Taking a battering in the polls was the best thing that happed to us
You may think that this is a rather perverse and even nonsensical statement for any Lib Dem member to make but stick with me if you will and I will explain why.
For as long as I can remember, the Liberal Democrats have been the party of protest in two ways. Firstly as the safe option for a protest vote because secondly, we were seen as a party of perpetual opposition. We were the cross on the ballot paper that puts two fingers up to the government of the day without really changing the political landscape. We were the party of perennial protesters, waving our liberal banners in protest at government policy and trying to exert a limited influence within the Palace of Westminster.
As a party, we had grown comfortable with our place in Westminster politics, we accepted that we were a party of opposition and recognised that under the current First Past the Post system, we were always likely to stay there. The upshot of that was whilst we produced numerous legitimate and worthy policies, we also set out some policies that, if we are honest with ourselves, we couldn’t uphold if we ever entered government; policies popular with particular sections of the electorate and therefore important to the party at a local level but ultimately undeliverable at a national level.
May the 6th 2010 put the cat amongst the pigeons and threw Lib Dem policies into the media spotlight and despite the fact that 75% of our manifesto is currently being enacted in the Commons (compared with just 60% of the Tories’) it is that one undeliverable, tuition fees, that has come back to bite us. Hard.
Roll forward 12 months and the party takes an almighty tub thumping in both in the local elections and the AV referendum. The response from the party has been mixed. There were some very high profile calls for the party to pull out of the coalition before we even went to the polls and privately, some members have called for the party to go back to the future, back to our oppositional roots, away from the trials, tribulations and responsibilities of government fearing further blood loss in the local elections twelve months from now.
Government is not our biggest enemy right now; it is the mentality of a party that has been launched from its comfort zone of opposition and protest into the pressure cooker of government and responsibility. Our biggest enemy is within. It is the fear of change that being in government is forcing upon us. It is the reluctance to face a moment of introspection, to look at the realities of why we got such a bloody nose on May 6th and a reluctance to make the changes necessary to correct our failings.
The devastating results were the best thing for us as party for one simple reason: it taught us some tough lessons, lessons we must learn and fast.
No more can we make promises we can’t keep. We must show that we are a credible force in politics with serious, deliverable policies that reflect, and are honest about, the realities of the day and the limitations of what can be achieved.
No more can we rely on protest votes to win us seats. We must make sure that the electorate understands what a liberal politics is all about, not just in the form of policies, but with clear and unequivocal values that drive all that we do, both locally and nationally: equality, liberty of expressions, freedom from the Orwellian scrutiny of the Big Brother state and the promotion of human rights for all must drive all we do.
However, having these values at our core is not enough: we need to demonstrate to the electorate why they are of critical importance in contemporary society. We must challenge the dominant discourses that sees human rights as nothing more than a mechanism for protecting those who have ‘wronged’ society; and that see equality as process for undermining Britishness and the privilege that certain social groups enjoy.
We must grow a core support of people who know and subscribe to the visions and values of liberal politics. We need to be clear about who we are. For if we are not, how can we expect the electorate to buy into what we believe in?
We may be a little bloodied in battle but learn the lessons and we may still win the war.
This article is cross published in Lib Dem Voice. To view this article on the LDV website, click here