This question has inevitably been asked following the party’s poor performance in last week’s by-elections – most notably in Rotherham where the Liberal Democrats finished in eighth place with two per cent of the vote.
What results from Middlesbrough, Croydon North and Rotherham actually tell us about the Liberal Democrats is minimal. These are constituencies where Liberal Democrats never did well, even in the supposedly good times. Middlesbrough (and its predecessor constituency Middlesbrough East) has not returned a non-Labour MP since 1931. The same is true of Rotherham. Croydon has been Labour held since 1992. That Labour won comfortably should not be remotely surprising.
That hasn’t stopped many in the media predicting the imminent death of the Liberal Democrats. The Daily Telegraph has claimed Rotherham to be the worst ever result for a major political party, clearly forgetting Inverclyde - a constituency in which we had controlled the council until 2007. Nigel Farage has joined them, making the grandiose claim that UKIP are now the “third force” of British politics, himself conveniently forgetting the various nationalist parties or Respect, the one-man party that has been able to do on multiple occasions what UKIP never have: win a parliamentary seat.
It has been quite astonishing to see how the media have bought into UKIP’s spin. What these by-elections have shown is that UKIP is never likely to become any kind of force in domestic politics, third or otherwise. They are not the SDP. Rotherham was certainly a by-election they could and should have won. The former MP stepped down in disgrace, his reputation and that of his local party in tatters. This, combined with the child adoption scandal and virtually anonymous and poorly-resourced local Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, gave UKIP a real chance of making a breakthrough.
The Independent claimed that UKIP was now “within touching distance of mainstream politics” on the basis of securing 22 per cent of the vote in a single constituency. George Galloway must be positively an establishment figure by that logic. If the result says much at all, it is that voters in Rotherham prefer authoritarian parties. It suggests very little that should lead portions of the media to make claims for our impending political death.
Undeniably the result was spectacularly poor from a Liberal Democrat perspective. But what it doesn’t actually do is tell us anything we didn’t know previously. Clearly we are no longer the beneficiaries of public anger towards the establishment, as we are now very much part of it. The identity as a “none of the above” party, which to an extent the Liberal Democrats have been responsible for cultivating, has been consigned to history – with protest votes now going to various parties perceived as best placed to overthrow the incumbent party. Certainly that role we sought for ourselves has now been usurped. But these by-election results do not reveal this to us, they merely underline an already obvious reality.
The media are right about one thing, and that is that the Liberal Democrats are in mortal danger. The Scottish parliamentary elections and the local elections across the UK have demonstrated a pattern, which shows little sign of being reversed. Not only is the party suffering electorally, it has been struggling for cultural and political relevance particularly in Scotland. A growing insecurity is becoming evident in the public words of some of our key parliamentarians. But that danger is not that we will be wiped out electorally; it is, rather, the very real risk that the Liberal Democrats and the liberalism at our heart may be reduced to a marginalised irrelevance dwelling on the periphery of British, and Scottish, politics.
John Curtice has estimated that, in 2015, the Liberal Democrats will be reduced to 15 MPs. Using data from all elections since 2010, I calculated a figure of 23 – i.e. 1992 levels. In constituencies where we are the Conservatives’ closest rivals, or they are ours, we look set to do well. That may not appear too disastrous until we consider the implications for the Liberal Democrats in Scotland: both Professor Curtice and myself have a single Scottish Lib Dem MP surviving the potential massacre – Alistair Carmichael.
The reasons we find ourselves in this position are numerous, and more complex than mere association with the Westminster coalition – although that certainly has contributed to the scale of the problem. Inflexible and outdated campaigning methods, financial difficulties, a lack of distinctiveness on policy matters and leadership whose message struggled to resonate with the public all contributed to some degree to the disastrous Holyrood election results. The SNP’s slick, professional and ruthlessly effective campaign further highlighted our deficiencies. Since then, there has been little evidence– in spite of positive rhetoric and a few good performances from Willie Rennie in FMQs – that we are capable of turning this around.
Part of our problem in Scotland is inevitably the coalition and therefore in looking to the future we must look beyond 2015. Whatever realpolitik demanded of Nick Clegg following the indecisive 2010 General Election, it was obvious that there would be significant ramifications for Liberal Democrats in Scotland – where any relationship with the Conservatives would inevitably be construed as treachery. How long this perception will endure is uncertain, but it is not necessarily irreversible. Accepting that a significant setback is likely in 2015 and building for the years beyond is far from the worst approach the party in Scotland could take. It would certainly be preferable to the fierce defensiveness we’ve seen to date.
The best way for the Liberal Democrats to ensure they have a future is by demonstrating the need for a strong liberal party in the heart of politics. In the last few weeks, issues such as secret courts and media freedom and shown how vital it is that liberal voices make themselves heard. I, for one, have been impressed by Nick Clegg on these matters. Of course, what impresses me as a party activist does not necessarily have similar effects on the public but championing an active, vibrant liberalism, especially in relation to issues of public liberty, is likely to be far more effective in recreating our social relevance than endless defence of participation in government.
Part of our problem is that only around eleven per cent of people identify themselves as liberal. In a sense we have electorally overperformed for decades, persuading many to vote for us in spite of – rather than because of – our liberal credentials. Populist positions on such things as the Iraq War and Higher Education funding have in the past helped to take our appeal beyond the philosophically liberal but we cannot rely on such issues in the future. But the truth is that people identified less with our policies than they did with our character. We were the nice guys of politics. We cared. We could be a bit of a gadfly party at times, but that was part of the appeal. Moreover, we could be trusted. So, while proving ourselves to be the authentic voice of liberal democracy is necessary we also have to find new ways of reaching out to those who at one time would have willingly supported us. We have to speak their language, invest in the issues that concern them and show we’re listening. We have to find ways to show we can still be trusted. As Boris Johnson has done so successfully, we must also learn how convince people that we actually like them. It's quite simple, but if we don't like them why should they like us?
What we must avoid is becoming inward looking, focusing on our own pet projects such as PR, Lords Reform or federalism. Naturally, I believe in all of those but recognise two things: they are all virtually unachievable and very few voters are enthused by them. While Liberal Democrats are wildly excited by the federalist ambitions of the Home Rule Commission, neither the public nor the media are particularly interested and the former seem not to understand our position at all – something not made clearer by identification with Better Together. And of course the “debate” on federalism and Home Rule was an internal one, relating to but never engaging with Scottish voters. We must reconnect with voters, and in doing so must utilise our best assets: parliamentarians such as Charles Kennedy and Jo Swinson who are more popular individually than the party as a whole. Alistair Carmichael and Mike Crockart similarly are highly personable MPs whose profiles and inate humanity should be more effectively used for the party's betterment.
Neither can we afford to be backward looking. The past is the only dead thing that smells sweet, and never more so than when the road ahead is both rocky and steep. Instead of clinging onto what has worked for us before, we must open ourselves to new possibilities; new ways of thinking and doing. We must change or die. We have to relinquish the stifling attitudes that hold us back, based as they are on the politics of a different era. Instead, as a party the Liberal Democrats should step boldly into a new era - an era in which many of the definitions of the past are up for discussion and reformulation. That does not mean abandoning who we are as liberals; it means redefining and representing that liberalism to appeal to the needs of an ever-evolving world. We have a choice between the stultification of the past (with its stale ideas and entrenched prejudices) and a fresh, invigorating air of the future.
We have to create a new identity for ourselves. That of "a party of government" is woefully inadequate given that continuing in government is not only not guaranteed but looking increasingly unlikely and that, here in Scotland, we've been relegated to the ranks of minor opposition. But similarly we cannot return to our former identity as a repository for protest votes or as a home for those with a dislike of the political establishment. Neither can we be the anti-Tory Labour-lite party of the 1980s and 1990s. We must ditch that and change our language and campaigning strategy accordingly. We must create a new identity while retaining our core purpose of facilitating a liberal society.
We also need to become the party of what we're right about. That sounds easy doesn't it? Too easy. But it's true: where might the cause of federalism now be if we had championed it with more enthusiasm in the last two decades? And on the issues on which we've been consistently right - the European Union, human rights, immigration, LGBT rights, civil liberties, and the environment - why don't we allow ourselves to be more closely associated with what are, after all, good liberal policies? Admittedly there's political risk in championing a fit-for-purpose EU against the backdrop of anti-EU rhetoric, as there is also on several of these issues. But it is a risk worth taking - I for one would rather us be the party of Europe with a distinctive and positive vision than a party afraid to admit to our pro-European credentials. We have to be intellectually honest to ourselves and the voting public.
We also need to re-assert our identity as the party of localism. Not the near nimbyist localism so often associated with the party, but a radical new liberal localism, an empowering and dynamic localism. In rebuilding the party we must avoid unnecessary emphasis on the party institution, instead promoting a new politics of inclusivism and pluralism, harnessing the energies of those outside of party politics such as charities, independent organisations, trade unions and businesses. A new realignment if you will, based not on tribal allegiances and prejudices but on a progressive, more collaborative basis for political conversation.
The Liberal Democrats’ problems are legion, but that does not mean the party has no future. Much depends on Willie Rennie, and on the degree to which he can set his own agenda. He will realise that if he can personally regain the trust of Scottish voters, so too will his party. He will need no reminder of the importance of asserting our liberal credentials at every opportunity, but perhaps struggles to see new opportunities to reach out. That sounds like a criticism, but isn’t – it’s the inevitable consequence of a tired campaigning mechanism and inheriting a party banished to the periphery of Scottish politics.
I'm not advocating resuscitating a dead party. For a start, we are far from dead. What I am suggesting is that we embrace the radical reformation that will be required if we are to become anything more than an irrelevant relic of a once vibrant liberal movement. We must, in the first instance, move beyond the narrow base of what has become established thinking - particularly in regards policy and campaigning. The party has to be released from the straightjacket of conformity - something both The Orange Book and Nick Clegg have attempted to do, with varying degrees of success.
That of course is only a first step. But without that first step we cannot embark on the exhilarating journey into the future.
The Liberal Democrats have to demonstrate that the party is relevant. A few poor by-election results will then be insignificant. We need those distinctive, honest and trusted voices to again make themselves heard. We must re-engage and revitalise our party if we are to have any future at all. We have to dare to be different. We must again be that gadfly party.