Everything should be going really well…. shouldn’t it?
Despite the fact that the Labour Party is in absolute disarray, the Tories have conducted a swift, but bloody civil war, and half the nation (well almost) has decided that it is in favour of Europe, the Lib-Dems are still struggling.
Opinion Polls last week, put them at a dreary 8% and there is no suggestion that the disaffected left or right are helping to forge some kind of Lib-Dem resurgence. In fact if anything, the travails of the other parties is simply reinforcing the view of most voters that the Lib-Dems are irrelevant. And that is worrying – not just for Tim Farron and his members, but, actually for the rest of us as well – because if those who cheesed off by the extremists in charge of the two main parties, feel they have nowhere to turn to, then the result will be apathy and disenfranchisement and further decay in our already spluttering democracy.
So, what is the problem with the Lib-Dems and how can they remedy it?
Well, without doubt, their biggest problem is the spectre of the coalition. Many people felt absolutely cheated by the fact that the Lib-Dems went into coalition with the Tories – it was as though they ceased to exist for anything other than self-aggrandisement or the furthering of the careers of Messrs Cameron, Osborne et al. The ease with which they supported austerity suggested that actually, at the end of the day, the Lib-Dems didn’t really care about much.
This feeling amongst voters persists and won’t be easy to get rid of.
But, until the Lib-Dems stop telling the world how great the coalition was and how they did everything in the national interest then their brand will remain toxic.
Instead, the Lib-Dems have to regain the trust of the people and that must include putting into place the type of socio-economic programme that they coherently proffered in the days of Ashdown and Kennedy, before the party was taken over by libertarian academics. Both Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy were absolutely clear about the role of the state in our lives, they were both committed to a welfare state and progressive economic policy to go hand in hand with the benefits of the free market – neither was to be subservient to the other. With Corbyn leading Labour and with Phil Hammond pulling the strings at Number 11, there is suddenly a lot of room for the Lib-Dems to forge ahead with a positive and pragmatic socio-economic policy that fully embraces the centre ground.
What the Lib-Dems shouldn’t do, is base their entire existence on a further referendum on membership of the EU – it reeks of sour grapes, in fact it already sounds dated – perhaps, instead, the Lib-Dems should see coming out of Europe as a potentially good thing – they have always been the Party of the Town Hall, they have always championed local politics – now, perhaps more than any time in a couple of generations, they can campaign to take power closer to the people with stronger, better funded local authorities. The slogan of, OK, you want your communities back, then this is how we’ll do it, may resonate.
Another problem that the Lib-Dems have is personnel – I’ve a soft spot for Tim Farron, I believe him to be an honest man, a man of principle, but, sadly, he does lack the charisma and drive to enthuse those who are currently desperately tired of politicians and politics. However, there is no obvious alternative to Tim Farron – the cull at the last general election put paid to that. This, then might be the time for the Lib-Dems to bring forward new talent – if I was them, I’d scour the country for new politicians, people with youth and enthusiasm on their side, who may be more appealing than the current crop.
Finally, of course, the Lib-Dems need to go back to doing what they traditionally did well – running local authorities and telling everyone about it. The traditional image of a local councillor wearing a Lib-Dem tie looking sagely at a pot-hole that he had managed to get filled in, may have grown tiresome, but, it was important. There is a lack of interest in civic life a gap that was often filled by worthy and energetic Lib-Dems – a return to that grassroots, leaflets through the doors politics may now be the only way for the Lib-Dems to recover from the debacle of coalition and regain the nation’s trust.