Monday, 9 May 2011

Straighten Up and Fly Right

That did not go to plan did it. The devastating results of the Scottish elections for we Liberal Democrats were partially expected but perhaps not to that full extent. In Edinburgh Eastern, I polled twelve percent down and a casual cast around showed this to be about average. Even in seats that were strongly contested with everything thrown into the fight, we were lucky to avoid a double-digit drop. What went wrong?

Let’s give due credit. The SNP ran a good campaign. Labour on the other hand ran a shockingly bad one. Liberal Democrats worked hard, as usual, and Tavish Scott actually came across well to the public. I know this because that was the feedback I was getting on the doorstep.

During the general election of 2010, we Liberal Democrats campaigned on the grounds of “we’re different.” Tories and Labour were the “same two old tired parties.” Nick Clegg was simply brilliant in the televised debates. The media was in a frenzy; not just with our performance but with the possibility of a hung parliament. Lo! It duly arrived but not how the public thought it would be. Instead of a Labour / Libdem pact, the current Coalition emerged.

Labour, never shy when it comes to negative campaigning, turned their guns upon us. The press, both left and right-wing followed because hate sells. And their combined campaign has obviously succeeded. We have become hate figures, even among some of our own supporters.

Not only that, we were not shy in self-inflicted injuries. The tuition fees increase is a policy that we introduced, piloted by the trusted Vince Cable and championed by Nick Clegg. The two most high profile people we have therefore led it. As critics at the time pointed out, the headline was a tripling of tuition fees in England. As I pointed out at the time, if we went with this we would lose all credibility: it was a policy that we diametrically opposed during the election. Pretty well all of our Westminster candidates signed the National Union of Students pledge of no increase to student fees. It does not matter one jot that the majority of our backbenchers in the House of Commons voted against it. Nick and Vince backed it therefore we, as a party were seen to back it. In the most public and obvious fashion we Liberal Democrats broke our word.

From Thursday night’s results it is clear that the SNP, although not shy at breaking promises themselves, are the beneficiaries of the combination of the negative campaign against us and our own mistakes in government. Next time somebody says that Westminster politics has no bearing upon the Scottish parliamentary elections, kick them. Then kick them again on my behalf. The SNP succeeded at our expense (and at Labour's) because they are simply not tainted with the “same old politics” of Westminster. That is how we were in April 2010.
Okay, so here we are. Rock bottom. What can we do to turn this around?

We have to look at technical details. Perhaps our excellent campaigning techniques are designed for opposition politics and not for government? Just a thought to throw out there. The main thing we have to do is from now on, match words to deeds.

To this end I have come up with The Liberal Test for any policy. In my view, government is there to serve the people and allow them to make real, effective decisions as close to the issue as possible. In addition, we are here to enable people to better themselves, their families and their own communities.

Therefore there are four questions we have to ask of any policy:

Will it encourage a person to advance in life?

Does it reduce the burden of the state upon that person?

Will more power be devolved from central government?

In bringing forward this policy, are we keeping our word?

Failure of a positive answer for any of these questions does not necessarily mean that the policy falls. But alarm bells should ring if two or more results in negative answers. For instance, the tuition fees increase fails on at least three counts.

Why is this important? There is more at play here than the future of the Liberal Democrat party. In Scotland especially but in the UK in general, liberalism itself is under threat. Both the SNP and Labour are authoritarian in nature and wish to centralise power, whether in Edinburgh or Westminster. The Conservatives, while talking about being liberal, seldom are able to walk-the-walk. Witness David Cameron’s speech on immigration and freedom of association he made in Germany a few months ago. He thinks he is a liberal but he is not. To a Conservative, the only good liberal is a classical liberal economist.

I have mentioned honouring our word several times now. What does that mean for the Coalition? Simple: it means sticking with it. As a party, we backed this in a special conference. We enter it in good faith and we continue to act so because we gave our word and commitment to this. That does not mean however that we are not being able to seen to disagree with our partners. We have to not only to be liberal, we have to be seen to be liberal. And that means public disagreement; not for show but because it is sincerely meant. We should not be afraid to stand up for what we believe in.
I used to joke that we had to hard: “It’s going to be liberal whether they like it or not.” Now I am not joking. Politically we live or die by our beliefs and how our words match our actions. Both voice and deed have to be liberal, democratic and true to our word. Anything else will simply not do.