Dear Liberal Democrats,
This isn't an easy letter to write in the circumstances. I know it hurts – I’m hurting too. I've been a member since 1981 and this is the darkest period in the history of the Party since the 1970 debacle. Indeed, I’d go as far as to argue that phase of the Party’s journey which began in the aftermath of that defeat has come to an end.
That journey had many ups and downs from the hope of breakthrough with the coming of the SDP to the long frustrating Thatcher years to the local and national breakthroughs of the 1990s leading to the election of 46 MP's in 1997. Of that cohort, I’m delighted to see my old friend, Tom Brake, who once took coffee in my living room, survive, but am saddened by the loss of so many fine politicians, fine people and good liberals including Charles Kennedy, who endured the vitriol of the media for daring to question the invasion of Iraq, a stance unanimously and sadly vindicated by events.
Now, the Parliamentary Party has been decimated, the Councillor base is down over 60% from the high water mark of the mid 1990s and in many ways it’s Stunde Null or Year Zero.
And yet, in a perverse way, the clearing of the decks provides a golden opportunity, much as it did after 1970, to rethink the business of politics and the business of being Liberal Democrats from the ground up. Nick Clegg, who took the Party into Coalition with the Conservatives in 2010, has gone – the Orange Bookers are eclipsed, those more amenable to Labour likewise gone and the survivors are left to contemplate what seems an impossible future.
The Party responded to the eclipse of 1970 by developing and strengthening Community Politics which would in time serve us so well.
Yet my feeling is that since 1997 we have struggled with some fundamental questions around our identity and purpose. During the long Thatcher years we identified ourselves and came to be part of the opposition to the Blessed Margaret - indeed, we flirted with New Labour right up to the brink of the 1997 result. The Blair years were ultimately frustrating and disappointing – centralisation heaped on authoritarianism in the name of security and order as though it had been liberals who had attacked the Twin Towers.
After 2005, the Conservatives chose David Cameron and we had no answer to this young, telegenic, liberal-sounding Conservative who “love bombed” us and strode onto our policy areas. In the end, our response was to argue that imitation was the sincerest form of flattery and so Nick Clegg, even younger and more telegenic, took over and liberal conservatism seemed set to merge with conservative liberalism and thus the Coalition was born.
Yet, if history has taught Liberals anything, it should be that Coalition is akin to the fly feeling the embrace of the spider. Labour used Coalition to destroy the Liberals in the 1920s and the Conservatives have done the same in the 2010s. The duopoly has never been stronger, we have rarely been weaker.
And yet, the opportunity of which I spoke earlier has now presented itself. I envy the young Liberal Democrat of 2015 who can now shape and mold the Party in a new, exciting image, develop new methods of campaigning and reaching back out to those groups which have been neglected.
It will be a long road and a hard road but it begins with the rebuilding of the local base and the re-engaging of members in policy development. It means ideas and debate of which there has been too little in recent times. It also means coming out of the political Comfort Zone.
It also means re-defining working with other parties – pluralism isn't a cover word for a one-sided abusive relationship. To our own selves, we must be true and if that means problems for and with a prospective governing partner, so be it. No longer can liberals troop through the lobbies to vote through fundamentally illiberal measures in the name of Coalition.
But we need to get there which means getting back into those constituencies which have been lost, fighting every Council by-election going and making the most of every opportunity. History tells us incumbent Conservative governments don’t stay popular for long and this one will have its midterm as all administrations do and that will be our opportunity to regain those Council seats and rebuild our strength.
However, it’s not enough to simply be a vehicle for other people’s protests. That was the trap we fell into and we became comfortable being the repository for those who either couldn't vote Labour or couldn't vote Conservative. Yes, I’m sure some people voted Conservative last Thursday because of fears of a Labour Government propped up by the SNP but that doesn't explain the Conservative victory. Rural and suburban England voted Conservative because they wanted to – because the Conservative Party represented their values and mores.
We need to provide a viable alternative prospectus based on liberal principles of individual freedom and responsibility, tolerance and devolution. We need to explain why the EU works and is of benefit to us and why helping the poor through an adequate welfare provision helps us all. Conservatives are by and large decent, sympathetic people and they are open to ideas and challenges and they may become more receptive if and when Cameron’s Government runs into trouble over Europe, immigration and a host of other issues, large and small.
It’s easy this weekend to be pessimistic and to want to give up but as the saying goes; it’s always darkest before the dawn. In many ways, it’s an exciting time to be a Liberal Democrat again, free of the burdens of Coalition and able to shape the future and the destiny of the Party.
Let’s go to it.