Election Review | Liberal Democrat Lord Greaves
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The party’s Campaigns and Communications Committee has just published its 23 page report from its review panel into last May’s dreadful General Election, which it claims an amazing 7500 people responded to. The introduction by its chair James Gurling tells us that the purpose of the review was “not to apportion blame or airbrush reality” but to identify root causes and “most importantly of all” to recommend actions that the party can take to “minimise the chances of a similar result in elections up to and including 2020”.
There are 65 “key recommendations” which vary from common sense to fence-sitting to a few that will cause bother. The Federal Executive has agreed the lot and they are going to be “regularly and closely monitored for action and implementation in the months and years ahead.” Hm. The problem is that taken as a whole this mechanistic recipe does not begin to describe what the party now needs to do to survive. This is pity because the analysis of what went wrong is quite good. While the panel have been careful not to be overtly critical about the previous party leader and his coterie, you don’t have to read very deeply between the lines. The Executive Summary itself says bluntly that “we singularly failed at using our new position to garner support, retain and communicate our vision, or maintain a unique offer.”
The analysis is of stark political failure. Of a party that lost its way from the start and carried on the same way for five years of Coalition, accepting and indeed (at the top) promoting Tory measures such as tuition fees, the health bill, the bedroom tax and so much more. An early warning was the Academies Act, dumped into the system by Gove and thought at the time to be mainly about free schools, though now it’s the academy transfers that are steadily destroying the whole system of democratic local schooling. But in retrospect the biggest disaster was the commitment that Tory levels of austerity would over-ride everything else.
As we abandoned our policies and our principles, the core voters we had been building up abandoned us. First we had two years of Rose Garden mush – “two parties working together in coalition is a good thing: we are proving it can work.” The country fell out with that idea after a few weeks. Then “differentiation” was promoted as a means to survival in the second half of the Parliament but it was too late – we had nothing distinctive left to differentiate ourselves from the Tory Coalition.
The review team correctly point out that by that time the people at HQ had adopted a command and control ethos which was never going to succeed in a party which was losing its local workforce at a frightening rate – Councillors, MSPs, MEPs, members all cast to the winds as local parties were hollowed out. At the same time the national campaign leadership was a shambles with no-one clearly in charge. For over two years we promoted the meaningless slogan “Stronger Economy Fairer Society”, then abandoned it in the election for even worse rubbish including the derisory “Look Left, Look Right, Then Cross” and the facile and vaguely subfascist “stability, unity, decency”.
Much of the report is about the failures of the party institutions and activists to come to terms with Coalition, and the other side of the coin – the way that Liberal Democrats in government and inside Parliament failed to relate effectively to the party outside. When the democratic institutions of the party and local campaigners reacted against Coalition policies they were seen as a problem to be fixed rather than a resource to be used to put pressure on the Tories.
What the review does not do is describe the dysfunction of the processes within Westminster which in spite of the heroic efforts of some people were central to the failure to establish a clear Liberal agenda and to communicate to the party and the wider world our many achievements within the Coalition. Serious problems included the top-down control by the Deputy Prime Minister following stitch-ups on major issues in the Quad and between himself and Cameron, the unsuitability of many of the SPADs who tried to control the party at Westminster, a leader with little knowledge or understanding of the party, the split between the government and Liberal Democrat backbenchers and peers, hard-working ministers achieving much that was unknown or not understood outside – and indeed the chasm between the party in Westminster and the party in the country.
Differentiation did indeed come at the end when the Conservatives lost all sense of Coalition unity or even decency and went all out on a right-wing Tory fling to sweep up their maximum core vote and sweep away the Liberals. In spite of all the prior polling efforts led by the over-promoted Ryan Coetzee with his “20% target Liberal vote” the Liberal Democrats, left with no clear message, ended up as little more than the defenders of the compromises and trade-offs of Coalition. (At one of his presentations to the LD peers I pointed out that even if we got over half of his target voters, a real achievement, we would still be only just in double figures.)
So where do we go from here? This is where the review is largely useless. The description and analysis of what went wrong are discreet but pretty accurate. Above all it’s essentially a political account and a political verdict. The result of five years of Coalition was that no-one knew what the party stood for, and neither did the party. Much of our volunteer resource had walked away, and when the election came we had nothing to say. (The report itself says that in the election “the Campaign Grid did not loop sufficiently in with ground campaigners” whatever that may mean.)
The 65 “key” recommendations are almost all organisational, managerial, technocratic – and they all have a sense of generals fighting the last battle. (We can ignore the unrealistic stuff about how to do Coalition next time!) They are also mainly top-down as if the report has not understood its own lessons about command and control. On media and messaging we learn that last May we did not even have an effective system of monitoring the media, but the emphasis on a new priority for opinion polling to produce a new message that will work now is clearly not right. First of all the party has to re-establish what it stands for.
When we get to campaigning, it’s all about “campaign management” (which just means centralised electioneering). There’s no strategy for turning the Liberal Democrats back into a campaigning party. There is one mention of “rebuilding…capacity at every level, including on issue-based campaigning” but that’s it. And then we are told the “key” is to “improve strategic discipline in our communications”. Dream on, folks! And how is this to be done? Of course…“An expanded CCC…should be the main vehicle through which the party’s campaigns are co-ordinated.” As Miss Rice-Davies once said…
It’s not all garbage. There are some useful proposals which if implemented would clear out some of the institutional rubble in the party. For instance, allowing the federal party to get to grips with candidate approval and selection, one of the most serious problems in the largely useless English Party. But much is just blather – such as saying “the federal party should develop an ongoing campaign plan incorporating all levels of elections on a rolling basis, with clear targets for each round…” Or “continue to develop high net worth donors”. And I love “Compulsory training on how to work with staff…should be put in place for all members of Party Committees” and this should include “a full day training workshop on Unconscious Bias and community engagement within six months of their appointment/election.” Then they want a “proper career structure for…campaign staff with open and transparent pay grades”; and an “individual Learning Plan” for everyone!
My point is this. If someone is going to “closely and regularly” monitor these 65 “key” recommendations “for action and implementation in the months and years ahead” they will be wasting their time. Some will lead to bother but most will just have no effect other than taking up time and efforts of the shrinking number of paid party staff, and of volunteers. The world has changed since May 2015 and the position of the party has changed with it. At national level the party is reported to be almost bankrupt. It is no longer a government party with lots of ministers with freebie political advisers. The Short money has been cut and anyway we only have eight MPs. The MEPs’ staff have almost all gone. Party HQ is a shrinking shell. Paid agents out in the field are in most places a memory. The national press with their obsession with the Commons regard the party as an irrelevance. And our huge number of peers (108 as I write) get no resources that are usable for party purposes.
The fundamental is that the party’s very existence is under threat. The Tories are already looking at the remaining Liberal Democrat seats and with the help of boundary changes before 2020 (under rules allowed through by LD weakness in Coalition) will be looking for a wipe-out. If eight seems a few, imagine three or four. And at local level, we are no longer a countrywide party. In many areas we are back to the job of building and lighting Liberal beacons. We have been here before. It can be done. But it’s not done by building a bureaucracy in London, polishing protocols and honing messages derived from lots of expensive polling.
It’s done by rebuilding a Liberal party based upon a Liberal movement of people who know why they are Liberals, resilient in its diversity and internal party democracy, not a streamlined top-down managerial machine. It’s not done by creating sophisticated career structures for the smooth-suited sons and daughters of rich parents, fresh from their Oxbridge colleges and ready to move through leadership programmes and the like before taking on safe seats…because there aren’t any. It’s done by people of all kinds getting stuck into their local communities, fighting for local services and for what they believe in.
We need to rebuild a Liberal party in which Liberals with political ambitions work with colleagues within the democratic processes for the kind of party they want to see. There are no career paths in the party now for people who want to be trained, told what to think and say, and smoothed into positions that they have never had to struggle to achieve. There is instead the glorious route of campaigning with friends, fighting with neighbours against the manipulators and the bureaucrats, winning elections with your own bootstraps. But first of all we need to put the campaigning back in Liberalism. And, as Roger Hayes wrote in a recent Liberator, we have got once again to make it fun. Sadly, there’s none of this in this report.
This is an article that Tony wrote for Liberator magazine, issue 377.
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