What will happen after the next general election?

Liberal Democrat badge. Photo courtesy of Paul Walter, Newbury - some rights reserved

Total Politics magazine posed this question to Dan Hodges, Tim Bale and myself for the July edition, with me looking at the Liberal Democrats. Here’s what my crystal ball produced.

Hunt very closely amongst the very oldest people in every last bungalow and care home around the country and you might just find someone who was alive when the Liberal Democrats or their predecessors last won a general election.

That was back in 1910, a mere 104 years ago. With the oldest Briton, at the time of writing, recorded as being just short of their 114th birthday, you might just find someone who does remember that year, but you won’t find many in your national hunt for super-centenarians.

What you will certainly get from your nationwide hunt, however, is an appreciation of just how rare ‘winning’ a general election is for the Liberal Democrats and their predecessors. The idea of the modern Liberal Democrat party losing in 2015 is a predictable as Dan Hodges writing another dozen articles critical of Ed Miliband.

It also means that, in itself, ‘losing’ a general election is no trigger for the third party angst in the way that defeat is for the two main parties who go into (nearly) every general election hoping for overall victory for themselves – and facing up to severe disappointment if it eludes them.

What matters more for the Liberal Democrats is the manner of defeat. That can be measured on two scales: electoral results and political power.

The two don’t automatically go together for the party because its political power is about whether or not there is a hung Parliament – and the power than then flows from it. That could happen whether there are 20, 40, 60 or 80 Lib Dem MPs and whether the party polls 8%, 18% or 28%. (Though if one of Nick Clegg’s Special Advisors is reading this, I am of course myself predicting the party will have 426 MPs on 53.7% of the vote, and did I mention how fetching and energetic you’re looking today?)

An added twist for the party is seeing the fallout for Labour from Gordon Brown’s resignation in 2010. Whatever the wider rights or wrongs of the timing of Brown’s decision to quit, having Labour leaderless during the middle of hung Parliament negotiations meant that doing a deal with Labour became (even more) impossible. Deals require making tough choices, which requires leadership – and no-one can provide that leadership if your leader has just quit and a leadership contest is about to be upon the party. At the time, Gordon Brown quitting seemed to many Liberal Democrat insiders the logical next step in coalition talks with Labour. With hindsight, many of the same people now admit that it was really the end of them.

Likewise, for the Liberal Democrats, if the 2015 general election produces a hung Parliament and at least one of the other parties is willing to talk coalition, then Nick Clegg will be in very strong position even if the party’s votes and seats have dropped alarmingly. That’s because with no obvious and uncontroversial successor waiting to take over, and with electing a new leader in a democratic process being something that takes months, anyone who tries to force a leadership contest will be saying they, in effect, also want the party to walk away from coalition talks too.

For all the bumpy ride that being in coalition has been during the 2010 Parliament, there are very few in the party who have drawn from this the lesson that avoiding coalition in future hung Parliaments is the right move.

The consensus on coalition being the right thing (or, at least, the least-worst thing) in a hung Parliament is one of the prime reasons for the coalition’s durability. There’s been plenty of debate in the Liberal Democrats over how coalition has been carried out, but that is where the debate has been, not over the principle of coalition. And – although few senior people I’ve spoken to the in the party have really thought this through – believing in coalition also means in practice in sticking with the leader with whom you went into the general election.

A calamitous meltdown might just override those practical realities but otherwise the danger to Nick Clegg’s leadership comes far more from another party not wanting to make a deal than from how many seats or votes the party wins under his leadership next year. Whether it’s a case of one-party majority government, or a minority party going gung-ho for solo government despite the absence of a majority, that is when the party’s leadership will be up for serious debate.

Weirdly it means 40 seats and 18% of the vote but no hung Parliament puts Clegg in a weaker position than 30 seats, 15% of the vote – and facing coalition talks. If it does come to that, the fault lines in the party will doubtless regularly get described as Orange Bookers versus the beardies or right-wingers versus social liberals, but few of the plausible leading figures neatly fall into one or other of those categories.

Take Steve Webb, for example. Popular with many members of the Social Liberal Forum, his tenure as Pensions Minister has been all about taking a universal benefit (the state pension) and strengthening it. So he’s a bit of a leftie? Well, he’s also a contributor to The Orange Book and made complimentary comments in public about Iain Duncan Smith’s personal motivations.

Or take Vince Cable. Left or right? He deeply dislikes the state of the banking system (score one for the left) but before the 2010 election, he was writing about the need for deep and unpopular cuts in public spending (score one for the right). He likes the idea of taxing wealth more heavily (score one for the left) but also argued for a cap on the total level of public spending (score one for the right).

Similar points apply to just about all the others who are either infuriated or relieved that I’ve not named them as one of my two examples. (But don’t worry, I’m about to name more…)

What there would be is a change versus experience divide. Tim Farron, a new face, would offer a future that could leave the party’s past behind. Ed Davey’s pitch would be that he has the practical experience in government that makes him A Serious Figure whilst he politely casts doubt on how much intellectual weight Farron brings to the table.

However, those would be the wrong emphases. Looking back to the party’s first leadership election, Paddy Ashdown was clearly the right choice over Alan Beith – not particularly because of his initial policy ideas (anyone who can still remember the Roger Liddle-inspired public services policy paper will attest in between shivering at the memories), nor because of his grand strategy (aka merge with Labour), but because he really understood how to motivate activists and build up the party’s organisational strength.

That’s what the Lib Dems will need from their next leader. The problem is, it’s a quality that is rarely rated much in leadership contests. “By how many members has your local party grown in the last year?” should be a regular question in any leadership contest if you want a leader who is serious about the grassroots. Anyone wishing to be leader should have a good answer to that question, because anyone with the personal charm necessary to be leader can charm people into joining the party on their own patch regardless of the wider situation. And if they don’t have the charisma, or don’t think such organisation matters? Then they aren’t the right person for the job.

This isn’t an issue faced by the Liberal Democrats alone; talk in Labour ranks of the state of party organisation bequeathed by David Miliband in his own constituency is a good warning – talking about the need for community organisation isn’t a sign of actually having done much.

That membership question is all but never asked. Yet if a would-be leader doesn’t have a decent answer to it then, however natty their philosophy and however good they are at nodding warmly along with each individual member with their own pet policy, what chance really do they have of leading a growing rather than shrinking party?

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