Thursday, 2 June 2011

Time for the Lib Dems to "Man Up"

Along with a lot of Liberal Democrats in the North East, I was disappointed to read the increasingly isolated former parliamentary candidate Cllr Dr Ron Beadles column in the Journal today where he advocates that it “is time for the Lib Dems to reclaim the party”. Quite who we are to reclaim it from I'm not sure. According to Ron it seems to have been stolen by a tiny clique of renegade pseudo Tories and the only way to get it back is to get rid of any “sell outs” and start again with a pure year zero party. But it did get me thinking of what the temperature of our party and how we need to “man up” by which I mean stop whining and get on with what needs to be done.

As a party many Liberal Democrat activists are in a new place. After years of national “critic” politics, where we say how we could make the world a better place if only we had some power, we are back in the world of real politics. In short we could “talk the talk” now we need to “walk the walk”.

Those of us who, as Liberal Democrats, have run or are running local councils understand that running public bodies is hard and that the right thing to do is not always the easy or immediately popular thing to do. In a county like Northumberland, where like in Westminster no one party has a majority, you learn that even the parties that share your overall aims on issues will be quite happy to hit you when you make a tough choice that they really agree with.

The Liberal Democrats and their predecessor parties gradually fought back from electoral irrelevance by building a reputation street by street, neighbourhood by neighbourhood. We proved we could be trusted with national power by showing we could be good councillors and then by running councils well. However, when you are involved in trying to change society in the most centralised state in Western Europe (apart from Malta I am told!) that is not enough to make the difference. Parties in national power take a hit in mid term local elections. We experienced this in May for the first time in 80 years. As a councillor, that upsets me but if we have to be the fall guys in exchange for making the changes that are needed, we need to “man up “ and take that on the chin.

Divided parties are hated by the electorate. The Tories learnt that in 1997 and Labour did in 1983. If we think it's bad now a messy factional internal rebellion that will not succeed will result in total rejection by voters.

I'm not sure that many Lib Dems really opposed the coalition in May 2010 or do now. The myth peddled by the tiny minority of activists who do so is that somehow our national leadership tricked our activists. But we are a democratic party. Unlike many of these people, I attended the historic Special Conference in Birmingham where the party as a whole moved forward on this.

Nothing has changed since then. The course is right, this country has to get it's structural deficit down and get the state off peoples back. We have also made impressive progress on human rights and helping the working poor. Where I do agree with Ron and others is that seeing Lib Dem government ministers try to attack their colleagues over synthetic differences is not edifying. We need to defend our alliance with the Conservatives nationally. It was the right thing to do now. People respect people in the long run who don't act like quarrelsome children. So we need to improve national communication. But his idea that we need to reclaim our party means in reality a bitter turf war over synthetic differences that will have the reverse effect.

The siren voices to pull out of the coalition and should be ignored. The overwhelming majority back this – we will be rewarded for integrity not internecine politics. This message will not play with the local and national media as much as a sensationalist statement urging internal conflict but it is the one I believe that is right.

We may lose a few council seats and voters may not like the necessary changes this country needs, when a fairy land alternative is put forward by the Labour party. Long term though, we will do better by maintaining the course, manning up and winning a hard won reputation for integrity.

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