Well, Thursday was an absolute disaster. Losing a third of our councillors and the AV referendum 62-38. So where did we go so wrong?
The meltdown was inevitable. It’s pretty much a “midterm effect”: after a realigning election, the new government suddenly becomes a lot more unpopular because they can’t sweep away the cobwebs they said they’d get rid of. This happened to the American Democratic Party in 1994 and 2010, but not to the Republicans in 2002: because 2000 was a steady hand-over instead of the landslides of ’92 and ’08. A new liberal force in politics was bound to be unpopular once it started to govern: some promises have to be broken, after all, if you need to govern properly.
Our problems are probably a matter of style rather than substance. We can look to the tuition fees issue where we failed so badly on the issue. Instead of taking a harder line behind the scenes to make sure the £6,000 limit was adhered to, or saying “under Labour, this would be £12,000; under the Tories alone, it would be £20,000” we made some overtures about how they would still be fair. And we suffered very badly; in Hyde Park and Woodhouse, where my student flat is, sitting Lib Dem councillor Karim Abdul Ghaffar went from safe first to third to Labour and the Greens (albeit by one vote). Overall, our image has suffered from appearing to be cosying up to the Tories. This may be true. There was a general feeling that Cameron and Clegg had made a gentlemen’s agreement that Cameron would get some policy concessions in exchange for his silence on the referendum.
Obviously, Cameron tore up the gentlemen’s agreement. He not only actively campaigned against it, he endorsed and sanctioned attacks on Clegg. The end result is that the Lib Dems have been punished for all the unpopular Tory policies. Cameron, however, has ended up squeaky-clean from this. So what do we do?
Now the referendum is over, we have only one obstacle: the Fixed Term Parliaments Bill. Once the Queen lifts her hand from the paper, we need to begin the Four Year Fightback. Of course, we probably don’t need to wait for that; both the Labour and Conservative parties know that they can’t get a majority (the Tories will only take a few marginals with the Lib Dems, and Labour gains in North England will be offset by SNP gains in Scotland), and Maastricht still serves as a reminder why even a small majority is worse than no majority. Cameron may threaten a snap election but it’s not in his interest. Nor is it in Labour’s interest to call an election with such a slender lead in the polls that would disappear by Election Day. However, it’s best to play it safe.
The first priority would be to kill the Lansley reforms. They’re unpopular among the general population, and within the party. It would not be unimaginable to see all thirty-nine backbenchers vote against it. The reforms go beyond the Coalition agreement, and I can see a few of the under-secretaries and PPSes also resigning to buck collective responsibility. More than two thirds of the party voting to reject the reforms, leading to the bill getting voted down, would be a massive PR coup for us.
This needs to go hand-in-hand with a new strategy. Instead of presenting the coalition as the “best way”, the coalition needs to be also presented as the “only way”. Instead of the meeting-of-minds approach we had over legislation, we need to make massive and visible policy victories, and compare it to what would happen under Conservative majority government. And we need to be combative over Labour mudslinging and hypocrisy: for example, for every eight pounds the coalition are cutting, Labour would’ve cut seven. Labour would’ve raised tuition fees. Labour would’ve probably introduced an element of privatisation in the NHS. Ashdown did some of this on Question Time on Thursday, highlighting that Labour promised reform four elections in a row and reneged on the promise.
As far as the devolved administrations go? It’s imperative that we work with Labour in the Welsh Assembly. This is very important to the party image. We need to give the image that we are willing to work with anyone, even people that we may regard as political enemies. In Scotland, we should work with Alex Salmond’s new majority government, and support any attempts at increasing Scottish autonomy. Possibly even supporting a referendum on independence even though we don’t support indepedence. We aren’t just liberal, we’re also democrats. And in Northern Ireland, our political siblings, the Alliance Party, need to continue to work with both Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists, in the interests of pluralism and democracy.
And finally, constitutional reform. We cannot let the issue of reform rest, despite the bleatings of John Reid and the rest of the Labour Dinosaurs and Cornerstone Conservatives. We need to hold Cameron to his promise of Lords reform, and we need to make sure that Clegg’s current 80:20 bill doesn’t get watered down (and we should campaign for it to be fully-elected). We need to keep proportional representation, by the single transferable vote, as party policy. We must admit that the alternative vote has failed, but only the alternative vote. The public are, and would be, willing to back proportional representation, especially if 2015 gives majority governance in Wales and Scotland but another hung parliament at Westminster. And in 2015, we must insist in any negotiations on continuing constitutional reform: not just elections, but for wider democracy, and for localism.