William Wallace: Reasons to be confident about Lib Dems’ future

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GIVEN the scale of the disaster the Liberal Democrats suffered in the General Election, why is the party not in disarray?

GIVEN the scale of the disaster the Liberal Democrats suffered in the General Election, why is the party not in disarray?

Partly because many of us have lived through setbacks before, and recovered support and local and parliamentary seats.

Partly because we are confident that our record in the coalition government will look better and better as the Conservatives on their own shrink the state.

Partly because we’re Liberals, naturally optimistic about the potential for reasoned debate as against the politics of fear that swept us away in the final days of the campaign.

And partly because the Conservative victory does not return the UK to old-fashioned two party politics – it’s more like another stage in the developing crisis of Britain’s unreformed political institutions.

The Conservatives won their majority with 37 per cent of the popular vote, scarcely more than the 35 per cent Labour scraped back with in 2005. Next year they will have to manage the promised referendum on EU membership, an issue which divides the party; one Conservative MP habitually described the Europhobe right of his own party as ‘headbangers’.

Labour is agonising over leadership and direction, slowly realising that the old coalition of white working class, Catholic and other recent immigrants, trade unions and intellectual socialists cannot be reassembled to form a natural majority.

The Miliband plan for this last election was called the 35 per cent strategy: based on the assumption that was the maximum vote they could attract, and the hope that our first-past-the-post system might deliver a parliamentary majority on that basis.

Ukip and the Greens have established pockets of support, and the SNP has swept Scotland. Liberal Democrats have demonstrated that multi-party government can work, although both Conservatives and Labour resisted the political reforms that would make it work better. The odds are that in 2020 Westminster and Whitehall will have to adapt again.

In-depth polls show 25 to 30 per cent of the electorate share Liberal values and priorities: a commitment to civil liberties, to international co-operation, to a fair society and a well-regulated market, to public service and to a state that invests in education and essential services but which operates as locally as possible. We set out to appeal to that 30 per cent, not to attempt like Labour and the Conservatives to straddle progressives and conservatives, the open-minded and the closed-minded. Where we have good candidates and credible campaigns, we will win over a wider group of sympathisers.

Buyers’ remorse is already evident about the outcome of May’s election. Nearly 20,000 new members have joined the Liberal Democrats since then – as many as have paid £3 a head to vote in the Labour leadership election. Hustings meetings around the country have engaged our old and new members in our leadership campaign, with Tim Farron now in place after a positive campaign – while Labour wallows in bitter controversy until September. Across Yorkshire we retain strong council groups, and look forward to recapturing control of local government in several local authorities within the next five years. Even amid May’s national election, Liberal Democrats made council gains in York, Hull and Bradford, and held council seats in Harrogate and elsewhere. So we retain our campaigning base, from which to rebuild.

We recognise we cannot compete with the Conservatives in campaign finance, or with the money and manpower that unions make available to Labour. The power of money is part of the underlying problem of British politics: giving the Conservatives a built-in advantage which has increased as new forms of campaigning get round election rules. Ukip has also attracted major donors, while Liberal Democrats and Greens have struggled to substitute enthusiasm for funds. The weight of the right-wing national Press weighs down all progressive parties. But social and electronic media give us hope, opening up alternative channels for communication that challenge the conservative consensus.

In the next two years the Conservative Government will risk leaving Europe, while their mishandling of the SNP will risk Scotland voting again to leave the UK. Tory determination to drive down taxes below almost every other advanced democracy will cut back public investment and services, from policing to schools and care for the elderly.

The Conservatives’ plans to change constituency boundaries are intended to entrench their ability to win parliamentary majorities with a minority of votes.

Labour’s national leadership is too entrenched within the Westminster bubble to push for change. Liberal Democrats have chosen a leader from outside that bubble, who has made his life and career in the North. We are confident about our values, which Tim Farron articulates very well. And that makes us confident about our future.

William Wallace, Baron Wallace of Saltaire, is a British academic, writer and Liberal Democrat politician.