There was a period, around this time last year, when all was sunny and optimistic in the yellow-tinged world of the Liberal Democrats.
It coincided with the election of Mike Thornton in the Eastleigh by-election. For those who don’t recall, this was brought on by the conviction and imprisonment of one-time leadership candidate Chris Huhne. It also coincided with the coming to prominence of the allegations of sexual harassment against Lord Rennard — which is still going on, by the way. It was also a target seat for the Conservatives, who dearly needed a boost.
The Lib Dems poured everything — people, money — into the seat, and in the end held onto it, whilst the Tories fell to third place behind UKIP. And all of a sudden, they could do it. They could survive May 2015 because clearly their vote hasn’t disapparated like everyone supposed.
Which is a profound misreading of the situation.
Think for a moment how the Lib Dems got to where they are. As a local level grassroots movement, they built power from the ground up. Local councillors elected as the change candidates to whoever was in power — the ability to shift from left-of-Labour to soft-Tories depending who they’re talking to helped, certainly — and using a bedrock of councillors to get an MP into Parliament.
It’s not a criticism — well, the all-things-to-all-people is — as this is how politics is supposed to work. I’m very keen on grassroots campaigning as a model for effective politics which can make a real difference to people’s lives.
But the Lib Dem’s poll ratings have slid since the formation of the coalition and have led to a similar decline in the number of Lib Dem local councillors. From a peak of around 4,200 in 2008, they have fallen below 3,000. This might sound trivial, or at least incidental, but remember that in Eastleigh the Lib Dems have not simply councillors, but control of the council.
Look then at the latest by-election defeat. In Wythenshawe and Sale East they polled less than 5% and lost their deposit. They also have only four councillors on Trafford Council. I’m sure that the national resources which were committed to Eastleigh weren’t plunged into the no-hope locality of Wythenshawe and Sale East, but that is the point!
Come 2015, Lib Dem high command — stop sniggering at the back — won’t be able to throw their whole weight — I said stop sniggering! — behind every single seat. It”s debatable how much power they will be able to throw into seats they still hold. But come 2015, many constituencies will be left dependent on the very council-level activism which has withered on the vine throughout the life of this Parliament.
It’s a point I make in relation to Eastleigh, but one that I have also made in my own locality of Southend, where Lib Dem activists were brought in from across Essex to bring the yellows within a hair’s breadth of winning a council by-election. It’s nice, but only possible when elections are singular and isolated.
And I think that, in 2014, senior Liberal Democrats are starting to wake up to that reality. Better late than never, eh? The below is Lib Dem MP Nick Harvey (North Devon, majority of 5,821; 9 seats on Devon County Council, down from 13 in 2013) speaking in a debate on local government finance:
“…whole model of local Government funding is now so fundamentally broken that there needs to be a cross-party endeavour to rebuild something from scratch on a blank sheet of paper. The situation that we are in now is untenable. Somehow or other, Whitehall convinces itself that by putting this degree of hardship on to local government, the public anger at seeing some of the services that impact on their daily lives most directly will miraculously be focused solely upon the local authorities that send out the bill. I say to my right hon. and hon. Friends that I simply do not believe that that is a sound political calculation. The public are not stupid and they will see the difficulties that local government, regardless of the party running any particular council, is facing at this time, and they will hold central Government to be responsible for it.“
He’s not wrong. But the cuts that his government is pushing onto local councils has heavily damaged his party’s local government standing. This is not going to be remedied in local elections this year, which coincide with EU Parliament elections that some projections have predicted will wipe the Lib Dems out in Brussels.
But they are starting, I think, to get it. Clinging to false reassurances like Eastleigh is good for morale perhaps, but to an extent — a big extent, I believe — they are fiddling while Rome burns. Just as the Lib Dems were established from the grassroots up, they are being purged from the British political landscape from the grassroots up.