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2013 can be the year Lib Dems prove the cynics wrong, but we have to get smart

January 2, 2013 1:51 PM
By Nick Thornsby in Liberal Democrat Voice
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats

After two-and-a-half years of difficult negotiations with our Conservative partners, deep spending cuts, unpopular tax rises, hundreds of council seats lost and a national poll rating now consistently in the single figures, still only 19% of Lib Dem members oppose being in coalition.

It's true that a small caveat needs to be added in considering that figure: many of those who are unhappy have left the party, and so their disapproval is absent in such a figure. But while that is certainly true, the biggest falls in membership have been in the group of people who joined the party in the period of 'Cleggmania' - people who were unlikely to have ever renewed their membership in any event.

But it is an instructive figure, particularly for those who don't know the party very well.

That Lib Dem party members remain so phlegmatic in the face of crumbling poll ratings used to surprise journalists and political commentators. But many of them are now coming to realise that it takes more than a bit of bad news from polling firms to rattle battle-hardened Liberal Democrats. Stoical and resilient members make for a stoical and resilient party.

And while it might seem slightly circular, it is this confidence-in-the-face-of-adversity that makes me more confident the party will overcome its current challenges. Lesser parties - the Conservatives, for instance - collapse into vote-losing infighting at the first sign of difficulty. That Liberal Democrats do not is one of the key reasons why predictions of the party's demise are consistently confounded.

There's also one more reason that Liberal Democrats feel more confident than others think we ought to, and that's because we know how we win elections. We know that the correlation between national poll ratings and seats won is at best loose (remember 2010, anyone), and that uniform national swing predictions are about as useful in predicting Lib Dem fortunes as reading tea leaves. We know that in local elections since 2010, Liberal Democrats have done significantly better in those seats where we have MPs, often winning vote shares that would re-elect those MPs.

And we now know, thanks to Political Betting's Mike Smithson, that Liberal Democrats polled an average of just over 19% in 2012′s numerous council by-elections, gaining a net 4 seats. Given the party's general election strategy of treating each target seat as a by-election, that we are outpolling our national rating by such a large margin bodes rather well.

Of course all of the above is not to say that Lib Dems have not got reason to be concerned. While low national poll ratings mean little to Liberal Democrats in the abstract, they of course give sitting councillors and MPs a greater hurdle to jump. There is also the uncertainty caused by being in government. Recent history for Liberal Democrats has been a familiar path each parliament: bumping along the bottom for most of the period between elections, followed by a modest surge in support in the election campaign, when the media remembered we existed and people began to seriously consider their options. That pattern is unlikely to be the same this time; what will replace it is anyone's guess.

Reasons for confidence, then, but also for concern. But how to translate concern into action?

A game of two halves

Broadly speaking, I see the first half of the coalition as a mixed success. We have slipped into life as a party of government relatively easily and successfully, competently running a number of major departments and making substantial contributions in others. We have also got a long list of policy successes, implementing vast swathes of our 2010 manifesto - though of course there are some things, notably Lords reform, which could not be delivered.

Many party members feel uncomfortable about a number of things the government is doing - particularly on welfare - and I share some of the concern. But at the same time most of us recognise that we are a poorer country than we were 5 years ago, with no tax receipts flooding in from an economic bubble and that we have to cut our cloth accordingly.

If there's one thing we could be doing to re-invigorate the coalition it's returning to the radicalism of the coalition agreement, which has been steadily ground down by mistrust and inter-departmental conflict. The mid-term review, promised early this year, should help.

The politics, stupid

I am one of the few people who still holds the unfashionable view that the strategy adopted by the party on entering government - of adopting and "owning" the government's entire programme and limiting divisions - was necessary and right. But those of us who take that view have to accept that it cost us some support.

On top of that self-inflicted (but in my view necessary) loss of support, we did of course lose a lot of voters who voted for us precisely because we were a perpetual party of opposition. Entering government at any time and in any way was going to lose us those people: idealists, often on the left, who simply can't cope with the day-to-day political machinations inherent in governing in a democratic system.

But there is a third category of voters who we didn't have to lose. A self-inflicted loss of support resulting, frankly, from incompetence. Initially, mistakes were forgivable. We had few people with experience of government to whom we could turn for advice, guidance, support.

Many people's minds will have jumped immediately to tuition fees on reading the last few sentences. But for that disaster I think the party leadership can be excused. That is not to play down the issue - it is the worst single mistake the party made - but it was made when we were still finding our feet, unused to the difficult business of government and trying to walk a political tight-rope, hoping to show that coalitions can survive beyond a few months.

But as Nick Clegg himself said, the crucial thing is to learn from such mistakes. Yet the signs that those at the top of party have done so are all too limited.

As 2012 draws to a close, lets get the successes out of the way first. The year started well, with Nick Clegg beginning public negotiations on the budget in January. Clegg's public call for income tax cuts for the low paid to be speeded up brought about a new phase of the coalition, with the junior party setting out its demands and red lines ahead of decisions being made.

This constructive, open approach was a good one, and it paid dividends early in the year, with March's budget containing a much faster implementation of the tax-cutting policy. While the budget as a whole was a political disaster for the government, and more particularly the Conservatives thanks to the ludicrous decision to cut the top rate of tax, the run up to the budget was in political and communication terms rather good for the Lib Dems. There were several days of positive front-page stories about Clegg's demands being met, and until the whole thing unravelled I and other Lib Dems felt pretty positive.

But the aftermath of the budget swept away all that had gone before, and we were reminded how closely the fate of our party is tied to that of the government as a whole.

Then in early summer came a moment of, if not brilliance, certainly competence, when it became clear that a coalition of conservatives in the Labour and Tory parties had succeeded in scuppering Lords reform. Clegg realised quickly that such a fundamental breach of the coalition agreement could not be allowed without some sort of response. And the response was pitched perfectly: calm but ruthless. The anger of the party was assuaged and Tory rebels learnt that there will be consequences if they fail to deliver on the coalition agreement.

The year also brought probably the most unexpected event: Nick Clegg's apology on tuition fees. I include this in the list of successes, not because it has necessarily done wonders for the party's (or Clegg's) poll rating, but because it was a brave, smart and well-executed move. It was political strategy and communication of the highest calibre.

Winter blues

But it was not, unfortunately, to last.

Late summer and early autumn brought more public negotiating, with Clegg calling for a one-off, time-limited wealth tax to contribute to the extra deficit reduction needed after the OBR's revised borrowing figures the previous year. Conference season saw Clegg building on this theme, stating that any further deficit reduction must start with such taxes on the wealthiest, before benefit cuts for the poorest could even be contemplated. This was good strong, clear stuff.

Yet unlike the year's earlier public negotiation, this one came to nought: there was, yet again, no wealth tax in the autumn statement. The problem for Clegg is that he'd made his support for further welfare cuts - demanded by the Tories - contingent on such a tax being introduced. Or at least he seemed to. In a public negotiation, we should not expect to achieve everything we demand. But setting out a clear position before promptly abandoning it at the negotiating table, forgetting our red lines, makes us look weak, unprincipled, ineffective and incompetent. So the autumn statement, while a moderate success for the government, was a political failure for the Lib Dems.

And it was failure despite the richest paying more in tax as a result of the changes. Because what we needed to show from the statement was an eye-catching, bold move: a mansion tax, extra council tax bands, a one-off tax on other forms of wealth. What we got was an obscure change to pension relief - essentially an increase in income tax for those on high incomes, so not even a tax on the wealthiest. The Conservatives got 'scroungers versus scrivers'; we got a tax change that needs a chartered tax adviser to understand.

What happened around that negotiating table I can only guess, and my guess would be that we got bogged down in the detail - too focussed on distributional impact assessments than likely headlines - instead of focussing on the big picture. I can think of no other explanation other than that we simply forget the negotiating position we set out a month or two previously.

2013: turnaround time

It's this contrast - between political brilliance and basic failures - that is so frustrating. Because if we can do it right sometimes we can do it right most of the time.

There's already been talk over the Christmas break of Lib Dem strategy for the year ahead: emphasising the "economically competent and socially just" message that has been long talked of but little emphasised. It's a good enough strategy as far as it goes.

But more useful, and certainly more necessary, than implementing grand strategies would be to start with the basics: consistency, communication, competence. Thinking about what we're in government to do - to make Britain a more liberal country and prove that coalitions can not only work but deliver radical, reforming government - and judging everything by those aims. An early bit of ruthlessness in the direction of the Justice and Security Bill and a set of well-thought-through, big, liberal ideas for the budget would get the year off to a flying start.

Ultimately we have to stop the self-inflicted wounds. Things are difficult enough for us as a party without incompetent execution hampering any chance of recovering our political popularity. Liberal Democrats are used to confounding expectations; with some smart politics we can make 2013 the year that we prove the cynics wrong.

* Nick Thornsby is Thursday Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs here.