Lessons from the 1979 general election for the Lib Dems

Leaving through some kindly donated old copies of Liberator from the late 1970s to the early 1990s a while ago gave me a distinct sense of déjà vu. Calls to revive Community Politics. Urgent pleas to reinvent liberalism for a modern age. Complaints about how the English Party is run. Provocative comments from Simon McGrath triggering hostile rejoinders. (Although it did amuse me to find that one passionate argument against the party ending up a centre-right pro-capitalism outfit came from one Gavin Grant.)

Some of the issues covered have been lost in the gaps of history. Others are still very relevant – such as the Liberator Commentary (leader column) on lessons from the 1979 general election. Part of the previous Parliament had seen the Lib/Lab Pact, which kept a Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan, in place in the face of a hung Parliament.

Going into the 1979 election, Liberal Party leader David Steel was keen to defend the virtues of cross-party arrangements and of hung Parliaments. All sounds rather similar to the 2015 general election…

Britain at the Polls, 1979: A study of the general election - and a set of lessons for contemporary politics

The question of how Margaret Thatcher won power in 1979 has become rather topical again as supporters of Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn argue that her victory shows you don't need to tack to the centre ground to win elections. more

One Liberator lesson from 1979 gives reason for optimism this time around. It was rightly pointed out that, “Steel’s task was formidable. He tried to persuade the electorate not that Liberal policy is best, but that it would be better politically for Britain to have a Liberal influence on government … It would have been a miracle if the idea had got across in just four weeks, and Steel himself is now saying that it needs another election to succeed. Also, many candidates just did not understand the concept.”

In that respect, Nick Clegg’s task in 2015 will be much easier: with a full five years of coalition, rather than 18 months of a far looser pact, to call on, the case to be made is much less novel and far better understood within the party, in the media and by the public.

However, the party risks running into a different problem that Steel encountered too in 1979.

Back then, the Liberal Party tried to balance on the one hand arguing for its ability to temper the extreme edges of other parties and to be a moderating, practical influence on government with on the other hand arguing for a set of policies on areas such as environmental reform and civil liberties that both the other main parties opposed.

It is hard to be both a moderating influence and wanting to do something completely different. That is a balancing act the Liberal Democrats will have to carry off in 2015 – and in the full knowledge that in a hung Parliament getting another party to agree to some of our distinctive agenda will necessarily also mean agreeing to policies of their own that we do not agree with.