Friday, 4 March 2011

Dear Nick, I'm not panicking, but I am worried

Last night the Lib Dems dropped to sixth place in the Barnsley Central. As Nick Clegg has said, it was 'a kicking' for the party, but can we afford the complacency of saying that this was just a single result in a safe Labour seat.

According to some, this is not a result to take much notice of. It was a low turnout in a seat that we had little chance of winning. It has, correctly, been pointed out that other parties have lost deposits in by-elections yet have bounced back to perform well in subsequent local and general elections. This is particularly the case for governing parties. It's also the case that the Lib Dems, when in opposition, also lost their deposit once or twice but were still able to win when it mattered. I was the agent for the SE Staffs by-election in 1996 when we got 4.69% in a straight fight between the discredited Tories and a resurgent Labour. It did us little harm the next year when we did well in the General Election.

The message from both Nick Clegg and Paddy Ashdown is that we must hold our nerve and concentrate on what we are doing in Government. Paddy especially made the point that we inherited a country in such a financial mess that the benefits of our work would not be seen until 2015.

I am worried about this message and this strategy.

I certainly don't predict the end of the Liberal Democrats on the back of a single by-election result. But, as a governing party, we have to learn from our failures.

Remember when Gordon Brown and Labour lost convincingly in every by-election and every local election from 2008-2010. Each and every time they echoed the mantra that they would listen to the message that the electorate was sending them and learn from it. Did they change a jot? Of course not. They blindly blundered on with the economic policy that was wrecking our country. As a result they got an even greater trouncing in much of the UK in last year's General Election.

So what should the Lib Dems do now?

The first thing I think we should do is to go back to the voters of Barnsley Central. Find the people who voted Lib Dem in 2010 but deserted us this time and ask them why. We should be respectful about this. They were not wrong in their decision (but that doesn't mean I agree with them).

I don't want to suggest that everything that the Government is doing is wrong - far from it. It is clear, for instance, that the re-building of our economy is the first priority and that there will be very harsh cuts to be made as a result. It's not likely that the core mechanics of this policy will change. But there are other things that we can be doing differently and we should be.

One of the laziest assumptions is that we are simply not selling the things that we are achieving well enough. This argument may have a certain truth around it, but it also echoes what Labour kept on saying when they were losing. A slightly better crafted soundbite is not going to change our fortunes.

What is going to work is the rapid introduction of more of the policies on which the Lib Dems won seats at the General Election, particularly those to do with public services. Many of the good things the Government has done in the past 9 months have been Lib Dem 'values' policies including on civil liberties and political reform. But, whilst these things are important, they tend to matter more to Lib Dem members than to 'ordinary' voters. As we have seen, a party tainted by sleaze and corruption successfully won a by-election in a seat where their former MP is in jail. What the Lib Dems need to do, despite the cuts, is to prove that we are winning the argument to get the Lib Dem vision of health services, our schools, police and local government enacted by the coalition.

We should also not be afraid to attack the Tories. I understand that we cannot do it on a national scale, but there is nothing to stop us highlighting the pigs ear they are making of running councils such as Cornwall where their waste and arrogance are staggering.

And finally, however true Paddy's comment about the benefit not being seen until 2015 might be, it is deeply worrying for a party built on a local government activist base to learn that every councillor is expected to take a kicking at the polls before we can hope to see an upswing in our fortunes. I know that Paddy actually understands our base much better than that. I hope Nick does too.

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