Thatcher: There is No Alternative

There was an alternative: three things the Lib Dems could have done differently

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There are two post-election Lib Dem narratives doing the rounds. One is that the Lib Dems were doomed as soon as they entered coalition; that from 12 May 2010 until 7 May 2015, the party was stuck on railway tracks which inexorably lead to them going from 57 MPs to jut 8. The other is that while no-one believes the party would have come out of coalition looking popular, the party made a whole series of mistakes which would have mitigated the losses and resulted in the party still having dozens of seats rather than a handful.

I hold the latter view, but it does appear that fatalism has gripped an awful lot of people at the top of the party. Although I’m not a member and am not planning to rejoin, this troubles me because the last thing I want to see is the party simply go back to repeating history. There is a lot of talk about phoenixes (I’ve used the metaphor myself), but the important thing about the death and rebirth of the phoenix is that it is cyclical. Does the party really want to spend the next 20-40 years rebuilding only to make the same mistakes time and again? I don’t understand the point of a political party that doesn’t learn from its mistakes, and while I can understand why many aren’t really excited by the prospect of introspection right now, someone has to do it (far from it for me to suggest that no Lib Dems are having this debate; the Social Liberal Forum has published a whole series of articles exploring what went wrong, among other bloggers). The “keep buggering on” mindset arguably is as responsible for the scale of this defeat as anything else.

Here then are three specific examples where the Lib Dems could – and should – have done things differently.

Tuition Fees

I’m not going to rake over the coals of the repeated stand offs between Nick Clegg and conference over whether or not to keep the scrap tuition fees policy or the wisdom of parliamentary candidates, including Clegg himself, in signing those NUS pledges; nor am I going to claim that the Lib Dems were in a position where they could have argued for HE spending to have been protected in such a way that fees could have been kept at £3,000.

The crucial issue for me is the presentation of the policy itself. Specifically, why didn’t the party insist on replacing the fees system with a graduate tax. In many important respects the current system is a graduate tax in all but name. Vince Cable himself put it on the record that he was keen to explore this option as early as June 2010.

Why didn’t this happen? Well, the explanation has always been that the Tories wouldn’t let it. I’ve never bought that for several reasons. Firstly, Clegg, Alexander (and even Cable) were against scrapping fees and Clegg’s key advisor Richard Reeves was someone who was frequently antagonistic towards the left of the party. Secondly, the focus of that troika at the time was quite explicitly about hugging the Tories as closely as possible; their stated belief at time was that being seen to be united with the Conservatives trumped all other considerations. And thirdly, we were also told repeatedly that this was a flash in the pan issue, only of interest to the Lib Dem grassroots and student activists, and would be forgotten about by the time of the next election.

Clearly, the theory that there were few political consequences to breaking this particular election pledge has been tested to destruction, but at the time that looked pretty untenable as well. The 2009 expenses scandal had made trust a central political concern, so much so that Clegg himself had chosen to make it his core theme in the election campaign, with an election broadcast which began with the words “no student tuition fees“. The logic of the party’s own election campaign was that this sort of thing was unacceptable.

The Tories of course had good reasons for trying to undermine the credibility of the Lib Dems, but they had every interest in maintaining the stability of the government. If, as we are to believe, the option of a graduate tax really was pushed as hard as Clegg claims and he was rebuffed, then that in turn should have caused him to question the validity of the “hug them close” strategy (which he persisted with even after the AV referendum). It was simply a question of judgement and priorities for the senior Liberal Democrat team, and they made the wrong call.

The 2014 Annihilation

To the annoyance of a lot of my friends in Social Liberal Forum circles, I always believed that getting rid of Clegg and replacing him with someone else before the general election would have a limited impact, certainly if done too early. If Clegg had been replaced two or three years before the general election, as a number of people hoped, then his successor would have gone into the 2015 election almost as tainted and the party would have been open to the accusation of causing government instability in the name of self interest.

2014 however marked a new low for the party, where it had been annihilated in both the local and European Parliamentary elections. In London, it was quite shocking watching the party get wiped out overnight. Lord Oakeshott had commissioned a number of polls which showed that Clegg was a liability to the party and attempted a rather ham-fisted coup on the back of them; but you didn’t need those polling figures to tell you the blindingly obvious. Clegg was a busted flush. A new leader, punctuating a new direction for the party, would almost certainly have made a difference.

The party’s decision not to go down that route was highly depressing to watch. The reason it went into government was an admirable case of putting the national-interest above the interests of the party. The reason it didn’t ditch Clegg was focused more out of loyalty for the individual than anything else. That was neither in the party or the national interest, as the electoral consequences have now shown. Being told by Clegg on a weekly basis that “there is no alternative” had lead to a dangerous level of groupthink.

Of course, a coup would have been risky. But once again, it was in Clegg’s gift to do the right thing.

The 2015 Election Campaign

I don’t really know where to begin with the general election campaign itself. One of the things it had been impossible to avoid as a friend of several Liberal Democrats was that for the past two years they had been told that the secret to the party’s success was to stay on message, and that that message was to be “a stronger economy in a fairer society, allowing everyone to get on in life”. So it was a surprise to see that messaging get ditched at the start of the campaign in favour of “look left, look right, then cross” – a phrase which was as naff as it was meaningless. If I want slogans reminiscent of 1970s road safety campaigns, I visit Scarfolk; I don’t expect serious election campaigns to use them.

But the messaging was to get increasingly worse. First, we had the odd Wizard of Oz references to giving Labour a brain and the Tories a heart; cute, but again essentially meaningless. As the election date loomed and anxiety over the Scottish wipeout intensified, the focus on the Tories and Labour was relaxed in favour of dire warnings about what would happen if the SNP or UKIP have any influence over government. Then it was if someone had suddenly realised that the party had spent four weeks talking about everybody apart from themselves, so a new slogan was concocted, which was possibly the worst yet – “stability, unity and decency” – which managed to sound as crypto-fascist as it was uninspiring.

Clegg’s resignation speech lamented how the politics of fear had won the election. What he failed to mention is that he had spent the past couple of months stoking fear himself. The election broadcasts consisted of night-time road users cautiously attempting to cross roads in the face of speeding incoming traffic. The symbolism is simple enough to follow; a vote for anything other than the Lib Dems will have pant-wettingly terrifying consequences. But nowhere is there a real answer. We know we’re meant to think that the Lib Dems are the only good choice, but we aren’t told why.

Mark Pack has lamented how the ghost of 1992 and the endless talk of coalitions was revived in this election campaign. What I don’t understand is why Paddy Ashdown, leader in 1992 and election supremo in 2015, though it was a good idea. All the Lib Dem campaign did was to reinforce the Tories own messaging about the dangers of a government which Labour and the SNP have influence over. If you tell people to vote for the devil they know, don’t be surprised if they end up voting for the senior coalition partner.

All things being equal, it is very possible that even the best judged election messaging would have made very marginal difference to the election result, but by playing up the unrelenting doom, the Lib Dems were simply curling up and dying. Worse, the party has seen the dangers of appearing too establishment in the past; I’m thinking the 2007 Scottish elections and numerous council elections where the party has been in control as an example. I simply don’t understand why took the conscious decision to spend an entire election campaign trying to sound as uninspired and insidery as possible.

There is a very real risk right now that the Lib Dems simply “keep calm and carry on”. If they do, their hopes of revival are extremely limited. The question I have for the leadership election candidates is: which of the two of you is capable of taking control of your own destiny? Nick Clegg was extremely capable of presenting all his decisions as simply the only logical course of action, that any deviation from the road would lead to chaos and instant death. He surrounded himself with advisors that told him what he wanted to hear, presented every policy choice he took as effectively out of his control, presented every compromise he made as inevitable. In that respect, he could not be more illiberal: his politics was one in which agency had no part to play. It was summed up in his election campaign: straight ahead, with no deviation, in the face of everything which said it was time to turn.

The question Lib Dem members have to ask themselves as they decide which candidate to vote for is: does this man believe that the road back to power is a straight one of “obvious” choices, or a winding one with a series of crossroads. If they know what’s good for them, they won’t go for another leader who believes it is the former.

14 thoughts on “There was an alternative: three things the Lib Dems could have done differently

  1. I agree with much of this, but one I definitely disagree with is the motivation for not dumping Clegg after 2014. A LOT of LDs I spoke to said, privately, that they wanted Clegg to stay on because they wanted to see him punished for his mistakes and that they didn’t want to hand another leader the poisoned chalice of an election in which we were doomed no matter what.
    I disagreed, and thought that reasoning was completely daft, but I think it played at least as much a part in not getting rid of him as any loyalty.

    1. That may well be the case, but a) Clegg could still have resigned and b) it was still a failure on their part to put punishment of Clegg above the party and national interest.

  2. I’m in agreement with all three points:

    1) The one thing I would mildly disagree on is that if the party had found some way out of the tuition fees mess (and there really did seem any desire from the leadership to do so) then I’m sure something else would have replaced it as the totemic betrayal – NHS, maybe? Regardless, the problem was that the party misjudged the response to it, especially when we got to Clegg’s ‘I’m sorry for breaking my promise, but you can rest assured that I’ll be making sure it doesn’t happen again by not making any more promises’ attempt to dig out of the hole.

    2) There’s probably a whole book in failed leader removals in British politics (add in Purnell in 2009, Portillo in 1995 and many others) and I think the flaw here was that Oakeshott et al misjudged just how viciously the Clegg cheerleaders would fight back. There was one part around then when people were almost literally asking Naomi Smith ‘and when did you last see your father?’ Of course, Oakeshott blundered by moving before the European results as it almost allowed people to start discounting them and whoever did the change petition starting it before polls closed on the Thursday, which allowed for a lot more ‘you should have been knocking on doors’ criticism. Imagine if there hadn’t been that to distract people on the Friday and Saturday as they saw the continued wreckage of the local election results, then got the Euro massacre on the Sunday and finally Oakeshott moved on the bank holiday slow news day.

    And 3 will no doubt go into the annals as how not to run a General Election campaign, though maybe the purpose of it was entirely experimental to finally discover just what the Lib Dem core vote is.

    1. I’m confident that they would have found something other than fees to attack the Lib Dems on, just as I’m confident that the NUS (among others) would have been quick to call support for a graduate tax as a “betrayal”. But they would struggle to find something that was so laden with symbolism. We know the truth of that because they have attempted to pin the “broken promises” badge on a whole range of actions, and they haven’t stuck. If they could have replaced fees with three examples of Lib Dem broken promises, they certainly would have done.

      In that respect, the party actually played its hand quite well.

      1. Two things in response to this point. Firstly, wasn’t the NUS in favour of graduate tax?

        Secondly therefore, wouldn’t the argument then be about the amount paid? Much more difficult to slap on someone’s forehead.

        Generally I like this post, in particular the point about agency, but I think it under-appreciates the level of incredulity among non-Lib Dems that nothing was done once the party was aware of the whole shebang going very badly.

        It was hammered in every set of Council elections. And it should have been obvious that it would be, given that so much of the LD vote in so many places was based on bar graphs beseeching voters to support the LDs to keep the Tories out.

        Even from the point of view of base political calculation, none of us outside the Lib Dems can work out why this didn’t raise significant debate and huge wobbles in support for Clegg. In comparison to how Charles Kennedy (a vastly more successful leader) was treated, it seems all the more inexplicable!

        One of the hallmarks of liberalism should be critical debate and openness. It just seems to have been lacking in the most basic amounts for the last five years – people have not even been honest with themselves, let alone each other?

        1. I’ve said before that while the Lib Dems have a very democratic constitution, they don’t have a democratic culture. Richard Grayson always used to say that the Lib Dems were “under-factionalised” and while I don’t see many of Labour’s factionally driven non-arguments as especially helpful, that inability to have serious ideological debate without collapsing into stupidity about “friends of cake” versus “friends of biscuits” (I wish I was exaggerating), always struck me as debilitating. The Rennard debacle was also indicative of that.

          With that said, I wouldn’t deny that the Lib Dems’ choices were limited once they were in government, and I wouldn’t underestimate how Labour’s inability to seal the deal with the electorate (dramatically illustrated last week, but a common theme throughout the last parliament) factored into it. The risk of breaking up the coalition was forcing an election which the Conservatives could go on to win. Now we know that that was not merely a distinct possibility, but a probability. Certainly the Lib Dems wouldn’t be rewarded for causing such instability.

          I agree that there too little internal questioning (although there was more than I suspect you will give them credit for), but I also recognise that destabilising for its own sake would have simply worked in the Tories favour. If Labour had managed to provide a viable opposition over the last few years, things might have been different.

  3. I used to be baffled as to why the current tuition fee system was not branded as a graduate tax – until it became clear a few months ago that the Tories plan to sell off the loan book. Then it all became horribly clear. You can’t sell off a tax revenue stream.

    As for replacing Clegg earlier, I think the poisoned chalice argument was a strong one. What credible candidate would have wanted to start their leadership by steering the party to what was always going to be a bad defeat, even if it need not have been quite as bad as it turned out to be? At least now the new leader can reasonably assume that the only way is up.

    I agree with you that the campaign messaging was terrible, though, and I hope the phoenix imagery doesn’t go much further. It will only act as a reminder to the electorate of just how terrible this defeat was.

  4. Glad to read your comments on politics. One thing I challenge however is ‘nor am I going to claim that the Lib Dems were in a position where they could have argued for HE spending to have been protected in such a way that fees could have been kept at £3,000’.

    Had there been the political will obtaining a freeze on fees should have been relatively straightforward. It was quite literally a signature policy and (in addition to the Federal Party campaigning on the issue for a third Election in a row) the Party in Scotland had already gone as far as scrapping them completely. Given the preference of the Conservatives to increase fees (who incidentally didn’t and weren’t required to dump on their core vote), had the Brown review still published (and so proposed a big increase) then a freeze may have seemed a meaningful achievement.

  5. What happens if you have a leadership election and no-one comes?

    Seriously, if Clegg had been no-confidenced, there’s a very good chance that he’s have been re-elected unopposed.

  6. Wasn’t one of the biggest difficulties that the Lib Dems never found – or even looked for – a solution to the problem of maintaining the party’s identity in coalition?

    Essentially, they looked, acted and spoke like Tories for five years. It was almost as if they’d forgotten they wouldn’t be able to stand as Tories when the election came.

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