Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Go Back To Your Constituencies - And Prepare For Opposition!

There is one year to the next general election - and speculation will increase over the result, and the consequences.

As we enter the last year of the coalition government, there is much that we Liberal Democrats can look back on with pride.

We have made progress towards fairer taxation with tax cuts for millions, we have invested in education opportunities for those from less well-off backgrounds, we have protected the state pension, we have worked towards a greener government, we have introduced same sex marriage, perhaps the biggest and most permanent reform, and, above all, we have participated in a stable government which has reduced inflation, reduced unemployment, reduced the deficit, increased growth, increased business confidence and commenced the recovery. None of this would have happened without the Liberal Democrats.

And of course we have put the 'wasted vote' argument to bed for good. Never again can people describe us as being able to promise anything because we will never get in power - something we have all heard on the doorstep (but not since 2010!). We have proved to be capable and effective in government, and that we can produce good ministers and work well with those with whom we do not agree on most things.

Every government has its failures, and there have been some here too. Fixed terms were the only constitutional change we brought in. Voting reform, Lords reform, party political funding reform, lobbying reform, the right to recall - were all frustrated, mostly by the ConLab block vote. Labour can no longer say they are part of a progressive majority - if Labour had genuinely wanted an elected Lords, the elections would be taking place next year.

And in the interests of compromise, we have had to swallow some heavy medicine. The bedroom tax, the benefit cap, a hostile approach to the EU, and a cut in the top rate of tax are all things we have had to accept with the heaviest of hearts. And as for the tuition fees debacle, let's not go there!

2015 is general election year. And in my view we will move back into opposition. If there is a hung parliament with Labour as the biggest party, my feeling is that they will go it alone as a minority. And, let's face it, after their behaviour over the last few years, would we really want to work with them? Equally the Conservative party, having promised their MPs and their members a say, are also likely to veto any thought of a second coalition. There may be possibilities where either of them work with other parties. And if either of them forms a majority then coalition does not even arise.

So back in opposition, we will have to once again reinforce our message and campaign for what we believe in. What will the next five years mean for us? (In this scenario, I am using the assumption that Scotland votes no in September).

Obviously the first question will be the leadership. By autumn 2015 Nick Clegg will have been our leader for eight years - he will always be the first Lib Dem leader to take his party into government - and it will be time to step down. I think we will only really start to appreciate Nick's achievements once he is gone. Even the media might at last forgive him for entering government.

Nick may not want to go, so it may be a case of our party grandees, such as Paddy and Shirley, having a quiet word. It is hard to imagine Nick back in his old seat at PM's Question Time.

Who will be the next leader? Because of our government experience, there are a large number of good candidates to choose from, and we will no doubt have a party debate about the direction we should go. For example, a party led by Jeremy Browne or Danny Alexander will go a different way to one which is led by Tim Farron or Vince Cable. Or maybe a chance for others such as Jo Swinson or Ed Davey.

The position we should take in opposition will depend on what government results from the election. There may be areas in which we would agree. I'll discuss that in future articles

But I hope we keep to the basic principles we have always pursued. A strong economy, a fairer society, civil liberties and human rights, a positive proactive role in the EU, protection of the environment, local issues, and, the main area which the coalition government has largely failed, political reform and the modernisation of our politics.

Above all, our task back in opposition will be to continue to make ourselves heard. The media will doubtless revert to ignoring us - we may get even fewer appearances on BBC Question Time - so it will be up to us to shout loudly on the issues that are dear to us.

There are a few perks to being in opposition. We may regain some Councillors, party membership may increase, we will get back some Short money, and we can build on our government experience to improve our standing as an established professional party. Those members who left us at our greatest hour of need, will be replaced by more serious minded campaigners who will see the party as no longer a waste of time. After all, how many of us joined the Lib Dems just to run a few Councils. Would we not one day like to see a Liberal Democrat Prime Minister? That should be the (very) long term aim of this party.

It may be a case of going back to our roots. Active local campaigning on local issues and re-building the party up from the bottom.

In the next few articles, I will at look at the various scenarios that may come out of the 2015 general election, how they may develop, and what position we could take. But my overall message is that being back in opposition must not be something that we should fear.

After the defeat in the 1979 general election, the late Tony Benn wrote in his diary that he enjoys being in opposition because of the campaigning opportunities. For an active campaigning party such as ours, there are opportunities which we should take and may even look forward to.

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