A few years ago, together with other liberals from around Europe, I took part in a (private) gathering of the British Liberal Democrats. They had just formed a government with the Conservatives. It made for an interesting and valuable day, in which LibDem-leader Nick Clegg played a key part. In the wake of the LibDems' massive defeat, the lessons of that day are now essential. Not only for the LibDems, but for all political parties.
By: Boris van der Ham
Britain voted this week. By now the clouds of the election have cleared and the result is known. A surprising defeat for Labour, victory for the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats who were in the government for the past five years, with the Conservatives, have a massive defeat to deal with. Party leader Nick Clegg has resigned, effective immediately.
The popular reason for the big loss of the LibDems is their government participation in a coalition with the Conservatives. The British political system is unaccustomed to coalition governments, and therefore the LibDems lacked much experience in government. After all, a government party needs to make concessions in a coalition, and the rank and file of the LibDems might be extra sensitive about doing so. This week's result seems to support that analysis.
Party leader Nick Clegg had reckoned with the scenario that the LibDems would be wiped out in this election, from day one. After a resounding victory in 2010, he nevertheless decided to take part in the government. He was well aware of the huge risk this presented, but he consciously decided to take it head-on.
Virtually immediately government began, this fear came true. The LibDems' polling took a nosedive. In order to address the concerns on this count, Clegg organized a private gathering in London, together with his colleagues from both Houses of Parliament. He invited several (progressive) liberals from around Europe, who had had similar discussions about taking part in government. I was there, on behalf of D66, the Dutch Liberal Democrats.
At the end of the meeting, Nick Clegg addressed the room and said he was aware of the huge change actual government would be to the rank and file of his party. I wrote his words down that day, because they were spot on:
"People liked the Libdems because we didn't have any responsibility for difficult discussions. To vote Libdems was harmless. Yes, one always gets more sympathy when you are on the fringe. Some of our supporters would have liked the Libdems to stay there. Not important, but highly likeable. Now that has changed. It’s a mind shift, and some will not be able to accept this new position in the political landscape. That’s a major issue."
I have remembered these words well, because they precisely represent what is true for many political parties, particularly when they attack the established parties in power. Clegg was brave enough, following a great victory, to show that a so-called 'fringe' party was in fact able to govern the country. And they did. Unfortunately, that has not prevented this defeat from happening.
In my mind, this is partly because of the ambivalent way the LibDems have been campaigning the last couple of years. A lot of campaigners proved unable to do just what Clegg had discussed: be confident. Instead, they often just laid down and let themselves be trampled, instead of putting up a fight. Or they manoeuvre themselves into a position of self-pity and defeatism, mumbling: ‘Without us, things would have been even worse’.
Rather than going for a role of their own, they produced slogans like 'The Liberal Democrats will add a heart to a Conservative government and a brain to a Labour one' – in a whimsical reference to The Wizard of Oz. This approach reduced the LibDems to a mere supporting role for the mainstream of 'socialism' or 'conservatism'. This is the polar opposite of the autonomous role liberalism should and could play.
The worst thing now would be if the LibDems retreated back to the 'fringes' of the political field. It is now that the party should take the words to heart, that Clegg spoke back then. Be confident; draw up your own agenda! I would say: The logo of the LibDems is a bird, but lack of self-confidence has reduced it to a mere 'wing' of the bird. However, a successful political party needs at least two wings, a head, a breast and a tail too. There is still a world to be conquered for (progressive) liberalism, in Britain and in the rest of the world.
The lesson Clegg teaches is in fact relevant for all kinds of political movements. Greens and deeper-red socialists on the left, but also new parties on the (centre) right – all would benefit if they would stop behave themselves merely as satellites of the so-called 'big' political parties.
Enough of that!
Don't be a mere wing, be the whole bird!
Boris van der Ham
Member of parliament (2002-2012) Dutch Liberal Democrats (D66)
More on Mr. Van der Ham HERE