The challenge facing the Liberal Democrats

The Lib Dems must embark on an ambitious course if they are to survive in the new, fractured political landscape.

Trevor Smith
17 June 2015
Then Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg at the party's manifesto launch for the 2015 general election.

Flickr/Liberal Democrats. Some rights reserved.

Mourning Becomes Election

I slightly amended the title of Eugene O’Neill’s 1931 drama, Mourning Becomes Electra, about the American Civil War, when former Liberal Party leader Jo Grimond, political organiser Pratap Chitnis and I conducted a post-mortem on a Liberal electoral debacle in the 1980s. Unfortunately, it can be returned to service once more, and this time with a vengeance, after the May 2015 electoral massacre of the Liberal Democrat MPs.

I had warned of this in The Liberator in September 2012 and again a year later when I predicted the Lib Dems would lose all their MEPs in the EU elections (in the event we held on to one) and lose much of our local council base. I also forecast we would be reduced to some seventeen MPs this year – wildly over-optimistic as it turned out – but nearer than almost any other commentators.

The first article was picked up in The Sunday Times quoting my criticism of Nick Clegg for lacking any strategic vision and suggesting how he might limit the damage. I described him as “a cork bobbing on the waves.” I continued with the marine analogy in a third article in 2014 saying he was now “a fish dead in the water” and that he should resign as Leader.

Most of my fellow Lib Dem peers denied my forecast, though one or two secretly agreed it was likely, preferring to bury their heads in the sand, putting great store by the “incumbency effect” and hoping something would turn up. It did, but not as they had hoped.

Echoes of the past

The present predicament, in some ways, is reminiscent of the past. I joined the Liberals in 1955 when we had six MPs, two of them – Arthur Holt and Donald Wade – being the beneficiaries of Lib/Con pacts in Bolton and Huddersfield respectively.

The mid-fifties were very dark days indeed. The nadir came with the 1958 Torquay Party Assembly, which was an utter shambles. Out of that, however, the party began a long process of re-inventing itself which, with ups and downs, maintained a momentum that enabled us to survive, even the Jeremy Thorpe crisis, until last May. Can that be achieved again is the burning question that now starkly confronts the Lib Dems?

Nearing my ninth decade, I look back over the intervening sixty years to reflect upon the similarities and differences.

Post-1958 we had some things going for us. Jo Grimond was establishing himself as an attractive leader who would later exude charismatic qualities. His somewhat lazy and relaxed style disguised a formidable intellect which he would activate with effect from time to time.

Jo had commissioned The Unservile State, which comprised a selection of chapters by leading Liberal academics, and added to the sense of serious thinking going on in party circles. Further publications on a wide range of issues under the editorship ofGeorge Watson emanated from the same sources, while Nancy Seear oversaw a steady stream of well worked out policy reports.

Jo Grimond addressing the Liberal Party Executive, December 1962.

Jo Grimond addressing the Liberal Party Executive, December 1962. Flickr/mira66. Some rights reserved.

There were two other contributors to the growing and palpable intellectual ferment. The Radical Reform Group, under the chairmanship of Desmond Banks and with Manuela Sykes as an energetic activist, promoted new radical ideas within the party, ensuring it maintained a left-of-centre stance.

It was also a good time for the youth wings of the party. The National League of Young Liberals (NLYL) was particularly strong in Manchester, Liverpool and the North West in general. The Union of University Liberal Societies had moved from being a loosely federal body into a more centralised Union of Liberal Students (ULS).

The two collaborated closely and even more so after Torquay. They formed a Joint Political Committee (JPC) in order to pool ideas and resources. The JPC commissioned a manifesto entitled New Orbits which reflected a fresh start, in keeping with the Russian successful launching of a sputnik that had just circled the earth from outer space.

The booklet was the product of a number of regional conferences and was launched with much fanfare in Manchester, with Jo Grimond giving a major address. This was in April 1959, six months ahead of the general election of that year. It was covered extensively by Anthony Howard, then an up-and-coming reporter, in The Manchester Guardian.

The JPC was reconstituted as The New Orbits Group, a separate entity within the party, similar in some ways to the Bow Group within the Tory Party. It continued to publish a series of policy pamphlets in the ensuing years. Its leading members, like the Bow Group, included some formidable intellects including Dr Timothy Joyce (later CEO of J. Walter Thompson), Frank Ware (the Party’s Head of Research before becoming a City accountant), David Lea (later TUC Assistant Secretary), Dr John Williamson (who became a leading international economist), Barbara Burwell, Derrick Mirfin, Richard Moore, Sarah Curtis, Griff Evans, Ronnie Fraser and many others conveniently dotted around the UK, which afforded a nation-wide profile.

Furthermore six months before the abysmal Torquay Assembly we had spectacularly won the Torrington by-election, when Mark Bonham-Carter was returned as MP with a very narrow majority. He was Jo Grimond’s brother-in-law. Losing his seat at the subsequent general election, he nevertheless remained active, providing much needed direction at the party HQ.

Hope for the future?

All in all, then, the situation had many of the ingredients that could make for a successful revival in the long run. Are there any detectable similarities now, post-May?

First, and most obviously, there is no equivalent to a Jo Grimond. There are one or two “Action Men” but they lack the intellectual imagination and charisma which provided his eventual authoritative standing. The Eastleigh by-election victory in 2013 proved as ephemeral in its effect as Torrington had been – it failed to yield up a Bonham-Carter figure.

For its part, Liberal Youth lacks the dynamism that both NLYL and the ULS displayed more than half a century ago. The only equivalent to The Unservile State has been The Orange Book, but whereas the former was largely progressive in outlook, the latter is overwhelmingly a right-of-centre anthology, quite out of tune with what is needed. So the portents are not very encouraging.

The real problem lies in the parlous condition of the UK polity and that has to be the starting-point. The Labour Party is weaker than it has ever been for many decades. There is now a multiplicity of parties inadequately represented in both local government and parliament. The electoral system makes for gross distortions. Thirty-seven per cent of the voters can put an, admittedly small, majority Tory government in power. By the same token, the SNP secured an excessive number of MPs while UKIP, the Greens and the Lib Dems suffered badly under the first-past-the-post system.


Wikimedia Commons/Donald Macleod. Some rights reserved.

Devolution has been introduced into Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales haphazardly, threatening at times the continued existence of the United Kingdom and alienating England. Rather belatedly, that now has to be thought through robustly to bring about a more coherent set of arrangements.

Then there is the stark question posed by Thomas Piketty, Joe Stiglitz and others regarding the ever-growing inequality between rich and poor – one that is by no means confined to the UK. Failure to address this is also a threat to the UK polity as are the related inequalities surrounding gender, ethnicity and regional imbalances.

These are among the major issues that require convincing responses from the political parties. Part of the SNP’s success was that it fully recognised the fact that austerity fatigue is increasing and may well prompt the sort of public protest seen in Spain and elsewhere.

We know what the Tories will do – they will continue with an austerity programme until they are forced to U-turn. That may prove a survival strategy of sorts for them, but it will do little to repair the parlous condition of the UK polity. What is needed is what Jo Grimond called for after 1959 – “a realignment of the Left.” It didn’t happen as he had hoped – will it now?

Rainbow coalition

Writing in The Times on 27 May, Daniel Finkelstein, in an article entitled RIP Liberal Democrats. It’s all over for you, urged Lib Dems to promote the traditional values of Liberalism by joining either the Tories or Labour. Very few, as he admits, would likely opt for the Tories as their chosen vehicle.

Vince Cable writing in the New Statesman in the previous week, echoed Grimond’s earlier call whereby Labour and the Lib Dems, sinking their tribalism, might come together in “a wider, progressive purpose of constitutional reform; a liberal approach to civil liberties; anti-nationalist and internationalist; and with a modern fusion of social democracy and market economics.” While advocating this, he was not very hopeful.

Yet attempts along the lines proposed by Cable, and implicit in the Finkelstein analysis, must be attempted. The Social Liberal Forum, along with The Liberator, are most suited to initiate the desired direction towards a reconfiguration of UK politics. They could help co-ordinate the efforts of those progressive radicals such as Julian Huppert, Seth Thevoz, David Howarth, Simon Radford, Prateek Buch, Helen Flynn, Julie Porksen, Ros Keyes and Naomi Smith (I declare she’s my daughter) to produce a manifesto that might be married with the aspirations of Compass on the Labour side.

Can Labour jettison the authoritarianism of the kind displayed by John Reid, Jack Straw and David Blunkett – seemingly all too naturally – along with Tony Blair’s military adventurism, that so marred New Labour? That would clearly be a prerequisite, as would the total abandonment of the neoliberalism that inspired too many of The Orange Book authors.

As I’ve said, the portents are not good. It will prove very difficult to escape from the tribalism that Vince Cable identifies. Far too many Lib Dems buried their heads in the sand when in coalition. Can we recognise the new realities of politics and determine to embark on a more ambitious course?

For the sake of the UK polity, we need to look at the possibilities of a wider “rainbow coalition”, embracing the Greens and Plaid Cymru, rather than that proposed by Vince Cable. For the Lib Dems, this will necessitate a complete clear-out of all those who held office – whether paid or unpaid – during the coalition.

They’re part of the problem, the very ones who were, and continue to be, in denial. They’re bed-blockers and cannot be trusted to undertake the zero-sum analysis and lateral thinking that is so imperative. The challenge to all radical progressives is immense: we must raise our game to meet it.


This article first appeared in The Liberator magazine.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData