such an extent that we can enter the next general election with a dynamic clear positive and distinctive manifesto… his hands will be tied by the Politbureau.

    As for classical liberals – I really dont know about the Lib Dems to be honest. I do meet many young classical liberals around the country at various events. A few are Lib Dem – though a curiously large number are UKIPers …. perhaps a point to where UKIP is heading?

  4. Anthony Says:

    “…the UKIP rise much much more than being anti-European (whatever that means).”

    UKIP are not, and never have been “anti-European”. They are anti-EU, which is vastly different. Bearing in mind now most regulations are made at the supra-national level, we are worse off being IN the EU – being one voice in 28 – than having our own seat at the top table and influencing new legislation directly.

    As for trade, there is nothing stopping us joining the EFTA, the EEA or indeed drawing up agreements with individual nations, or bodies such as the Commonwealth. FUD about 3 million jobs or xxx billions lost is just that – FUD.

    For our own mediocre politicians to not consider any of this and then shout “racist” when the proles vote for the “wrong” party just drives even more people away. By their, and your, logic that UKIP voters are racists then all people who vote Lib-Dem are woman-molesters and Labour voters are pedos.

  5. Angela Harbutt Says:


    “By their and your logic that UKIP are racists” . I certainly never said that UKIP are racists – nor implied it in anyway. ANGELA

  6. Anthony Says:

    You have written this article using the very specific term “anti-European” – Europe, a continent, a group of people, a place – as opposed to “anti-EU” – a political formation, an institution. Two very different things and the use of the former suggests either you are very, very dim (which I do not think is true) or that you have used the language in a subtle way to, in fact, imply racism.

  7. Angela Harbutt Says:

    HI Anthony – You have a point. I did mean anti-EU, not anti-European – and have corrected the above text. Not dim (I hope), not subtle, just a simple error. Many thanks.

  8. Junican Says:

    Nice to see a simple and straight-forward apology for error, Angela! Would that politicians were capable of the same thing!

  9. Anthony Says:

    Thank you for having the decency to make the correction.
    Warm regards,

  10. Geoffrey Payne Says:

    After the next general election in all likelihood there will be a leadership election and Jeremy Browne will have the opportunity to stand as leader. Then we can find out who represents the views of the party membership.