Sunday, 19 July 2015

The Liberal Democrats can only move forward successfully by being able to understand what went wrong and why ...

Note that this blog was written before announcement of the new leader.

It will not serve our new leader well if matters are swept under the carpet and allowed to fester.

Kirsty Williams in a thoughtful speech last Wednesday, 15th July, delivered her views on the Liberal Democrats and the coalition years, along with what she termed the ‘Road Map’ to the 2016 Senedd elections in Wales. The ‘Road Map’ will be the topic of my next blog.

During the coalition years I was an observer of what was taking place, being kept up to date through various media channels. I was far from happy about developments and said at the outset to a group of school inspector colleagues—at the time of the joint announcement—that ‘no good will come’ of this coalition with the Tories for the Liberal Democrats.

I am firmly of the view that the party can only move forward successfully by understanding what went wrong, why it happened and what are the lessons for the future?

It will not serve the new leader, the party and our members any good at all to sweep things under the carpet and allow matters to fester. The Federal Executive is conducting a review of the last general election and consulting widely with the membership—with view to presenting a report at the forthcoming annual conference in   Bournemouth. That will be the appropriate time to discuss openly and in a constructive spirit the causes of the party’s disastrous performance. It is nowhere near acceptable enough for the Liberal Democrats to follow Nick Clegg’s line, stating that we won’t apologise for the coalition years—explaining that we put ‘country before party’ and suggesting that some would do the same again!

A great movement for change and reform has been decimated after thirty years and more of hard work that saw the party climbing from 6 to 57 MPs, around 1,500 Councillors to over 3,500, and from having over 100,000 members for much to have gone. Thankfully and quite remarkably, membership has increased some 14,000 since the general election to 63,000—which speaks volumes about the residue of concern and affection people have for the Liberal Democrats.  So it has to be laid to rest, a line drawn in the sand. However, we do need something akin to a short ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ period to ‘clear the air’ and to allow all the negative feelings and disappointments to lay rest. It will make for a cleaner and clearer break with the coalition years, facilitate a fresh start with a new leader and enable us to return to being that party of fairness, equality, justice, compassion, change and reform. Well, at least, that is my view as I am eager to move on after the ‘air has been cleared’ and will do all in my power to support the new leader. It could well be the case that history will be kinder to Nick Clegg than the electorate—but as one well-known economist once quipped ‘in the long term, we’re all dead’.  

Kirsty Williams the Welsh Liberal Democrats Leader has been near the action throughout the period and has indicated her opinions on the coalition years and they are very well made. They are ones that I totally agree with. In summary she says:

‘We lost a colossal amount of trust over tuition fees.  Not only did we break our pledge … it’s worse than that, it never even looked like we fought to keep it…it was a mistake of the highest order and one for which we were never forgiven…Details no longer mattered, people simply stopped listening’. 

‘The Tories, frankly, were better prepared back in 2010, constructed a more potent narrative, and were brilliant at assimilating Lib Dem policies and boxing us in. Critically, they owned the economic narrative and made the political weather. We got the grief when things went wrong and never the credit for the good stuff’.

‘let us be in no doubt, although we were dealt a difficult hand, we could have handled it better. Obsessed with showing that coalition could work and that we could take ‘tough decisions’ we lost our own focus, our own identity, forgot to take ownership of our achievements until it was too late … From the Rose Garden on, we were swallowed up’. 

‘more than that – and maybe in the end this was the biggest self-inflicted wound – we appeared to the electorate to leap from a firm and hard fought anchorage in one part of UK politics to another without so much as a by-your-leave’

‘Saying that it was disorienting for those who had supported us when we formed the coalition with the Tories for five years is perhaps one of the great understatements of the last parliament. Sometimes, even from within, it felt like we were struggling to locate a compass to navigate our way through with our values unscathed’. 

It is difficult to argue with the points made above. So what on earth happened and why didn’t the corporate body of the Liberal Democrats at Westminster and across the country put a stop to what was going on? Her summary indicates to me that there was something wrong with the way the party was operating. My view is that the party seemed doomed from the outset of the coalition and most definitely by the time of the election campaign. All the evidence points towards one conclusion—the only deal in town for Nick Clegg was one with the Tories.

He had made it clear several times before the election that in the event of a hung parliament he would talk first to whichever party held the largest number of seats—more often than not, at the time, the opinion polls were continually favouring the Tories as the likely largest party. The long standing constitutional practice in our country of the incumbent Prime Minister being allowed to have the first opportunity of forming a government was put to one side.

Therefore, was no-one advising Nick Clegg about UK convention or was he just not the listening type—and that his mind had already been made up about dealing with Labour?  Those of us that follow events closely will recall seeing Vernon Bogdanor on televisiona highly respected constitutional expert—explaining how convention worked in UK politics. It was not the case that Gordon Brown had lost ‘legitimacy’ to govern and had no right to form a minority Labour government.

I just do not understand why Steel, Ashdown, Kennedy and Campbell, did not carry sway with Nick Clegg. In the immediate aftermath of the election, David Steel accepted his share of the blame and I find it quite staggering what he had to say—‘I really did not know Clegg and indeed recall having met him only once. Not very substantial excuses, I admit. So I take my share of blame.’

David Steel has argued correctly that Clegg should have gone to see the incumbent PM firstly and explore seriously the possibility of a Lib-Lab coalition. He explained that such a coalition would be ‘one more in tune with what the voters had understood of our consistent Liberal ideology under all six leaders since Jo Grimond. The arithmetic might still have prevented it, but he would have probably got a better deal out of Cameron’.

This was a defining moment in the history of the Liberal Democrats. Obviously I concede that it was not one of Nick Clegg’s choosing, but needed to be considered in the context of achieving the best outcome for the good of the Liberal Democrats in the longer-term. That had to be a key part of the equation. We all understood that the country was in a dire financial situation and that a government had to be formed, but it is my view that a more sensitive, sensible and astute leader would have turned always in the first instance for advice and guidance from his four predecessors. After all, David Steel had experience of a Lib/Lab pact in action during the late 1970s. Seemingly none of that happened and, to me, Nick Clegg appeared to be on a mission. So I will keep on returning to my belief that his favoured position, some time before the election, was to deal with the Tories—and he probably knew that his four predecessors would have argued differently.

It is important to also remember that Nick Clegg was very much a ‘new kid on the block’ at the time with only five years experience in Westminster. He became an MP in 2005 and leader in 2007, hence his first port of call for advice should have been his four predecessors as well as more senior Liberal Democrat MPs—many of whom had been in Parliament since the 1980s. It appears that this did not happen, which I find beyond any sense of understanding—other than wondering whether there was an arrogant conviction present and a pre-determined mind set of the course he was about to embark upon.

Evidently the negotiating team set up to negotiate with the Tories and, then later, with Labour comprised younger and the newer MPs as well as advisers. That, to me, fits the scenario well as he most probably knew that he could dictate comfortably to them the desired outcome. However, be that as it may, I still do not happily accept the Pontius Pilate approach adopted at Westminster and within the rest of the party at the time. It was in everyone’s interests to secure the best outcome for the Liberal Democrats with the next general election in mind. It should have been a corporate responsibility from the very outset and the party leader should have been challenged more forcibly. If the Members of Parliament and their Peer colleagues were oblivious to the likely impact— within their constituencies—of a coalition with the Tories then that is a major worry.

Again, Nick Clegg seemed to be in a hurry to come to an agreement and form a coalition government. This was odd, since it was contrary to how he would have observed European ‘coalition politics’ in action—where they often take weeks to form coalitions but in the interim, the business of government continues. His haste tends to reaffirm my view that he had firmed-up his position immediately after the election in favour of working with the Tories. As a pure outsider, observing matters from a distance, I wonder whether his background, style and persona is better suited to dealing with the Camerons’ of this world? It is true that the media were rushing the agenda and pressing for an end to the uncertainty—which is always the way of the media circus—but he should have taken his time and been more considered. The government would still have carried on with the business of governing in the interim...

Liberal Democrat members invariably turn to the good things that were achieved in Government, including decisions affecting income tax thresholds and pension reforms etc. Unfortunately, those things got swallowed up in the hurly burly of coalition politics. It was clear that the Tories had a much better publicity machine. As Kirsty Williams points out ‘we took ownership of our achievements too late’. It really was too late to make an attempt at highlighting these achievements finally in the heat of a general election campaign. Again I return to the corporate responsibility of the MPs and Peers—where were the open ‘rows’ in Parliament to indicate unhappiness? More importantly to convey to the electorate that we might be in coalition with the Tories, but not only are we different from them but we still actually disagree on many key issues!  It all appeared too cosy—and ultimately we paid a heavy price with significant consequences for the future.

Many political and tactical misjudgements were made. The timing of the AV referendum and the attempt at reforming the House of Lords were two of the most high profile. Electoral reform has been a long standing party aspiration but AV was certainly not party policy. A referendum should have been delayed, not only until a proper policy had been agreed, but until a more opportune time presented—not arranged in the midst of an economic crisis with austerity measures in full flow. It all made no sense and the level of mismanagement is truly mind boggling. This was followed by the House of Lords reform bill which ignored the party’s long standing policy on the matter and, just like the AV referendum, was always destined to fail as it eventually did. 

The real fiasco involved student fees which meant that Nick Clegg and the party lost credibility with one fell swoop very early in the life of the coalition government. From then on, the leader was damaged goods and it soon became obvious to me that there would be no way back at the next general election. The leaking of members, the substantial losses in local and European elections as well as the incessant devastating opinion poll ratings indicated clearly that the writing was on the wall even in 2011. A coalition with the Tories was bad enough, but the leader’s betrayal of the students meant that whatever achievements the party secured in government would not be sufficient to overcome the main perception that Nick Clegg was not a man to be trusted.

Again as David Steel pointed out in his post-election analysis—‘at a stroke, we had lost trust as a party, one of the few tangible assets we had especially after the Kennedy/Campbell decision to oppose the invasion of Iraq. The pledge was not just only in our manifesto – every candidate, including Clegg, had campaigned on the issue’.

How often have politicians heard voters say to them that ‘you are all the same’ and also ‘you all say one thing in opposition and do something different in government’. So along came an inexperienced Westminster political leader—glibly casting that sort of ‘feedback’ aside—promptly breaking a very public and solemn promise. Well we certainly discovered what happens to leaders and parties that espouse such a highly publicised and clear promise during an election campaign and then, very soon after in government, do the opposite. Maybe in European politics that is possible and frankly, it happens in France and Italy regularly, but not here!

Before concluding I have to turn to the Nigel Farage fiasco and the matter of Nick Clegg’s mind-set and judgement over holding a television debate on Europe. This was an ill-thought-out strategy and one that held no clear advantage to the deputy Prime Minister. I repeat the misgivings I always have had over the leader’s judgement and leadership in political matters. I can only assume that he must have concluded that this was going to be his road back to popularity and maybe even ‘forgiveness’ from the electorate for what he had done in 2010. But firstly, it was the wrong topic—Europe and immigration. The opinion polls should have alerted him to the dangers he faced on this issue. From that moment on the deputy Prime Minister, his party cabinet colleagues, ministers in the Government and MPs were viewed as being on the same level as the leader of a party that then had no Members of Parliament. Once again I return to the matter of corporate responsibility. Was there not someone older, wiser and more experienced around to put a stop to this fiasco?

To me, it appears as if the parliamentary party was dysfunctional from very early on in the five year period. Most crucially, no one had figured out an exit-strategy—carrying on in coalition until the end of Parliament was suicidal. We should have walked out of Government some 15-18 months before the election and let the Tories govern as a minority government. We needed time to re-establish our identity and try to recoup some trust and support. It could have been planned and orchestrated over a period of months with ministers resigning and Members of Parliament openly rebelling—with Peers and the Federal Executive and Policy committees playing their part as well. It would have been perfectly feasible to have told the public that after some three and a half years of doing our duty towards the country we had seen it through the worst times and were going to return to our true radical tradition.

It was obvious that something drastic had to happen for the Liberal Democrats to have any hope of avoiding decimation at the general election. There was no need to apply rocket science—opinion polls had been flashing the warning signals for years. Yet I am told on good authority that the only MP who kept on pressing—in parliamentary party meetings—the need for an exit strategy was Charles Kennedy, but he was not listened to. Well unfortunately 49 MPs discovered what the exit strategy was in a most unfortunate way imaginable...

That the party has sufficient resilience and determination to fightback and renew itself is in no doubt...but it will take time. Truly the last five years have come at a terrible and unacceptable price.