The best way to describe the Liberal Democrats at the moment is to say that they are like a normal political party, only worse.
From being in government (at least in their opinion) a few months ago, their relevance has shrivelled such that their conference in Bournemouth this week is barely being covered by the BBC, beyond a stream of the final three days on the Parliament channel. Meanwhile, their main slogans seem to be ‘we made the last government merely awful, rather than unspeakable’, and ‘if you think Jeremy Corbyn has made Labour unelectable, then why not defect to a party that already is?’ Oh, and they’ve got a new leader. Which, when you think about it, is a good idea.
Their general election result in May was comparable to that of the Liberal Party in 1970: 7.5 per cent of the votes and six seats then, against 7.9 per cent and eight MPs this time. Okay, the Lib Dems do have around 4,000 local councillors and control ten councils, whereas, when the modern system began in 1973, their predecessors had fewer than 2,000 representatives, but still, this is a party that, in terms of national support, is back to where it stood before the Alliance. (As, perhaps, is the Labour Party, although it’s still too early to say how that will play out.)
Such a setback must prompt a rethink. The Lib Dems put up a full slate of 631 candidates in May, and most of them (341 to be precise) lost their deposits. The Liberals of 1970 were never so deluded, putting up only 332 candidates that year. Before the term came to mean ‘bombing someone nasty abroad’, a ‘Liberal intervention’ described those occasions when the party decided to fight a seat that it would not previously have contended.
They were different in other ways, too. It is hard to think of a modern party, even UKIP, choosing to begin its manifesto with the slogan ‘What a Life!’, as the Liberals did in 1970. (Yes, Parliament has become a ‘slanging shop’.)
As for party political broadcasts, how about using your free minutes of prime time (then simulcast on all channels) not to say what you want to do, or what you want to stop other people doing, but instead to read out some telegrams from celebrities, including a Psalm-quoting Derek Nimmo?
It’s a bit unfortunate, as we sit here in 2015, that this February 1974 broadcast goes straight from a message sent by Jimmy Savile to a piece to camera by Cyril Smith, but the Rochdale enormity’s statement is a pretty good summary of what the Liberals liked to stand for in those days. Which was not very much at all, other than the suggestion that people might be rather tired of Harold Wilson and Edward Heath ‘quacking’ on the ‘goggle-box’.
It worked, though. The Liberals averaged around 25 per cent where they stood in that election, even if they failed to translate this into seats. And the credit for their recovery from the dismal days of the early 1950s – when the survival of Liberal MPs at all was due, in part, to pacts with the Conservatives – has to be ascribed to subsequent leaders Jo Grimond and Jeremy Thorpe.
Grimond gave the party a distinct political position: a nice-sounding, moderately anti-establishment communitarian individualism (or ‘positive liberalism’ as opposed to ‘negative libertarianism’), which proved a boon when disillusion with the two main parties set in. Thorpe, who succeeded Grimond in 1967, brought a freshness and charisma that Heath and Wilson lost as they continued to fight each other at election after election.
Michael Cockerell in his book Live From Number Ten (Faber & Faber, 1988) argues that the latter was also helped by his decision to focus on campaigning in his marginal Devon constituency, giving press conferences and interviews via screens rather than in person. ‘This gave Thorpe’s campaign a distinctive look on television, and reporters found it harder to put tough questions to a man who was not physically present.’
The party benefitted too from its ability to attract characterful candidates who were well known for being well known. By 1974 it boasted the likes of the then far-from-discredited Cyril Smith and Just a Minute panellist Clement Freud, who in his autobiography wrote, ‘It suddenly occurred to me that after nine years of fame I now had something solid about which to be famous.’ The current crop of Lib Dem MPs features no such characters, while Tim Farron is as likely to capture the public imagination Thorpe-style as he is, well, to be caught up in a plot to murder a male model and his dog. BOR-ING!
So, what to do? The market for protest votes is a lot more crowded these days, while (at least until this month) the two main parties have been very keen to fight over the centre ground to which, in the more ideological 1960s and 1970s, the Liberals could more easily lay claim. And then there’s the whole coalition thing. In terms of their appeal as the true opposition to the Tories, that was a shame, really.
But new leader Tim Farron can still presumably craft a nice-sounding message. Something along the lines of ‘look to a future without class conflicts, partisan bitterness and excessive self-criticism’, as the Liberals ended their February 1974 manifesto. Even Nick Clegg managed that for a few fleeting moments in 2010. Certainly Farron would be wise to abandon the Lord Rennard approach to campaigning, which may have won the Lib Dems some local contests, but also left them unable to occupy the moderate moral high ground from which Grimond and Thorpe directed the party’s revival.
Whatever else they do next, though, the Liberals should definitely go back to calling their conference the quainter sounding ‘Assembly’, even if many school assemblies have been better attended this week.