Wednesday 15 July 2015

From the vaults: Tomorrow the Liberal Democrats will have a new leader—some advice from the past...

Social & Liberal Democrats Conference 1988 with Paddy Ashdown as new leader.

The challenges confronting the new leader of the Liberal Democrats will be the greatest facing any leader of what used to be the third force in British politics since 1970. Then the Liberals won six seats, had 7.5% share of the vote with 2.1 million people voting for the party.

When David Steel took over the leadership in 1976 there had already been some recovery. The Liberals had 11 MPs after the October 1974 election, taking a 13.8% share of the vote with 4.3 million voting for the party. Our new leader this week will be presented with a monumental task, requiring a massive effort from all concerned to ensure the party’s renewal. Today we only have 8 MPs, having received 7% of the vote in May’s general election, with just 2.1 million voting Liberal Democrat. Somewhat ironically for a democratic movement, the party has over 100 peers and they will now need to play a major role at Westminster.

Revisiting my speech of that time I find it, on the one hand, intriguing but, on the other hand, disappointing that the issues I identified just over 25 years ago are still very much with us today. Among the great concerns of 2015 are included the prospects for our young people, the level of welfare and care support for the poorest and weakest, the future of a free National Health Service and issues around fairness, equality, freedom and human rights.

In the 1980s, Maggie Thatcher seemed to question  what on earth society stood for and was once quoted as saying—although it was later denied—that ‘there is no such thing as society’. Her vision for progress was one of individual freedom, responsibility and advancement—placing oneself first, looking after ‘number one’. During the same period, Norman Tebbit suggested to the unemployed that they should ‘get on your bike’ and look for work. Now whether it is palatable or not to many in our country, Mrs T laid the foundation for a society not based on community spirit, but one of  individual self-interest and greed—the ‘I’m alright Jack’ view of life. Such an attitude still prevails today...

Our politics is dominated and played out in an environment of individual self-interest—what is in it for me or what will it mean to me? The last budget was immediately analysed in such terms where it was quickly found not to be as fair as initially propounded—yes, it talked about a ‘living wage’ but in fact it was a highly regressive budget developed along the lines of ‘to those that have shall be given’ and ‘to those that have not’ it shall be taken.

What is becoming sadder by the year is how the Labour Party is increasingly fearful of being seen on the side of the poor, less well-off and the underprivileged. Although he and I never saw eye to eye on many things at all, I still remember Neil Kinnock’s eve of the poll speech in 1987 (I believe)—warning people not to be old, not to be ill and so on. Not much of that is heard from Labour anymore.

This ‘politics of fear’ demeans the body politic. It is an issue that the new leader of the Liberal Democrats must address head on. Yes, the party will stand up for the less well off in society as well as those who cannot help or care for themselves. And on the side of those desperately trying to get onto the ladder of success and gain a modicum of prosperity whether unemployed through no fault of their own, a student, low wage earner or a public service worker who is being asked to accept a 1% annual pay rise for another four years...

Then, of course, there are the big issues over Britain’s future in Europe, our role in the world, a range of environmental and humanitarian matters and the ever widening spectre of international conflicts. In all these, the new leader will need to be radical and not afraid to tell people that Britain is nowhere near being a world power any longer and that we should stop pretending. This world is dominated by the USA, China and, to some extent, Russia, with Brazil, India and others quickly following behind. Of course, Germany is hugely influential in the European context. At best we are a middle ranking world power—lacking real military might and international influence. In short, we are a European power and that is where our destiny lies—unless of course you fancy just being an isolated island in the Atlantic, as UKIP and the right wing of the Tories dream.

One of the reasons I suppose I never quite ‘got on’ in politics was that I was considered ‘too radical’ at times and often thought of as ‘a maverick’ as one newspaper called me when contesting Hereford in 1992. But the views I held and the speeches I made during the 1970s are still valid today on matters such as democracy, fairness, freedom, equality, community, environment, internationalism, Europe as well as constitutional and electoral reform. They could probably be repeated word for word—even the one I made in 1974 calling for a ‘social democratic’ Labour Party!

For the Liberal Democrats to recover they have to be that radical force just described. To quote from the 1988 speech linked as a video below ‘it is not the name that matters, my friends, but who we are and what we stand for’. It is all to do with the road that our new leader chooses to travel and, more importantly, the set destination.  For me, the aim remains as in 1981 ‘To replace Labour, defeat the Tories and be in Government—no deals, no pacts’. 

That is why the last five years saw the Liberal Democrats falter and fail miserably—the vision, goal and destination got blurred and the voters neither understood nor subsequently forgave the party.