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Friday, August 03, 2018

No quick solutions for the Liberal Democrats

According to Buzzfeed, the Liberal Democrats are planning to embrace some of the reforms that proved so successful for the Canadian Liberals by allowing non-members to vote in the party’s next leadership contest. They add that this could also see a political outsider, like Brexit campaigner Gina Miller, take the helm as Leader for the first time.

The website says that the party (or at least those doing the briefing, as this has never been discussed by the party) hope that the move will boost our profile and appeal to millions of floating voters who feel the centre ground has been abandoned by the two main parties. These same insiders are also telling journalists that an open leadership contest is the party’s best chance of reviving its dwindling fortunes amid the turmoil of Brexit negotiations.

Apparently, there has even been suggestions that the party needs to change its name in a bid to appeal to a new wave of voters, but briefings now say this is unlikely to happen.

Surprisingly (or not), those anonymous and unaccountable individuals who are feeding this to journalists in the hope of bouncing the party into change, are not well-organised enough to get the matter on the conference agenda for next month. Instead they are relying on a fringe event to promote their ideas.

Personally, I can see nothing wrong with a registered supporters scheme, and even giving those who sign up to it a vote in selections and for the party leader. However, the election of a non-MP as leader, no matter how charismatic or well-known, would be a fast-track to irrelevance and media oblivion.

Just see how well it has worked out in Wales, where despite having a very energetic and active leader our media presence is zero, and her name recognition amongst even politically aware people is non-existent.

Just how difficult it is to get yourself heard in the media is illustrated by the limited exposure Vince Cable is able to secure, despite the fact that he is an erudite and substantive former Cabinet Minister with a distinctive message.

And therein lies the problem that these reforms will fail to fix. The Canadian Liberals were a long-standing party of government in a three party system where they already had a substantial base. They also controlled a number of regional governments before they came back to power nationally.

The UK Liberal Democrats are none of those things. We have traditionally been a party of protest votes, and when we entered government we made enough mistakes, amongst our many accomplishments, to alienate a lot of our former voters.

There are no quick fixes in UK politics. It takes time to re-establish yourself after the sort of setbacks we suffered in 2015 and 2017. It takes time to re-establish trust and prove that we can continue to deliver the sort of radical and distinctive policies we are known for.

And yes, we are the only pro-Brexit party who should be getting more support from like-minded people, the forty eight per cent. But, until we have overcome the trust issue and put our governmental legacy behind us that is not going to happen.

Those looking to make changes in the hope of transforming the party overnight are deluding themselves. We have been there before and each time it is the party's values that suffer as we are subjected to bland messages and see valuable resources thrown away needlessly on poorly conceived campaigns.

As a grassroots party, who have to work harder than any other politicians, to achieve electoral success and to get things done, we need to understand that there is a route back, but it will take time and patience.

As somebody who has been a Liberal and a Liberal Democrat since 1974, I can testify that not only have we been in this situation before, but we have pulled ourselves out of it and built the party back up.

My one plea though is can we make sure that we have solid ideological and organisational foundations this time, so that we are better prepared for the next slump in support.

Oh, and can we give up on these briefings about off-the-wall get-rich-quick schemes by anonymous apparatchiks sitting comfortably in the Westminster bubble, and actually get out on doorsteps where we can work to earn our revival.
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