Lib Dems: not drowning but waving?

Liberal Democrat sign

It’s a commonplace that the Lib Dems are Lib Dead. The polls taken so far this year have them hovering around 10 per cent – less than half of the 23 per cent they gained in 2010. Commentators assume that their 57 seats will drop below 20, all of which is fine by me. Yet, I have a gnawing worry that, while the Liberals aren’t thriving, neither are they drowning. They might prove more tenacious than many people expect.

The evidence from local by-elections backs this up. On the day that most politicos were talking about the police and crime commissioner ballots, as well as three Westminster elections, a host of local contests registered five gains for the Lib Dems and no losses. Taking seats off the Tories and Labour, this pattern has been repeated throughout England recently. Local Lib Dems are not always being blamed for the sins of their Westminster masters.

Waltham Forest gives an example of how the Lib Dems will approach the next couple of years. For two terms until 2010, the council was hung, with 24 Labour and 21 Liberal councillors. They were a significant local political force, having grown from nothing over 20 years to a position in which they believed that, in 2010, they would take control of the council and run us close in the parliamentary seats of Walthamstow and Leyton and Wanstead. That did not happen – 2010 brought hefty parliamentary majorities and 36 Labour councillors. The Liberals were left with just six.

For much of the previous two-and-a-half years, the local Lib Dems appeared shell-shocked and without any direction at all. Yet, in the last six months, something has changed. Things are still pretty desperate for them, but they no longer appear quite as resigned to their own demise. They have found some direction and, while the content of that direction is not surprising, the sheer chutzpah of it may be.

Their approach seems to rest on two pillars: put as much space as possible between themselves and the Tories; and pretend that the national government doesn’t exist. Again – not surprising, but taken so far as to be not just opportunist, but utterly cynical. This is quite a change: for much of 2010, 2011 and 2012, the Liberals appeared perfectly happy to be associated with their national colleagues.

Lib Dem council motions are generally written by their head office, appearing on order papers across the country. Until recently, their motions tacked closer to the Tories than to us, often being Labour v Lib-Con affairs. Then, somebody at Lib Dem HQ had a change of heart. They now either offer anodyne motions, or go out of their way to make sure that the Tories vote against them – no sign of that Ronseal relationship in Waltham Forest (and probably no sign of it where you are). Nick Clegg’s aide, Richard Reeves, mapped out three phases of coalition in 2010: unity, followed by differentiation, followed by divergence. Liberal strategists appear to have skipped phase two in their local approach.

Pillar two of their approach is to deny that the Lib Dems are part of the national government. Last month, Waltham Forest Lib Dems introduced a motion written in their HQ, criticising the government’s change to planning law, particularly condemning the Prime Minister for announcing the change. In fact, it had been announced jointly by Cameron and Clegg, but Lib Dems in government have been airbrushed out of their official history.

This might be all part of the cut and thrust of local politics, but it is certainly a sign of Liberal Democrat official thinking. They are utterly cynical, but utterly determined to survive. Anyone in Labour who is relying on the Liberals just dying a quiet death will be disappointed. They won’t. Their strategy is clear – the Tories and the government are nothing to do with them, guv’. Most will not be fooled by this but, where there are sitting Lib Dem councillors or MPs, their strategy may bear more fruit than we hope.

Their cynical approach in Waltham Forest and elsewhere suggests that we need to be equally strident in our response. We must not rely on the Lib Dems just disappearing – it is that complacent attitude in formerly safe Labour seats and wards which let the Liberals grow in the first place. Within the movement, many will differ as to whether we should hug them or bash them. Either way, it is clear that this will not be a natural end – it will have to be an assisted suicide.

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Mark Rusling is a Labour and Cooperative councillor in the London borough of Waltham Forest and writes the Changing to Survive column

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Photo: James Bowe

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  • Joe Caluori

    The ALDC (Association of Lib Dem Councillors), who published the infamous ‘Act Shamelessly Stir Endlessly’ document in 1999 are a very organised force, so it’s likely this is a strategic shift. However, it is posible ALDC are doing this stuff off their own back to help find a way to protect their members rather than as a dictat from HQ – although that relationship might have changed since I used to study them a bit more closely than I do now, in 2003/4.

  • Paul

    Yes, I’ve seen the same results as you, probably from the same source. However, in a seat that Labour has no chance of winning where would you go confronted by the Tories on one hand and UKIP on the other knowing that staying home is no option? Right, which does not mean that they will not go into meltdown at the next General Election. Remember, we lost in 2010 and, yet, won the majority of the London Councils!

  • http://twitter.com/davidbrede David Brede

    Clearly the Lib Dem Councillors are not going to give in easily and will stoop to anything to hold on to power.

    However it is down to Labour to ram home the link between the the Lib Dems and the Tories in government. Clearly one of our headlines should be that there is no point in voting Lib Dem to keep the Tories out any more.

    I would be looking for Lib Dems who should be now Labour. My view is that the Lib Dems in government are actually quite happy with their position and indeed Vince Cable has admitted as such when he denounced the Lib Dem economic position in the election. However there others who are appalled by what has been done in their name and these should be approached.

    We should also remind ourselves why they win in the first place. Good local organisation, focus on their target seats, identifying with local issues whether they contributed to them or not and the self assurance which is reinforced by the strap lines, ‘Winning here’ and ‘Its a 2 horse race’ which played spectacularly well for many years but was a disaster in Northampton in the last borough as they came 3rd in the General Election.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Dan.Filson Daniel Filson

    It would be useful if identical top-down resolutions proposed by LibDems could be exposed, as it clearly runs contrary to any notion of spontaneous grass-roots-generated feeling that the HQ pens the wording!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Pelton-Level/100001426773952 Pelton Level

    not just opportunist, but utterly cynical. This is quite a change
    No – it’s a return to normal working!

  • Anonymous

    “This might be all part of the cut and thrust of local politics, but it is certainly a sign of Liberal Democrat official thinking. They are utterly cynical, but utterly determined to survive. Anyone in Labour who is relying on the Liberals just dying a quiet death will be disappointed. They won’t. Their strategy is clear – the Tories and the government are nothing to do with them, guv’. Most will not be fooled by this but, where there are sitting Lib Dem councillors or MPs, their strategy may bear more fruit than we hope.”

    Go back to 2004:

    “This might be all part of the cut and thrust of local politics, but it is certainly a sign of Labour official thinking. They are utterly cynical, but utterly determined to survive. Anyone in the Lib Dems who is relying on the Labour just dying a quiet death will be disappointed. They won’t. Their strategy is clear – Tony Blair and the government are nothing to do with them, guv’. Most will not be fooled by this but, where there are sitting Labour councillors or MPs, their strategy may bear more fruit than we hope.”