Well, it is all over bar the shouting and inevitable punditry – which will undoubtedly consign us to oblivion. However I am not so down-hearted. I’m not going to cover the AV campaign where the “No” campaign was dirty but effective, whereas the “Yes” campaign was frankly bloody awful. Instead I’d prefer to focus on the local elections. I think there are two main reasons we have lost votes in these.
First, we have been defined more by what we are not than by what we are. What do I mean by this? Consider our share of the vote in the general election: ~23%. In contrast we got (probably; the full numbers aren’t in yet) about 15% in the local elections and the votes that we lost seem largely to have gone to Labour. The reason: I strongly suspect those voters were disaffected with Labour but could never bring themselves to vote Tory (note the term; regular readers will know I usually use the neutral term “Conservatives”); hence they voted for us.
But once we entered government with those same hated Tories, these voters returned to Labour.
Second, there is a perception we have broken promises and failed to fulfil manifesto promises. This I believe is a communications failure: we had a manifesto with promises A, B, C, D, and E. Sadly, as junior partners in the coalition we were unable to deliver all of these (we are delivering 75% of them!). But we never said this was likely to happen or how we would make decisions about which to deliver.
So how do we move forward? The two issues are related. Taking the second (communications) issue first, we need to talk about how we go about making decisions in government: whatever government – whether coalition or not.
In any government, we will face unpalatable decisions and will have to make hard choices. For example, if we had formed a majority government this time, there would still have been less money than expected, and unpalatable decisions on cuts (and fees) would still have had to be made. But we need to communicate that we make these hard decisions based on our liberal principles.
Take the most controversial one: tuition fees. Yes, Nick made a U-turn (I personally think his commitment was unsustainable in the first place and should never have been made, but that is a different story). However, it was a U-turn made on principle: the issue is that there should be equal opportunity to attend university regardless of background. Fees do not affect this: any applicant can get the requisite student loans. And those that attend and graduate improve their earning capacity significantly thanks to an opportunity that those who don’t attend, don’t receive. So the principle that they should pay for that (if their earning exceed a certain threshold) is not illiberal.
It is the principles behind the decisions that we will be forced to take, in any government, that we need to communicate and that trade-offs are inevitable. If we do this, then we not only address the issue of broken promises, but these very principles will form the foundation of a stronger core vote.
Oh, and while I’m ranting, we are not a single issue party. Why on earth did we think voting reform could ever engage your average voter? In many ways, they really don’t care whether they mark an “X” or rank candidates 1, 2, 3. This stuff only matters to party dweebs. And let’s not whine about some proportional House of Lords – nobody cares except us. If we do focus on this as some consolation prize it will reinforce the belief that all we care about is (self-serving) electroal reform.
Rant over. But bottom line, we must not whine: it was not “those nasty Tories” fault; nor was it “Labour lies”. If we whine, we’ll lose further support.
At the heart of this decline are our own failures to communicate sensibly. So let’s all sit back, take a deep breath and think about how to communicate our vision and principles. If we succeed, then we will emerge stronger with a proven track record in government.
Personally, I think this is our low point. The voters have had a chance to punish us for entering a coalition with the Tories. We now have the chance to show we are mature enough to take it on the chin, carry on, and provide good government. If we do, then we gain respect and votes.