My life in politics – 40 wasted years?
By John Marriott - Lincoln, Sleaford and North Hykeham
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats
To be honest, I fail to get excited about general elections in Lincolnshire as, with the odd exception, you usually have a pretty good idea how they will turn out. This one, as far as the national picture was concerned, did, however, come as a surprise to many of us, although the predicted percentage votes for all parties except Tory and Labour were pretty accurate. What these percentages didn't translate into were seats in parliament, and we all know where the fault lies for that.
The next time I see him, I have to offer one of my best friends a grovelling apology. About six months ago he assured me that the 'Liberals' would be 'toast'. 'Oh no', I replied, 'haven't you heard of the incumbency factor?' Yes, I, like many of our party and many commentators for that matter, believed that, where we were established, we would hold on, possibly with as many as 30 seats. So, apparently, did Lord Ashdown, judging by his reaction to the exit poll at just after 10pm on election night. It wasn't the prospect of him eating his hat which made me sad; but rather the comment he made on 'Question Time' the following day about who now would ever want to enter a coalition with a bigger party again if it knew it would be excoriated by the voters. You could see the pain in his eyes. After a fine career in the military, part of it spent fighting communism in Malaya, he gave up a lucrative job in the diplomatic service (and a house overlooking Lake Geneva) to come home in the 1970s to intermittent unemployment and fight and win the previously safe Tory seat at Yeovil. He took over the remnants of the Liberal and SDP Alliance in 1989 when it was plus or minus 3% in the opinion polls and turned it into a real third force in British politics. When he speaks, we should listen. We should also feel his pain.
Lord David Steel's recent article in the Guardian does make some interesting points; but I wonder whether someone who must have known about the goings on with the likes of the late Peter Bessell, Jeremy Thorpe and Cyril Smith (the latter certainly on his watch) is the best person to be offering advice at this time. I detect, particularly in his reference to Nick Clegg, a certain taste of sour grapes! I've only met Mr Clegg once (except for a phone call in 1998 when he was touting for support as an MEP); but that doesn't make me feel undervalued. Come to think of it, I've only met Lord Steel once; but, so what.
Let's be honest. With one or two notable exceptions, we were crucified at both national and local level nearly two weeks ago. Of all the parties ours was the only one whose percentage compared with 2010 went into reverse (unless you want to include the BNP). What happened to the breakthrough in Bosworth, which our experts reckoned we could win? To take pleasure in having the lowest swing in the country against us is a rather odd way of trying to salvage some credit. And as for that other 'target' seat in Ashfield, you couldn't make it up, could you? What about all those lost deposits?
Will we really learn any lessons or will it be 'business as usual' after the dust has settled with more self denial or false euphoria? Did we really not see it coming? After all, the results in various national elections over the past five years, with the notable exception of the Eastleigh by election, should have prepared us for the tsunami that engulfed us on 7 May. It's nice to have all those new members; but are they actually going to do anything other than just pay their subscriptions or become cash cows to be badgered for extra donations by some earnest young researcher from the Great George Street call centre? Will some of them actually get involved and eventually become the councillors and MPs of tomorrow? We had better warn them that it won't be easy.
I have been actively involved in politics for nearly 40 years. In 1974 I came back from four years working abroad determined to make a difference, having seen the mess my country had got itself into under the Heath government. If I had really been serious about marking out a political career for myself, I would never have chosen to live in Lincolnshire, unless I was a conservative. But that's where my day job took me and, as I had no desire really to be parachuted into a constituency with a stronger Liberal presence, nor to uproot my young family at a crucial stage of their development, I suppose I only have myself to blame. Actually, living in the county is not that unpleasant if you can ignore the politics!
I am sure that a few bright sparks will come up with the usual platitudes at the autumn conference. I have never been a conference junkie. The rarefied atmosphere can make for bad decisions that land you in a corner from which it is hard to escape. It's about time that some of us moved out of our comfort zone. If you really want to get somewhere you have got to win over more than just the brown bread and sandals brigade, many of whom have, in any case, now thrown in their lot with the Green Party. I often think that we enjoy the 'campaigning' too much and forget about what we have to do after we have actually won. Running a council at any level calls for compromise and occasionally making decisions which we may find unpleasant. If we just want to be whiter than white then we might as well do something else.
So, is it going to be just the monthly FOCUS, the passionate press release or the next Residents' Survey? Of course they all have their place; but we need more. Will it ever be again 'Lib Dems - Winning here'? One thing is certain. Unlike Tory and Labour, you can't just stick a gold rosette on someone (or is it orange? I wish we could make up our minds about the true party colour) and expect them to get elected on a core vote which is historically at least 20% behind that of the 'old' parties. I have learned from experience that, even under FPTP, if you work hard you can win and keep winning at local level. It's at national level where it gets more difficult. The trouble is that, if you are a Lib Dem, you often have to run just to stand still. If you let up, for whatever reason, the well of goodwill can be very shallow indeed, as I found out two years ago, when I narrowly held on to my county seat for the fourth time, which we had held since 1993 with around 31% of the votes and the UKIP candidate, who actually lived in a local Old People's Home, did no canvassing and delivered no leaflets (besides never turning up to the count) finished third only 105 votes behind me and 54 votes behind the Tory. Heaven only knows what he would have done if he had actually won!
For me, the priority has got to be to modernise our political system, from which so many of our problems arise. There is now really no alternative to a Federal United Kingdom, hopefully as part of a reformed EU. Devolution to the English regions can only be successfully achieved if there takes place at the same time a root and branch reform of local government structure and finance. We still need a voting system that copes with the nuances of the pluralist society into which we are painfully evolving. UKIP has suddenly discovered that the voting system is unfair. Welcome to the club! Perhaps, for starters, it's time that the non Tory parties, including Labour, got together and promised change to the system after 2020 because it's pretty certain that Cameron and his crew aren't going to offer any such thing! One thing is certain. The Liberal Democrats are fooling themselves if they think they can achieve this on their own. There is always going to be around 30 to 35% of the population that just wants a quiet life, the 'steady as she goes' brigade - that's your core Tory vote and it's unlikely to change significantly. It's the rest who are up for grabs, especially with a Labour Party that appears to have seriously lost its way. That could be our chance to get a real and permanent piece of the action.
The late Jo Grimond put it in a nutshell when he addressed the Liberal Party Assembly in 1963. "In bygone days, commanders were taught that, when in doubt, they should march their troops towards the sound of gunfire. I intend to march my troops towards the sound of gunfire." What more is there to say?