2006 was an extraordinary political rollercoaster of a year for the Lib Dems. Some ups, some downs, occasional moments of traveling upside down, and some plummeting off scary vertical drops only to find oneself still strangely on the track when you reach the bottom. The average Lib Dem activist can be forgiven for feeling more than a little sick and queasy at the end of it.
I am not going to rehearse the events of 2006 (which is just as well as I noticed after I wrote that that Rob Fenwick has done a much better job at that than I would have done) but I am in a reflective enough mood to ask a few questions. What has this rollercoaster ride meant? What lessons can we learn from it? And as 2007 begins what state is the Party in?
Strangely, for me the answer to last question is – in roughly the same state as we begun 2006.
One thing I think we can learn from this year is that in places across the country the Party has developed a strength and robustness that exists to a degree independent of our fortunes at Westminster and in the media. This strength is no longer just confined to the Celtic fringes but is in pockets up and down the country, particularly in our larger urban areas. Obviously this is not a universal picture, there are far too many black holes, but we can be confident that we have enough strength in depth to withstand quite a lot of leadership crises and shenanigans at the top before our existence as an independent political force needs to be questioned.
This strength in depth has one consequence of particular relevance to this year and that is that who the leader is doesn’t matter as much as it used too. I am reminded of what I wrote in an email to a Lib Dem friend back at the end of February as part of a long correspondence about the leadership election:
“It may be an obvious point to make after the Dunfermline result but it seems to me the question of who leads the Lib Dems isn’t as important as it used to be. Back when the Party was choosing Paddy the decision was fairly life or death. If we’d got that one wrong we wouldn’t be here now. But these days we are so much stronger that, frankly, choosing the wrong guy would be survivable. I don’t want to over state this, who the leader is is very important, but it is no longer a critical decision.”
That is a view I still stick by. I am not saying we made the wrong choice with Ming. I think we made the right choice. The leadership of a political party is an important component in its success – but it is only one component amongst many.
With what appears to be more anonymous briefing and another round of media stories about the leadership I am getting more than a little tired with those who seem to be constantly dreaming that “if only he/she was leader then everything would be rosy”. We have the leader we have. Although there are some areas where he hasn’t been so hot he has, in my view, a solid record of achievement looking back at the last nine months or so.
No, in achieving success for the Party I don’t think the leadership component is one we need to be worrying about at the moment. There are other components that need looking at much more urgently. Indeed the thing that has pleased me most about Ming’s leadership so far is that he has done a lot to start addressing some of these, particularly in organisational issues.
The component I am most concerned about is that of policy and message. In looking back at 2006 I remember being rather pleased with and excited by the whole “Meeting the Challenge” process. The first few months of the year contained a lot of talk about the importance of developing a “narrative” and how we were going to distill a clear, simple, and attractive proposition to put before the electorate. Now at the end of the year I confess to being more than a little disappointed with the outcome.
I don’t feel confident that the party does have a sufficiently strong narrative or that it is understood across the membership and activists. The most successful policy development in defining what we are about, whatever your view of the outcome, was the tax debate at Autumn conference. Coming on top of Chris Huhne raising the profile of green taxes in his leadership campaign and then ably assisted by the Richmond upon Thames “Tax on Chelsea Tractors” we have developed a memorable story on taxation. A story that has rather left “Meeting the Challenge” lost in its wake.
But we cannot be defined by tax alone. We have to develop our story in several other key areas. To give the Campbell leadership credit they do seem to have set their sights on one of these – crime and law & order. Although it does seem to be de rigueur at the moment to say nice things about Nick Clegg, I have been impressed with his approach to the Home Affairs brief and was also impressed when he visited Luton last year. With luck, and Labour do seem to be doing their best to make it easy for us, the Party will be able to turn this area from a negative to a positive.
However, one area where I strongly believe we are not getting it right at the moment, oddly enough, is foreign affairs. I feel there is a real danger of us being too cautious, focusing on the wrong issues, and actually being too conventional in our approach. If that happens politically we will miss a huge opportunity but more importantly we will fail to set out a “narrative” that, without I hope sounding too pompous, I think the country really needs us to tell. Unfortunately, the discussion we have had around Trident so far hasn’t filled me with much hope that we are on the right track. More of this in future posts, probably.
But I suppose this brings me back to where I started. With the exception of not having a full-blown leadership crisis underway, the Party in January 2007 does seem to be roughly the same state as it was in January 2006. A political force with significant underlying strength and a host of opportunities to move forward, but with a sense that opportunities have been missed in the previous year and with a fear that some opportunities could be missed in the future. Yes, given the bumpy ride we have had we haven’t fallen back as much as maybe some of us were excepting – but this shouldn’t blind us to the fact that we’ve not moved forward as much as maybe we could have done.
At the end of the rollercoaster ride you end back were you started. Stay on board and we will go round again. Welcome to 2007.
Happy New Year everyone!
This content was originally posted on my old Process Guy blog.