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Friday, September 18, 2015

Liberal Democrats post-mortem written by usual suspects and misses the point

I will not be at the closed conference session tomorrow when they discuss the post-mortem report on the Liberal Democrats General Election campaign. I am going to watch Swansea play Everton before travelling down to Bournemouth.

However, if the newspaper reports of that exercise are accurate then it has spectacularly missed the point. That is hardly surprising as it has been put together by the usual suspects, some of whom were involved in writing previous post-mortems, documents that apparently did nothing to avert the rout the party experienced in May.

The Independent reports the inquiry has concluded that an "utterly ruthless” operation by the Conservatives to gobble up seats held by our coalition partners caused the Liberal Democrats’ meltdown at the May general election.

They say that the review will not be completed until later this year but it is expected not to direct blame at Mr Clegg or Paddy Ashdown, who ran the election campaign, or to argue that the Lib Dems lacked money.

The paper adds that Liberal Democrats' officials admit the party’s private polling, which pointed to a hung parliament, and its on the ground intelligence, did not predict the advance in which the Conservatives gained 27 Lib Dem seats, wiping out the party in its South West heartland: “It was utterly ruthless, a black widow operation,” said one Lib Dem source, referring to the spider which sometimes eats its partner after mating. Well yes, but what about the root causes?

I am not one of those who believes that the decision to go into coalition with the Tories doomed the Liberal Democrats to this defeat, though I would have thought that our coalition-partner's ruthless treatment of Nick Clegg during the AV referendum should have raised alarm bells amongst the General Election team and led to a change of tactics on their part. However, the way that we behaved in coalition was clearly the deciding factor earlier this year.

I am the first to trumpet what we achieved in government: the investment in schools targeted at the poorest pupils, the enhancement of old age pensions, the cut in income tax, cheaper childcare, two million apprenticeships and the blocking of insidious Tory policies, only now becoming apparent as they implement measures we had previously stopped.

But we also let the Tories play us in many ways and were not strong enough in standing up to them on some of their worst measures such as the bedroom tax, fit for work assessments, health reform in England and of course tuition fees.

Our naivety and our inexperience in Government; allowed our opponents to paint a picture that permanently weakened our organisation, decimated our membership and lost us the tactical voters that had elected many of MPs. It left us vulnerable to the ruthless tactics deployed by the Tories during the General Election and cost us scores of seats.

And do not under-estimate our contribution to the loss of trust in politicians and the party. The broken promise on tuition fees still haunts us no matter what we put in its place. That one decision lost us dozens of seats in May 2015 and left Clegg discredited and broken in the eyes of many voters.

The problem last May was not that we were out-campaigned by the Tories, it was that we went into the election damaged with a massively unpopular leader and nothing the campaign team did could repair that.

The new leadership and the different direction taken by Farron can help us repair those wounds and I hope to see us begin to win back support, but it is a long hard journey and the first step must be facing up to past mistakes.
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