Saturday, 15 September 2007

Sack Ming Yesterday - on The Political Outlook for The Liberal Democrats

by Edwin Hesselthwite

Get out your notebooks and badges people, it's party conference season... Time for a bunch of State of the Party posts across the blogosphere, and listening as media-puppets like Nick Robinson bang on about policy as if it has the slightest affect on polling and the landscape come next election time. First up is the Liberal Democrats, the political minnows of the moment, and after posting some tactical advice for Cameron last week, it seems only fair that we feed our wisdom to the party of Ming.

As we see the landscape, the prognosis is bad. And not just a little bit bad, we're talking 1922 bad. Your party is slamming home poll results on the 16% range, Cameron and Brown are acting like its a two party punch-up for the next election, without Iraq to campaign on you are looking utterly, utterly irrelevant.

Let's put forward raw electoral arithmetic: you currently hold 62 seats in the Commons (which you won with 22% of the vote, for the fragility of those numbers remember that back in '92 you won 20 seats on 18% of the vote). In my estimation, your support is even more vulnerable than this suggests, because much of your gains over the last 15 years have been a mixture of anti-Conservative tactical voting, and anti-Blairism among the chattering classes. Now that The Conservative Party are looking pleasant but stupid rather than Howard/IDS-style evil, and Brown has begun to lance the Iraq boil, your coalition is looking very fragile. The smart money is currently on a May 2008 election, Brown is going to be after his own mandate very soon. It is not outside the realms of possibility to suggest a squeeze on your votes from both sides leading to a meltdown of up to 40 seats, a meltdown that would almost entirely result in seats being handed over to the Conservatives.

Those 62 seats matter (duh!), because if you can hold them indefinitely you have a very good chance to hold the balance of power when the time comes for a change. This is the only chance you have of taking genuine political power (you did get into politics for a reason, didn't you?). The Labour government have currently got a majority of 66, so with only a 33 seat swing from Labour to the Conservatives, your party becomes pivotally important. The impact of a 40-seat meltdown on this is obvious, it cements the Conservatives majority. Once the Conservatives are back in power, your party is back to the sort of electoral arithmetic it was holding in the 70's, with no chance of influence. Fix your polling, or die.

That was the bad news, what space do you have for fixing this? There is one big, bad problem above all others: Ming. 20 months in office so far (elected as the only viable candidate after everyone else got mired in sex scandals), and he has made almost no impact on the media. The Today Programme isn't beating down his door, he has no equivalent to Kennedy's role on Have I Got News For You?, and there is no single issue on which he has memorably made the political weather. In the personality politics that is pivotal for minor parties (Salmond is the SNP, Paisley is the DUP, Galloway is Respect), he has failed completely to build a personal relationship with the electorate. Nor has he succeeded in playing the major party "our policies show us as fit for government" game, so you've lost on all fronts. He is not Tony Benn, he does not have opinionated gravitas, he is not a good leader.

Fortunately for you this is fixable. Get rid of him, give the job to David Laws, Chris Huhne, even Simon Hughes (despite the fact that he makes my skin crawl, nasty little shit that he is) and you have a fair chance of reinventing yourself before May. I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt, and assume you can see this one already and are doing things I can't see beneath the surface, so what political space is there for the party after the decapitation? There are two issues on which you should already be making the political weather: devolution and Europe.

The best way for a third party to get influence and media-space is to take control of the larger lower electoral offices, and it is a sign of your tactical incompetence that you have allowed The London Mayoralty, The Scottish Parliament (16 of 129 seats) and The Welsh Assembly (3 of 40 seats) to slip so far from your grasp. While I'll admit no great understanding of regional politics, I suspect much of this is due to your coalitions with the Westminster-incumbent, damaging your credibility - this was stupid. In London you have absolutely no chance of beating Ken or Boris, but since Scotland and Wales will never elect Tories, and are highly unlikely to elect the Westminster-incumbent, you should be uniquely placed to defeat the SNP and Plaid Cyrmu. Further, devolution is increasingly the elephant in the room in British politics, start talking about it too loudly and Labour has to deal with its fundamental West Lothian question problems, and The Conservatives begin to sound like the Little-England party. This is one of those issues that becomes more important the more you talk about it. And you are the only national party who have no reason to fear discussion of the increasingly precarious union with Scotland... There is massive, massive, tactical gold in talking about devolution, why are you silent on it?

On Europe you are also uniquely placed to campaign for pro-Europeanism. Your party has never hidden its pro-Euro credentials, so you need to find ways to campaign harder on Europe. You are again uniquely placed to make the weather on this issue, since Labour has to actually deal with the monolithic entity (so always has to hide its cards) and the Tories have such a historically volatile relationship with it that any mention of the beast is a recipe for fissures and splits. Today's call for a EU referendum is an acceptable stab at this, but really, cant you do better? How about campaigning for Turkish membership of the EU, or campaign for a more muscular policy in relationship to the hated CAP? But to be honest, what you need to do on Europe is not to make policy announcements, but to make sure that a charismatic LD is loudly and outspokenly campaigning on every television programme on the issue. At the moment you don't even have a front bencher dedicated to it, what are you doing having an Innovation spokesman and Children spokesman but no Europe? Make the weather on this and you can expose the hypocrisy in both the major parties.

Now for the topics to avoid: you really need to stop talking about taxation and the environment. Here it is far too easy for you either to look ridiculous or for the other parties to steal your clothes. Everyone knows you're the nice party on climate change, try not to look preposterous by campaigning on it. Same applies to taxation, social democrat/libertarian is the only major fissure in your party, are you so foolish as to keep kicking it into the public sphere?

The state of The Liberal Democratic Party is a precarious one, currently a mixture of open goals and massive pitfalls, the party is currently in a more ill-balanced state than at any point since the founding of The Alliance. We at LMWN would not go so far as to suggest their demise as a significant force is imminent, but it is a sign of the changing tides that this needs to be considered after the confidence of the 2005 election. There is still plenty of political space for a third party, they just need to find fissures that run across both main parties and stick wedges in them (preferably then smacking them with an intellectual sledgehammer), but there are no longer any significant votes in Iraq, few in anti-Toryism and none in anti-Blairism. Time for some radical public statements (please, as always, cite us if you wish to use our proposals Mr Cable). And, of course, Ming has to go yesterday.

Asquith turned his head towards God, and said "Glad I quit in 1916, look at the balls up Lloyd George's party has become".


Former Liberal said...

Excellent article.

Scotland is a good case in point where their focus has been on attacking the SNP. A confused and negative strategy since many of the swing voters that vote for them in key areas are SNP voters in other elections.

It's a self defeating strategy borne out of the massive tactical error of not even speaking to the SNP about a coalition when the SNP were not even laying any conditions for them to accept an independence referendum.

Now we have the equally ridiculous position of them supporting an in-out EU referendum whilst opposing an in-out UK one in Scotland.

No wonder voters are confused and moving away.

Edwin Hesselthwite said...

Fascinating point about the twin referendums... Got to disagree with your angle on the analysis tho - while I favour tactical sense, the real opponent are the SNP, not Labour, so the liberals need some way to break all those "red-blood" labour voters, and break away from the SNP.

When you're sharing voters with your primary target, find a sensible way to carve yourself further - not closer.

Edwin Hesselthwite said...

Oh dear: Call to ban petrol cars by 2040. Nice headline guys, that'll win back middle England.