Sunday, 10 May 2015

What the General Election told us

Paddy Ashdown: doesn't he have some
headgear to get his teeth into?

It’s a few days now since the voters of Great Britain gave us an election result that was as surprising as it was unpalatable for liberals (and I mean in all parties and none, rather than merely Lib Dems).

I didn’t wish to write anything in the immediate aftermath because, like many of my Liberal Democrat colleagues, the hurt was very real. I might have come across as too defensive, or unwilling to accept the verdict of the electorate.

During the last few weeks I’ve asked myself some hard questions – the result of the election doesn’t necessarily answer them but it confirms a few of my suspicions. Questions not about left or right, Orange Book or Social Liberal, or the merits of coalition – but about what our values are. For example, how we treat people with mental health problems (especially if they are PPCs admitted to hospital on the week nominations close) says far more about who were are as a party than dozens of positive pronouncements on mental health policy. The existential crisis so many observers are openly discussing is not new, and should have been apparent to any impartial observer for some time. 

Actions always speak louder than words. And if anyone wanted to know what the Lib Dem values were – the best way of judging that was to see how we behaved during the election campaign. 

Before I consider the campaign from a Lib Dem perspective, it’s perhaps best to firstly state the obvious. The SNP got precisely what they wanted from the election. So did the Conservatives. The latter means that we now have Trident renewal, potential withdrawal from the EU, repeal of the Human Rights Act, EVEL, the Snoopers’ Charter, acceleration of private sector involvement in the NHS, further erosion of welfare, cuts to renewable energy and the further erosion of welfare to look forward to.

The SNP’s success was not remotely unsurprising to me, although the scale of Labour’s collapse was utterly stunning. Our own predicament in Scotland has been apparent for some time, and back in December 2012 I forecast our being reduced to a single MP in Orkney & Shetland If our losses in Scotland were painful but perhaps expected, the annihilation in England certainly was not – I had predicted 23 MPs (i.e. around 1992 levels) because I had believed that the Conservatives would be in no position to benefit at our expense. Opinion polls seemed to back this theory, with most giving the Lib Dems somewhere between 22 and 31 seats, mainly where our nearest challengers were Tories.

There are reasons for the SNP’s success. Some of that is down to the slick, populist campaigning machine the SNP has become. They know how to take advantage of opponent’s weaknesses in ruthless fashion. They have a leader who is an able communicator. They have, in a word, credibility. Again, this counts for so much more than policy positions – the health and public standing of a party is not determined by manifesto commitments. However, while I acknowledge the SNP’s strength, I would also like to repeat what I’ve been saying for the last four years: that our own failures and strategic shortcomings that have contributed in no uncertain terms to the SNP’s rise. An impotent and unimaginative Scottish Labour Party has had an arguably even greater impact, but if we are to understand what has happened here in Scotland we have to look at the last 5-10 years honestly and recognise that, time after time, our tactics and messages have damaged our own interests and played into the hands of the SNP.

The SNP won in Scotland because it deserved to. If we are to make some inroads in 2016 then we need to appreciate that, rather than seek to appeal to unionists for tactical votes, we must instead demonstrate that we understand why many voted Yes and to reach out to them.  We have to listen. Moreover, we have to become more than a depository for anti-SNP votes.

Many of us expected the story of the night to be about Scotland, with the SNP potentially holding the balance of power. That they did not was due to a combination of factors: an efficient (if uninspiring) Conservative campaign, Labour’s incoherence and campaigning incompetence, media focus on potential coalitions and deals, and our own inability to hold on where we fully expected to.

We lost 49 MPs – among them good people of such calibre as Adrian Sanders (no friend of the coalition; ironic he should suffer on account of it), Lynne Featherstone, Simon Hughes, Julian Huppert, Steve Webb and Norman Baker. We lost all our female MPs. Even those like myself, who were seen as being somewhat pessimistic with predictions of returning just 23 of our previous 57 MPs, found the scale of the crushing defeat staggering. Did anyone imagine Vince Cable would lose (even his Conservative opponent?) or foresee Ed Davey looking for new employment? 

This, I believe, was part of our problem. We believed, like we did in 2011, that the electoral system would help us where we had strong incumbents. We believed the polls, and we believed our own myth of Lib Dem resilience rather than the evidence. Just like in 2011, however, we have paid a heavy price. I repeat what I said after the Holyrood elections – that the result has set the cause of liberalism back 50 years (i.e. to 1964 levels).  Not only have we lost 49 MPs, catastrophic in itself, but we have also lost hundreds of councillors, 341 deposits, and – most significantly – have become entirely irrelevant in places where we were once highly influential. To come a distant fourth place in such constituencies as Chesterfield and Camborne & Redruth (both of which we held until 2010) underlines this point and emphasises the difficulty of rebuilding once incumbency is lost.

The result makes it clear that we have made some serious miscalculations – and I’m not referring to entering coalition. For example:

·         * We were resolved to show that coalition would work. We would show that the era of two-party politics was over. If we had power, we would inevitably break the proverbial mould. We were wrong on both counts – the “new politics” now seems a distant pipedream and no party, having seen what has happened to us, would even consider coalition.
* We put so much emphasis on “putting the country first”. I don’t doubt his motivations in doing this, and Paddy Ashdown praised Nick Clegg for his willingness to prioritise the national interest. He may deserve such praise, but personally I feel the national interest may also be served by ensuring that progressive, liberal voices are able to speak loudly in the future. “Putting the country first” required a longer-term perspective rather than self-sacrifice. It's harder to serve the country with only 8 MPs and 5 MSPs.

·         * We imagined that the Tories would be worst hit by the increase in support for UKIP. As we saw on Thursday, this seemed to have little if any effect on the Tories, while in many constituencies the increase in the UKIP vote was nearly identical to the decrease in Lib Dem support. Go figure.

* We stressed that we had “transformed from a party of protest to a party of government”, and the leadership were eager for the party as a whole to embrace this new identity. Not only was it a false dichotomy, based on flawed appreciations of our party’s history, but it failed to recognise that such a transformation required the party to develop a new appeal to a different kind of voter. I have seen no evidence that any attempt was ever made to identify who we were now seeking to appeal to, or even that it was considered necessary to review our campaigning strategy to reach out to a different audience.
* We depended on the same, tired campaigning strategy. How we sell our horse races hasn’t changed – but the appeal certainly has. Attempting to persuade the public to vote tactically to keep out someone less bad is hardly the action of a “serious party of government”. We also built our campaign around opinion polls – big mistake, given that in the last two General Elections the only polls that have been remotely accurate were the exit polls. We also poured so much energy into ensuring Nick Clegg held Sheffield Hallam that it is more than likely other candidates’ chances elsewhere suffered as a result. I believe we paid an enormous price for sparing the leader’s blushes.

* Defining ourselves according to how we perceive other parties was hardly productive.  Claiming we would put "the heart into a Conservative government and the brain into a Labour one" suggested that we didn't really have either, while "You can't trust Labour with the economy or the Conservatives to deliver fairness" sounded like an endorsement of the Tories' economic plans and a willingess to trust Labour's fairness agenda.

Willie Rennie said, after the result, that he was proud of the campaign. I am proud of many of our former MPs, our candidates, our agents, and our tireless activists. I am proud of many of the messages we put out. I am proud of the dedication to the cause. But I am not proud of the campaign, or its strategists – one of whom has some headwear to be eating soon. It was amateurish, too focused on the mythical “centre-ground” and insipid soundbites, never getting to grips with the lessons from the recent past and complacent in its belief that incumbency and advocacy of tactical voting would win the day in key constituencies. It also left many candidates isolated and unsupported, something I find personally difficult to accept.

·         * We naively believed that the electorate would reward us when they could see how much we did in government. I think we did many things in government of which we should be proud, and that ultimately history will look more kindly on our party than the voters did on Thursday. This said, we failed to appreciate that electorates generally don’t reward – they punish. Building a strategy on such wilful thinking was ultimately doomed to failure.

We must learn the lessons – both of 2011 and 2015. In fact, we must learn the lessons of how we failed to adequately respond to the challenge faced after the 2011 meltdown. It therefore dismays me to hear all the talk of “fightback”, “resilience” and “rebuilding” in recent days. All this is so familiar - I heard it all four years ago, and what happened? Of course, we need to be positive, but fighting talk is not a substitute for sober reflection. Contrary to belief, the Lib Dems would not survive a nuclear war and may not even survive another election simply on the basis of blind optimism.
The cause of Liberalism has indeed been set back by half a century. It will take decades to rebuild – those who assume otherwise fail to appreciate how our party was built up in the first instance. There are no quick fixes and even fewer certainties. I want our party to survive, but it will only do so if we can ditch the “full steam ahead” approach and make the necessary changes to our thinking.

We have to change. There can be no denying that – we must change our attitudes, our campaigning style, and our strategy. We're going to have to - to use coalition business jargon - make some tough choices if we are to deliver. Our organisation has to be overhauled. In terms of personnel, we might have to change more than merely the leader. We have to recognise what has gone wrong, and the role our own failings played. This isn't just a slap in the face, but a destruction of so much we've worked for over decades. Some sense of longer-term reality among the positive fighting talk would be helpful. I'm sure there is a way forward, but it certainly requires a bit more than to dust ourselves off, say the same kinds of things and to hope the next election will be more favourable.

The General Election told us many things - but what we have to accept is that the principal message was that voters don't really like us. That the 2011 and 2015 results are so similar is not coincidental. It's going to take more than positive reinforcement of the stereotype of Lib Dem survival to turn that around.

Those of us thinking seriously about how the party can adapt to meet tomorrow's challenges may well wish to consider former MP David Howarth's advice, which I consider to represent a timely contribution: