How the Liberal Democrats have repeated Jo Grimond’s mistake

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Tudor Jones’s The Revival of British Liberalism: from Grimond to Clegg concentrates on the history of liberal thought rather than of Liberal organisation, but it contains an important nugget still very relevant to the Liberal Democrats.

It’s about former Liberal Party leader Jo Grimond and his realignment strategy. Grimond, who took over at party leader in 1956, turned around the party’s slide toward irrelevance. He inspired a new generation of people to take the party seriously and to get involved. His longer-term strategy was for a realignment on the left, with the Liberal Party in some way replacing the Labour Party just as Labour had done to the Liberals earlier in the century.

Yet the party’s base – both organisationally and in terms of where votes came from – was predominantly a combination of the Celtic fringe and middle-class suburbs. Conservative votes and Conservative seats were those primarily in the party’s sights.

But, as Tudor Jones recounts, that meant the party’s strategy – realignment on the left – and the party’s actual approach – targeting the Conservatives – were at odds:

The major contradiction at the heart of Grimond’s strategy … [led] as Michael Steed has pointed out, to ‘the most serious mismatch of the party’s organisational and political strategies’. For the main thrust of the Liberals’ organisational strategy was the need to build up constituency associations and resources in Conservative-held territory, whereas the leadership’s political strategy hinged on building up support in Labour-held industrial seats where Liberal organisation in most cases was weak.

A similar mismatch before 2010 has had a major detrimental legacy for the party. In modern times, the equivalent of Grimond’s realignment strategy has been a strategy of seeking to increase the party’s number of seats to such a level where a hung Parliament becomes extremely likely as the next step on the party’s road to political power.

That step was achieved in 2010, and indeed the party’s organisational development – especially before Nick Clegg became leader – was a major contribution to that achievement, as I’ve set out in more detail in The Liberal Democrat approach to campaigning: the history and debunking some myths.

But what was missing – and caused a mismatch as problematic as Grimond’s – was the accompanying preparations to keep members and voters on board in the event of a hung Parliament.

For far too many of them the mere idea that the party would do a deal with the Conservatives was instinctive anathema. Oddly so perhaps given how the party hardly made a secret of its willingness to talk first to the largest party – and at a time when it was consistently predicted that would indeed by the Conservatives. Oddly so, perhaps, but also passionately so – and that’s why the party’s membership and poll ratings both headed down immediately after the formation of the coalition and before any travails such as tuition fees came along.

There’s plenty of debate to be had about how coalition has been handled, but what’s striking is how the Liberal Democrats on the road to 2010 accumulated so many members and voters for whom the very concept of coalition with the Tories was enough to put them off even though it had been an option clearly running through the party’s public statement, strategy documents and internal debates over many years and several leaders.

Something went badly wrong long before the Coalition Government did anything – as it would have too had there been a deal with Labour instead.

With hindsight it’s easy to see part of the problem: take a step back from the strategy debates in super-activist circles and at federal conference and for most party members, let alone supporters, what the party would do in a hung Parliament barely triggered discussion or persuasion, beyond frustration at media interviewers being obsessed with asking the Lib Dem leader who they “really” preferred.

There’s a lesson there about the lack of wider strategic debate – and indeed wider debate and education about the party’s philosophical roots and hence what might underpin agreements.

Will the party get this right in future? Experience certainly helps, but as with party membership (which started falling before Nick Clegg became Liberal Democrat leader) and the party’s local government base (which started shrinking before Nick Clegg became Liberal Democrat leader) in order to learn sensible lessons also requires fighting past the knee-jerk love of some party members to ascribe any and all party ills to Nick Clegg, even when the problem – as with this one too – started before he became leader.

Perhaps he has a time machine hidden away somewhere. But if not, it needs a broader vision than that sustain a meaningful recovery.

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