I suspect that the current flurry of posts about where the party goes from here are as much about helping their authors get their own thoughts straight as they are about joining an internal party debate, and if so then what follows shares that characteristic. I mention that at the start by way of an apology to anyone who feels I’m simply regurgitating something they have already said; I have read some other views on this already, and agree with a good deal of them. I include at the end of this post some links to posts with which I (at least partly) agree.
The first thing is to say that the party needs, quite quickly, to establish that it can build from here and ensure that the media doesn’t simply erase us from the picture, leading to a loss of momentum and steady slide into irrelevance. Of course, frustrating experience as a party member has shown us all that trying to ensure that the media do anything is easier said than done, but we need to take every opportunity to stake out liberal territory and make the running on particular issues. I suspect that there will be opportunities, particularly in areas where we, and not Labour, have traditionally been the more consistent opponents of a particular Tory policy, such as the Snooper’s Charter and repeal of the Human Rights Act. This is especially true whilst the frame of “things the Tories can now do because the Lib Dems can’t stop them” is relevant and fresh in people’s minds. As the years of government roll on, this frame will be supplanted by a more general “things the government want to do, and the opposition say are bad”, and the default voices of opposition will be Labour ones.
Whilst the party doesn’t have a new leader, it will be all too tempting for Nick Clegg to be the voice which makes such arguments from opposition, but I think we need to resist this temptation. Nick’s brand over the last five years was clearly not a popular one, and I think one of the key errors we made as a party was to stubbornly present to the public a face who they had made very clear they were at best unenthusiastic about. That’s a mistake that I think Labour equally made, but I digress…
For that reason, I can understand Greg Mulholland’s impatience to have a new leader in place, but actually I do think a leadership contest is the key context in which a genuine post-mortem of the last five years can take place. Once a new leader is in place, whoever that is, any internal review will be bounded and steered somewhat by them. Therefore, I fall more on Mark Pack’s side the argument, and I’m happy that the FE’s timetable for the election of a new leader does leave the time for a certain amount of internal debate to take place, albeit not extensive.
For what it’s worth, I tend to agree with Greg’s assertion that the party would do best to move on and heal the sense of betrayal over tuition fees by electing a leader who did keep his pledge. I also agree with Jennie that we need to “get rid of the stupid managerial centrism and go back to being actual liberals and democrats now“, and David Boyle’s view that “the trauma of coalition moulded the party into a deeply pragmatic force, provided them with the dullest manifesto in political history“.
Whilst I can’t especially prove it right now, I think one of the core reasons for the softness of our vote on Thursday was that we weren’t presenting, at least nationally, much of a concrete sense of who we were or why people should vote for us. Tactical calculations about how best to influence the makeup of a government evidently weren’t what the public were looking for in a decision on how to vote – especially from a leader who had demonstrated that he was prepared to compromise on almost anything in the pursuit of the more grown up, consensual politics that he believed in.
Before the 2010 election, what people liked about Clegg was that he was a good communicator, and he had a spiky Liberal instinct that led to him promise, for instance, that he would rather go to jail than carry an ID card. I still think those qualities are valuable, but I suspect Clegg’s spiky liberalism was in reality an extension of his communication skills – a calculated position which suited him at the time. We later saw that, faced with the first draft of the Snooper’s Charter, Clegg and his circle in government initially didn’t see much wrong with the proposals, only hardening their line in response to the immediate reaction it provoked in the wider party.
So in this leadership election, I will be looking for a leader who abandons the definition of our party in reference to the positions of the other two, and focuses on giving the voting public a clear understanding of their brand of liberalism. I will be looking for a leader who gives the impression of having a political philosophy of his own, not a series of negotiating positions. And I will be looking for a leader whose instinct is to listen to the party, not to manage them.
In short, I’m not saying that I’m definitely voting for Farron, but I am saying that any other candidate is going to have an uphill struggle to convince me that they are a better fit for the criteria above.
I am usually instinctively suspicious of calls for unity. That it became one of our campaign slogans in the last couple of weeks now seems to be almost universally agreed as a mis-step, and yet some people have still been calling for unity and being terribly nice to each other in the wake of the result. I think I hold a middle ground here, but I must say my sympathies are more on the Alix Mortimer side of this one. Obviously a circular firing squad is counter-productive, but in the wake of a result like Thursday’s, I think we do need to be painfully honest with ourselves as a party. As ever, the secret lies in criticising actions taken and decisions made, but trying not to impugn the motivations and character of the people involved, I suppose.
Hitting the Reset Switch
Of course, for a working political party, there is never any such thing as down-time. We still have 8 MPs, 5 AMs, 5 MSPs, 1 MEP, 2257 Councillors, and so on. For the reasons I set out at the start of this post, it is vital that we don’t simply shut down for a few months of navel gazing.
The party’s current situation does call for some kind of reboot, and this is the closest thing to a suitable time to remake the party as we are likely to ever have, so we might as well grasp the opportunity for a genuine root-and-branch remodelling of the party. Not so much of its policies, as its internal structures. One of the less controversial statements to make about the federal Lib Dem party in recent years is that its interal structures are over-complicated and secretive. The Morrisey Report into the party’s processes and structures highlighted this:
The arguments over whether all of these bodies are really necessary are complex, and in many cases, if we were to sit down with a blank sheet of paper and start from the first principles of democracy, accountability and efficiency, we might well end up reinventing some of the above. But the point is, some of it we wouldn’t. Now is a great time to undertake that exercise. For that reason, I completely agree with Jennie’s call for a constitutional convention at Autumn Conference (and see the comments to that post for some interesting discussion as to how to go about it).
Of course, the party’s internal structures aren’t the only thing which need a review. There will inevitably be lessons to be learned from the campaigns of the last few years, particularly the general election. Now that we have freed ourselves from the need to keep our heads down and keep going whilst we were in government, we can be really honest with ourselves about the questions that need answering. A few years ago, in the thick of the coalition, Tim Farron gave a conference speech which has resonated for longer than most. For one thing, it was The Cockroach Speech (and by the way, go buy one of Sarah Brown’s fab t-shirts). But actually, more of it deserves to be remembered. In the speech, Tim called for “a renewal of the theory and practice of community politics”.
It was the right prescription, but perhaps the wrong timing. While we were on the treadmill of government, the party only had the mental space to take this on board superficially. Now, we need to renew our whole campaigning style. Not necessarily because what we have right now is wrong, but because it is associated with the Liberal Democrats of the last five years. Jennie’s post calls for a “rebrand”, which is a word which can provoke suspicion in some. The best rebrands flow on from genuine renewal of the underlying product. I suspect that renaming the party isn’t the answer, but rather rebuilding our modus operandi. The theory and practice of community politics is still very relevant, as Tim pointed out, and of course there is baby to be retained as we seek to indentify the bathwater.
But as The Theory and Practice of Community Politics itself argued, “[campaign] techniques are a means to an end. If they become an end in themselves, the ideas they were designed to promote will have been lost.” We don’t cease to be Liberal Democrats if we re-examine our campaign methods. If we were designing our campaigns from scratch today, what would they look like? Focus leaflets and fakey newspapers? Well, maybe, but let’s ask the questions. In particular, we need to actually properly embed the advances that technology has ennabled us to make.
Connect is a wonderful tool, but currently we spend a lot of time trying to make it fit around our established ways of doing things, rather than renewing our established ways of doing things to take full advantage of the opportunities it offers. Too many of our canvassers are unaware of its underlying mechanics and therefore fill in canvass cards as though the data was destined for EARS still. Having spent the last few months doing quite a bit of data entry in a target seat, I could count the number of tags I applied to people in Connect that might have actually been useful to Operation Manatee (at least in the way that its operation has been described) on the fingers of one hand. In part, that’s also because there are pretty limited ways of recording the nature of conversations which have been had on doorsteps. MiniVAN has also been depressingly under-exploited so far.
I’ve just seen Anders’s post, which shares some ground with the above, but I hadn’t seen it when I wrote this, honest! I’ve actually just deleted a section about updating our understanding of “communities” as more than just geographical, because Anders seems to have been thinking along much the same lines as me, and expressed it rather better than I had! I’d also like to add that whilst I sympathise with his trying to defend the party’s structures as being less complex than the diagram I quoted above would suggest, I still think it is revealing that someone who presumably sat down to try to make a clear and simple representation of how the party works apparently couldn’t do better than that diagram!
Lastly, I think it’s worth saying that the sovereignty of conference as a policy-setting body needs to be re-embedded as part of the consitutional renewal mentioned above. The best of the party’s achievements over the last five years have come off the back of policy which came from conference, and the party’s uniquely ground-up policy structure. We are happy to celebrate the wisdom of conference when it suits the leadership. When conference reps clearly wished to use conference to kick the leadership (on the Health and Social Care Act, Bedroom Tax, etc.), they were generally also right with hindsight, and the leadership wrong. And yet, too often during the last five years, it has felt like attempts by party members to use conference to sound the alarm on impending disasters were being, if not suppressed, then managed. Avoiding embarassment for the leader at conference, or respecting “the two year rule” should not be more important than ennabling the expression of the concerns of a good many people.
As Liberals, we all love a bit of navel-gazing and agonising about process, and many of us have learned to try to control that urge. But sometimes, that kind of renewal is exactly what is needed. It’s notable that there appears to be a good deal of consensus around some of this in the posts which I’ll be linking below, which is encouraging. I’ll be reading further posts with interest, and hoping to hear some engagement with this discussion from the leadership candidates.