THE LIBERAL DEMOCRAT PARTY finds itself lost at sea, rudderless, without sail or paddle, and devoid of compass. Famously, Odyseuss spent ten years afloat after the Siege of Troy – “long adrift on shipless oceans”, as Tim Buckley sang in Song To The Siren – but there’s every chance that the Lib Dems will spend much longer than a decade wandering the political oceans if they don’t sort themselves out, and quickly.
Of course, the Party does realise it’s in trouble post its catastrophic performance in the December 2019 General Election, and Baroness Thornhill’s review has addressed some of the perceived problems. To be fair, she pulled few punches but arguably is a bit light on solutions or suggestions for radical change. I have no intention of going through her paper point for point and leave it to you to read it should you choose to so do, but I would recommend it.
It’s an old army saying that there are no bad regiments, just bad commanding officers, and this adage probably applies to political parties too. Thornhill notes that Jo Swinson’s short period of leadership was pretty disastrous overall, leaving the party with only 11 MPs at Westminster and she losing her seat and resigning shortly thereafter. Personally, I don’t blame Jo Swinson – I voted for her in the leadership election – but with hindsight she was probably too young, too inexperienced and perhaps too naïve to be leader of a political party. And she was either completely stubborn or very badly advised by those around her, of which more later. Suffice to say that whoever thought “Jo for Prime Minister” was a good idea needs their head examined.
What is completely unforgivable, though, is that the Party has yet to elect a replacement leader and will not do so until August at the earliest. I am well aware of the arguments put forward in favour of this timescale but I’m afraid they just don’t wash. A new leader should have been in place within a fortnight, and that the Party hierarchy thought, and still thinks, that an eight month hiatus is acceptable beggars belief, interim leaders notwithstanding. No serious, competent organisation in any of the private, public or voluntary sectors would deem this acceptable.
Second only to sound leadership, the Lib Dems desperately need a well understood grand strategy. By that I mean the result of some thought process which follows the generally accepted model for strategic planning, ie the identification and selection of ends, ways and means. If one does exist then I don’t know what it is, and neither do any of my fellow Party members and activists. I have asked them. Thornhill suggests the strategy for the 2019 General Election was “…a pure strategy to Stop Brexit. Under this strategy the plan would have been to ensure as many pro-remain MPs in the House of Commons as possible.”
That’s not a strategy; at best it’s a tactical (civilian “operational”) plan, and not a very good one at that. A strategy needs a vision, a statement of where the Party seeks to be plus the reasons why it wants to be there. Thereafter you can delineate how you plan to get there and the tools and processes you need to facilitate the journey. “More of the same but a bit better” is not a strategy, it’s an admission of lack of aspiration. A better strategic statement of intent might be “to win sufficient seats to be a viable and attractive coalition partner (again)” or something like that. Having lots of MPs in the House of Commons is fine, but to what end? The SNP has got more MPs from Scotland at Westminster than the Lib Dems have from the UK but they are essentially completely powerless, just as powerless as Labour’s infamous “Feeble Fifty” were a generation ago.
A word now on communications and public relations. The Party has in fact a pretty good network for communications but its use falls far short of the requirement. A major problem is that communications down the way from Party HQ are fine, but up the way not so good. In other words, HQ is on send, not receive. This seems to be particularly so on social media, where responses are virtually non-existent, not unusual it has to be said in larger, traditionally organised institutions.
A more worrying aspect is that many, if not most, messages emanating from Party HQ appear amateurish, and they consistently and almost without fail seem unable to capture the zeitgeist. Awareness of the current public mood, or the ability to “read the room” as the younger generation might put it, seems almost non-existent. Many Lib Dem press releases are purely reactive and “call for” some course of action be taken, rather than promoting the Party’s ideas pro-actively. I sometimes think that, if World War 3 were to be declared, the Lib Dem press release that day would be a “call for” more cycle lanes or something equally obtuse and irrelevant.
Now, getting closer to home, Scotland. I am no expert on the other devolved administrations within the UK, but I do know a little bit both about Scottish politics and the Scottish Parliament, of which I am a fan but with reservations. Here the Lib Dems have a dilemma. The Party would like, it seems, to have a one-size-fits-all to policy across the UK, particularly with regard to its stance on the Union. But this flies both in the face of the devolution settlement and the realpolitik of today’s constitutional context. Policies which may be appropriate for the rest of the UK do not necessarily apply north of the Border.
For one thing, in Westminster the opposition is the party of Government, the Conservatives. In Scotland it is the SNP. These parties have different priorities in their respective bailiwicks. For the Lib Dems in general, and the Scottish Lib Dems in particular, the issue of a second Scottish independence referendum is a particularly thorny matter. Being a unionist party the natural inclination would be to oppose a second referendum. But for the Scottish Lib Dems to go into the 2021 Holyrood elections on a stop indyref ticket would be politically suicidal. It would merely be a reiteration of the “Stop Brexit” pledge, and we all know how that panned out.
So I believe the Party has to accept that the times have moved on and readdress its attitude to the whole Scottish independence debate. Becoming pro-Scottish independence is probably a step too far at present, but I would suggest the Party needs to move to a position of neutrality on the issue, perhaps on the basis that it is ready and eager to serve the Scottish people to the very best of its ability whether the country chooses to remain part of the UK or otherwise. Some within the Party will regard this as heresy and move Heaven and Earth to ensure it does not become policy, but the alternative is, I firmly believe, the party will crashand burn bringing it political oblivion north of the Border.
The Liberal Democrat Party is, arguably and sadly, now largely irrelevant at national level. Radical change is urgently required if it is to continue to play its part in UK politics. And yet, as Thornhill points out, the Party knows what is has to do to achieve this, it has just ignored past experience in pursuit of goals which were, frankly, just so much wishful thinking. The key lies locally, at local authority level. MPs and MSPs tend to get elected in constituencies where there is a firm base of elected councillors and activists who have learned, often through bitter experience, what works. And it is at the local level where the schwerpunkt of Party activity needs to be focused if the Lib Dems are to regain relevancy in modern British politics.
© Stuart Crawford 2020
Stuart Crawford is a member of the Scottish Liberal Democrats and has been a local council candidate and General Election campaign manager.