After much speculation, Lib Dem leader Vince Cable has finally come out and said he wants to step down from the leadership as soon as logically possible. The timing on this he left vague – understandably – and seems to centre around both next May’s locals and Brexit being complete and/or halted. In addition, he wants to open the leadership up to non-MPs and indeed, wants to open up the voting for the leadership to non-members. All of this seems to be done with the idea of refashioning the Lib Dems into a sort movement.
A lot of people will be upset by Cable’s ideas for very good reason: they pretty much explicitly state that the Lib Dems as they are currently constructed are finished. To most of you this will be non-news – haven’t the Lib Dems been finished for a while now? Yet there is a small bubble of Lib Dem activism that still exists in which a fantasy is maintained that the party is doing not just okay, but incredibly well. Just look at all those local by-election victories! To these people, Vince’s announcement must have seemed the ultimate betrayal, particularly as Vince himself, in emails to members and the like, will have communicated this fantasy version of events himself over the last couple of years.
But here’s the thing: Cable is completely right on this one. On pretty much everything his announcement both explicitly and tacitly lays out. The Lib Dems, as a political party capable of changing things at Westminster, really is finished. It is truly sad to say, but 2015 killed the party. There have been roads back laid out since; yet the party has either rejected these paths, deciding instead to bathe in the warm water of reassuring falsehoods, or they have proven too difficult for the party to navigate on limited resource. Either way, you have to look at the current situation, in which both main parties are in the depths of their greatest crises of the last century at least, then look at the Lib Dems dire poll ratings and think something very major needs to change.
Truth is, opening up the Lib Dems to hopefully let me those who currently feel politically homeless, both at the top and at grassroots levels, is the only possible thing that has any chance of working. It obviously might not work, I hasten to add. But what the party has tried over the past three years and a bit has failed completely anyhow, and I’m sure you all know the definition of insanity which I’ll allude to now. Trying to revive the Liberal Democrats as a parliamentary force post-2015 was a noble thing. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, it hasn’t worked. These ideas of Vince’s just might.
Chris Phillips says
I don’t really think anything will work unless the Lib Dems can come up with some identifiable principles so that people feel they know what the party stands for again.
At the moment the party seems to have a strategy of standing for only one thing – and that’s a thing that will become impossible in six months’ time.
At the moment the party seems to have a strategy of standing for only one thing
Oh no that’s not fair — they have lots of other niche policies designed to repel the mainstream electorate too.
Paul W says
It is sensible for the Liberal Democrats to take advice from more successful sister parties – whether its La Republique En Marche! or the Liberal party of Canada. But there needs to be caution too. France has a hybrid presidential – parliamentary system and the parties there (with the exception of the Communist party) tend to form, re-form and form again – often the result of being organised around big personalities.
While Canada operates on more familiar parliamentary lines, it is also a federal state. But, here too, parties tend to be quite loosely organised. It is not unknown for people to be members of different parties at the federal and provincial levels – depending on the nature of the local political contest. And then again politicians switch between government levels – and even parties – with surprising frequency.
However, what is noticeable about the Liberal Democrat party is that, for an organisation nominally 30 years old, it seems strangely old fashioned in its operation – policy-making is a good example. Where is the formulation, direction and prioritising of party policy coming from? Is it the semi-random selection of activist attendees of a certain age – complete with bees in their bonnets about. say, site value rating and the legalisation of weed – at the annual conference? Or is there some guiding hand provided by the parliamentary leadership? It certainly looks more like the former rather than the latter.
To the outsider, the Lib Dems, in their present incarnation, appear more like a well-meaning, but slightly fusty political club for the (fairly) like-minded than a professional organisation capable of channelling and directing national political change. That is not something you could say about either Macron’s La Republique En Marche! or Trudeau’s Liberal party of Canada. But it might explain why Clegg’s Lib Dems messed up big-time with the Coalition – despite their leader’s best efforts.
Alex Macfie says
Paul W: It was Clegg and his coterie who messed up the Coalition and caused the electoral catastrophe of 2015. They were politically naive and refused to take advice on how to handle coalition from those in the party who had experienced being in coalition at some level of authority (regional assemblies and local authorities). And fundamentally, it was Clegg & co who did not understand the culture of the party they were leading, or how to do coalition.
Paul W says
I can well believe Clegg and co. failed to take advice. Nick Clegg, after all, came from a spell in the very different atmosphere of the European parliament which operates on a trans-national, cross-party alliance building basis. But Clegg and co. were also battling a too cosy Lib Dem culture and party structure that was not up to sustaining a role in national government. Nothing new here. The Labour party had a similar problem before the arrival of the Red Rose era in the mid 1980s, following the heavy defeat of 1983.
Alex Macfie says
Paul W: Lib Dems had had experience in power at local government and in devolved assemblies. A lot of the time this was in coalition with another party. The idea that we were “not up to” national government is insulting and offensive. If anything, the party was rather over-enthusiastic about the coalition, as it was overwhelmingly supported at the special conference.
There is not much difference in principle between negotiating a coalition deal in local authorities or regional government and doing so in national government. These spells in power did NOT result in the kind of electoral catastrophe we experienced nationally in 2015. If Clegg & co had listened to advice from peoploe in the party who had experience of negotiating coalition deals, then 2015 would not have been so disastrous for us. I’m not saying we wouldn’t have lost seats — that is almost inevitable as a junior partner in coalition — but it would not have been the near-wipeout that actually happened.
Given that Clegg had been an MEP, it’s a wonder that he and his clique never thought to use the fact that our MEPs were not bound by the Coalition Agreement, and show how our MEPs voted as an indication of the undiluted Lib Dem position on various issues If we had done this, it might have saved more than one of our MEPs, as well as differentiating us more clearly from the nutters, anti-semites and homophobes (his words) in the Tories.
And Clegg’s political naivety was his eventual undoing. He knew of the skeletons in Jared O’Mara’s closet before the 2017 election, but didn’t use them against the odious Labour candidate. Had Clegg done so, he would probably have saved his seat, and this would have had the wider good of saving the people of Sheffield Hallam from a totally unsuitable obnoxious so-called MP.
Alex Macfie says
You say the Lib Dems are “finished” as a political force, yet the most recent opinion polls put them in double figures, with some even putting them at 11%: see http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/. The recent poll that them at 6% does seem to be an outlier.
People have written off the Lib Dems as a political force before. I remember the “what’s your name today?” era, just after the merger, when the party could sometimes be found polling 5% or less. They recovered from that one. Maybe the party structures need reform, but to assert that they are “finished” is to ignore the fact that they have got out of deeper holes before.