Dear Nick, the cause of Scottish liberalism has been set back 50 years

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Nick Clegg sent an e-mail to all candidates and activists after Thursday's elections:

Dear Andrew,

I wanted to get in touch immediately to thank everyone who has worked so hard in the elections. This was always going to be a challenging time. For the first time in most of our memories we were fighting as a party of Government – and a government dealing with the economic mess Labour left us in.

But there is no getting away from the fact that this has been a bad set of results - both the election results for the Liberal Democrats and the referendum outcome. I am certainly deeply disappointed. I know many of you are too. I am especially disappointed that so many hardworking and dedicated councillors, MSPs, AMs and campaigners have lost their seats.

I think it is clear that we need to do more to show people in the party and beyond what we are doing in Government and, perhaps more importantly, why. Because we are achieving a great deal. The BBC estimates that we are implementing 75% of the policies of in our manifesto, compared to just 60% of the Conservative manifesto.

Of course, as Liberal Democrats, we are all bitterly disappointed that the referendum on the Alternative Vote has been lost. We will always remain passionate supporters of reform. But we must respect the will of the British people. This time, we were unable to convince them of the merits of this particular change.

We've taken a knock. But I know from experience how resilient we are as a party. For my entire life, people have sought to write off the Liberal Democrats but we've always defied the critics and bounced back. We'll do so again. We'll get back up, we'll dust ourselves down and we'll get on with what we have to do. We have gone into a Coalition Government in the interests of the country. We have a mountain to climb to bring back prosperity, jobs and hope to Britain. But it is a job we've started and it is a job we will finish. And to do it, we’ll need your help and support.

Nick Clegg MP
Leader of the Liberal Democrats

My response is as follows:

Dear Nick,

Many thanks for your recent e-mail and for your expressed appreciation of the hard work myself and others put in to take the Liberal Democrat message to Scottish voters.

Yes, it was a difficult time and we knew it would be. We recognised there would be challenges and that the election results would not be what we might have hoped for. But even the most pessimistic of us did not foresee the scale of the defeat, our reduction to a mere rump in the Scottish parliament (we have one seat fewer than the Scottish Socialist Party won in 2003) or the loss of people with the calibre and gravitas of Ross Finnie and Margaret Smith.

These results aren’t “bad”; they’re catastrophic. To lose in our heartlands of the Scottish Highlands, Fife and Argyll & Bute is itself a bitter pill to swallow. To have lost them in the way that we did and to have seen the product of decades of local activism wiped out in a single night is devastating. As a former constituent of the great Ray Michie, I appreciate the immense energies and efforts that were expended to hold seats like Argyll & Bute – and then to ensure such constituencies continued to return Liberal Democrat MPs and MSPs. To have lost everything we fought for can not be dismissed as a “bad” result or a “deep disappointment”.

Our candidates were not defeated in Scotland because of our policy platform or our record in the Scottish parliament. Similarly, our MSPs were not rejected by the electorate because of their own failings or achievements – but because of the way in which the Westminster coalition is perceived in Scotland. It is more than ironic that MSPs such as Margaret Smith, Ross Finnie and Jeremy Purvis – who campaigned tirelessly for free education and were instrumental in eradicating fees in Scotland – should be punished for the party’s u-turn on tuition fees in England.

Nick, I believe that you made the right decision by entering into coalition with the Conservative Party. It was not my preferred option, but I understood you did so acting in what you believed were the best interests of the country. I have never questioned the wisdom of going into coalition and I have defended it on more occasions than I can remember. However, many of the decisions the coalition has since made I find more difficult to defend. The coalition’s direction on education and health are incoherent at best; at worst diametrically opposed to the kind of policy Liberal Democrats are accustomed to promoting.

You state that “the BBC estimates that we are implementing 75% of the policies of in our manifesto, compared to just 60% of the Conservative manifesto”. That might be so. I don’t doubt we are doing many positive things in government. But the voters did not reject us for what we’re doing right. They’re not angry about the 75% of the manifesto being implemented, but the perception that we’re being dishonest; that we’ve exchanged principle for position.

Nick, I would like to suggest a change of tactic. No, I’m not asking for the Liberal Democrats to withdraw from the coalition (not yet, in any case). No, I’m not suggesting you step down as leader. What I would argue is that you need to be more proactively selling the principle of coalition, rather than defending your achievements in office. Even from your e-mail it is easy to discern the party’s tactic of taking credit for sections of policy, as if success in government is determined by “victories” over the Conservatives. This is neither responsible nor an effective tactic. What we should have done from the beginning, instead of artificially playing up the Liberal Democrats’ role on lesser policy achievements while the more crucial ones were badly handled, was to be far more honest about the nature of coalition government: that it naturally requires compromise and collective approaches to work.

I am concerned that you appear to be labouring under the naive belief that we will be rewarded for “taming the Conservatives”. I welcome our moderating influence in government. But that that isn’t what we’re there to do: we exist to promote liberal policy. Firstly, electorates don’t reward, they punish – as we’ve discovered in the last few days. Secondly, hedging our electoral bets on being perceived as limiting the excesses of Conservative policy seems a dangerous game to play. Not only does it not appear to be working, it implies a certain disregard for the principles of coalition.

The coalition is currently under intense strain on a number of issues – not least NHS reform. That the bill was not opposed by any of our MPs during its initial two readings not only evidences the influence of party conference but also neatly encapsulates the lack of policy scrutiny that must exist within government. I wouldn’t imagine I should advise you on how to proceed in government, but what I do know is that unless we change our tactics and the way we communicate with voters the electoral devastation we witnessed last week will not be an isolated event.

I don’t believe that patronisingly telling the public how much of our manifesto has been translated into government policy will be effective in reversing the negative perception of our party. We need, in my view, to begin a rebuilding exercise from the grassroots upwards. Certainly, in Scotland, it is difficult to see a resurgence in our party’s fortunes without local parties being reinvigorated and revitalised.

You will surely be aware that your own public standing was at least partially responsible for the results of both the elections and the AV referendum. We were arguably “unable to convince the public of the merits of this change” precisely because we’ve been unable to convince them that you are acting in their interests. This is a perception we have to change, and will not be done by protesting how large our influence in government has been.

Nick, we have to admit when we’ve made mistakes. We must also not be afraid of changing course where necessary, and must be better prepared to listen to people rather than try to persuade them of our own rightness. On Thursday, the people spoke – and in Scotland at least the message was that Scots no longer feel the Liberal Democrats represent them.

I hope our leadership will learn from this. Unfortunately, your e-mail hardly gives me reason for optimism. You can not simply dismiss this catastrophe as “a knock”. It’s electoral meltdown. I would also hope for a more constructive approach to facilitating a fightback than blind faith in the party’s “resilience” and a resolution to “dust ourselves down and get on with what we have to do".

As a Liberal Democrat candidate, I felt it a privilege to take the positive and distinctively Scottish message of our party to the electorate. I attempted to focus on issues of local and Scottish interest, but many voters seemed more interested in discussing their views of the UK coalition, which were largely negative. Many people seem to agree with the Liberal Democrats, but they don’t “agree with Nick”.

I am not going to dismiss the Scottish election results as “bad” or “a knock”. This has set the cause of Scottish liberalism back fifty years. Many of my friends and valued colleagues have lost their seats, their deposits and in many cases their willingness to continue.

What required is not a sympathetic but self-righteous e-mail, but a new approach to government and a rigorous strategy to renew our party.

Yours Sincerely,

Andrew Page
Former Liberal Democrat Candidate for Renfrewshire North and West


John Minard said…
good post - I fear that the party leadership response is to try and simply take this hit on the chin. What we need is a special conference to address this landmark defeat; and be seen to do so!
Andrew said…
John, I think you're right on both counts. The worst thing would be for the leadership simply to "take this on the chin". I can understand the temptation to keep going as if nothing has happened and keep on saying the same thing, only louder - but it would be the wrong approach.

We have to do something AS A PARTY to address the defeat, learn from its causes and deal with its ramifications. I am not understating when I say the result in Scotland sets us back half a century. A special conference is certainly a worthwhile idea - and is likely to be far more productive than a "we'll take it on the chin, dust ourselves down and keep on going" mentality from the leadership.
Isla CH said…
As a party supporter I believe I received this email too, and (although I'm now living in London) you've encapsulated a lot of what I've been feeling too. I've continued to defend Lib Dem stances on several issues, but have been deeply disappointed to see how the party leadership handled the u-turn on tuition fees; their seeming arrogance and lack of contrition - or acknowledgement of this "betrayal" has surely only further enraged those who were upset by the new policy in the first place.

I really hope you actually sent that reply??
Andrew said…

I can't profess to have much knowledge of local elections in England and so stuck with Scottish issues. You've hit the nail on the head with the term "seeming arrogance" - this came through yesterday in Clegg's speech. The tuition fees issue being a case in point - we could all see that the new policy was in some respects much better than the previous one, but it was so badly handled by those at the top of our party. It's this sense of betrayal more than coalition policy that people are angry with, and not yet has anyone admitted to the mistake, not once have we heard the word "sorry"...

Yes, I did send the letter to Nick Clegg. I hope to receive a reply...
Anonymous said…
Well said, in Scotland we need to reboot.
But our fate is no longer in our own hands - our first opportunity for even a minor revival will not be until the referendum.
John said…
This has set the cause of Scottish liberalism back fifty years.

Peter Cashmore said…
I don't know why Nick Clegg doesn't do something to promote a vision for a Federalist UK. We must implement the recommendations of the Steel Commission.