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.