The recovery plan needed by the Liberal Democrats
PUBLISHED: 14:33 27 August 2020 | UPDATED: 15:46 27 August 2020
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TIM WALKER, who controversially stood down as the Lib Dem candidate in Canterbury at the last election, says whoever wins his party’s leadership election has an urgent task to reconnect with its roots.
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Although I’m fond of Ed Davey and Layla Moran and consider them both to be decent and principled politicians, the fight for the Liberal Democrat leadership has been a bruising and often bloody affair.
As a party member, I’m not alone in feeling the contest seldom showed us at our best, and, so far from laying claim to any moral high ground or the promise of a new beginning, we seemed too often to be every bit as grubby and sweaty as our political foes.
Of course, the real frustration and anger we feel as Lib Dems – and it’s just the same for Labour supporters – is ultimately with ourselves. We all know that we could and should have done a lot better in the last general election and that we badly let our country down.
Politics is however going to get a lot rougher in the years ahead – it always does when things start to go seriously wrong for our country – and we delude ourselves if we believe any faction that’s always going to behave with impeccable courtesy is going to be able to make itself heard above the growing cacophony of blame and fury.
Whether it’s Davey or Moran who emerges as the victor this week, no one in their right mind could envy them the job. Our party is back in the doldrums, managing around just 8% in the polls, and saddled with an undeniable image problem.
In one respect at least the British electorate can always be depended upon: they never forgive nor forget.
Just as Labour supporters won’t be allowed to live down Iraq, Jeremy Corbyn or anti-Semitism, those of us who campaign for the Lib Dems have the stigma of the coalition years.
That gets worse as the Conservative brand grows more toxic with each passing hour the present government remains in office. We were the kingmakers and we chose David Cameron over Gordon Brown and the consequences of that we will always have on our consciences.
On top of that now is our complicity in gifting Johnson his resounding parliamentary majority with our former leader Jo Swinson’s decision to push for a general election it was always obvious that neither she – nor Corbyn – had any chance of winning. As if that wasn’t bad enough, we also have to contend with Nick Clegg – the leader we’d rather forget – popping up every now and again to put the dubious case for Facebook and his billionaire boss Mark Zuckerberg.
Although I did my best to goad Davey and Moran into being overtly critical of Swinson and Clegg when I interviewed them for this newspaper, both pulled their punches.
Davey understandably sought to defend the Lib Dems’ role in the coalition years – not least in relation to introducing same sex marriage and tackling climate change – and Moran, who wasn’t even an MP during that period, was reticent as she knew Clegg still commanded some support within the party.
Every bit as much as Labour, we need however to confront our demons and admit that serious mistakes have been made. The new leader needs to accept on day one that he or she is at ground zero.
It is in the cosy Lib Dem way that the same old faces and command structures remain in place from leader to leader, but I don’t see that as a viable proposition when the party’s very raison d’être is being questioned.
The Lib Dem peer Dorothy Thornhill was brutally practical when she spelt out what went wrong for the party at the last election and what needed to be put right. She spoke in her official report of a “rift” between high command and the grassroots, governance structures which had been “a mess” for some time and “out of kilter” leadership responsibilities in a “dysfunctional” organisation.
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She talked, too, of individuals being over-promoted way beyond their capabilities. “The culture, structures and processes at HQ need serious changes,” she concluded. “These will be far reaching and deep rooted. The necessary repairs and improvements will take time.”
As the Lib Dems’ parliamentary candidate in Canterbury in that election, I was more aware than most of the “rift” between the local party – which had become overwhelmingly opposed to me standing at all and dividing the Remain vote – and the London HQ that was unwilling to enter into any sensible discussion about what would ensue from our actions.
When I stood down in a move that was welcomed locally and nationally, the high command seized a public relations disaster from the jaws of victory by imposing a candidate from out of the area on my association. A ‘Lib Dems for Rosie Duffield’ outfit went on to help the pro-Remain Labour candidate win anyway.
Sadly, the same top-down approach was apparent even in the month that Thornhill’s report was published when the party’s federal board took the unilateral decision – later overturned by increasingly rebellious members – to put the leadership election on hold for a whole year.
Ostensibly to allow the party to focus on fighting the coronavirus, it would have resulted in Davey – alongside the party president Mark Pack – presiding over the party as an unelected junta for three times longer than Swinson.
The tragedy of all this is that we’ve thrown away so much of the support and goodwill we could previously have counted on.
At the first Lib Dem conference I attended as a member, in the spring of 2018, I met a great many young, idealistic people who’d never before been involved in politics, but saw in the party hope.
We were polling then at around the same level we are now, but thanks to the patient groundwork of Sir Vince Cable – then still the leader – he could talk to me confidently about our imminent resurgence and the historic opportunity that would come with it.
The enthusiasm of the young people I met at that conference in Stockport was at once palpable and humbling. Some of them I kept in touch with on social media, and, over the years that followed, it was telling how disillusionment began to set in.
One asked me why Clegg was still even allowed to be a member of the party when Facebook seemed to symbolise everything that we should be against. I didn’t know how to reply.
A number of others defected to Labour after Keir Starmer succeeded Corbyn. Some just let their memberships lapse and lost interest in politics altogether.
The Lib Dems still, however, matter as there are soft Tory seats in which we can win and where Labour will never stand a chance. The opposite is also true.
No tactical voting campaign can ever be a substitute for the two parties working together and putting the best interests of the country first.
Given the iniquities of our voting system, that remains the last best chance of bringing down the Tories and whoever leads the Lib Dems has to recognise that.
In private meetings of senior party members, the question that keeps being asked is what it is the Lib Dems now stand for.
When it comes to answering that question, the new leader must accept – every bit as much as Starmer is having to – it’s the traditional members that have the right idea.
They are the fixed points in a world in turmoil and they need now more than ever to be respected and heeded. They are also maybe due an apology.
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