It has been four days since the General Election. I am just getting around to putting some thoughts down in words. This is not a thorough and complete story, just five reflections on the campaign, other events around the campaign and thoughts for the future.
- I was selected for the Halton constituency in January; from a previous disappointment I had been presented with a new challenge. In an ideal world I would have been the Parliamentary candidate for Warrington South. That wasn’t meant to be but the opportunity to stand for my party in a neighbouring seat came up and I realised that the experience and the privilege was too much to turn down. It wouldn’t be the same challenge and I wouldn’t mount the same campaign, but in hindsight I am glad that I did it. It is a reminder that good can come from bad and it is always possible to bounce back.
- Amidst the party politics, it really is all about representing people. I have long been committed to the idea of being a hard-working representative for an area I care about. This is how countless Liberal Democrats have bucked national trends, even in the bloodbath of last week’s election. Standing against Derek Twigg, who is a fantastic and passionate constituency MP, it helped to remind me of the difference that one can make in politics. I will definitely be throwing my hat in the ring again for my home constituency for 2020, or whenever the next election may be.
- I believe that part of the Liberal Democrats’ problems at the election was one of definition. I joined the Liberal Democrats when I was 16, which was clearly quite a humorous decision of mine in the eyes of my fellow A-level politics students. In truth much of my decision was based on the local reputation of the party, but over time it became clear that I was a Liberal Democrat by principle as much as by practice. That question of principles has however dogged the party for as long as I’ve been a member and earlier. I remember a whole conference paper being based around defining the party; you’d never expect Labour or the Tories having to make such a move. I feel quite comfortable in my Liberal Democrat skin but I understand other people’s difficulty in understanding what exactly we as a party stand for. As a result we have in the past reduced ourselves to simply being defined by our policy platform, such as in the 2005 General Election. At this last election, we seemed to try and defining ourselves by simply splitting the difference between Labour and the Tories. Whilst I appreciate that defining liberalism is no easy task, especially given the diversity of the party and the need to convert everything into sound bites, but we must make more of an effort on this. I know that in my own activities as a councillor and campaigner that I will be doing my bit to try and communicate a clearer message to voters about who we are and what we stand for.
- There has never been a greater need for a strong, progressive liberal voice in Britain. The last election was dominated by nationalism, isolationism and fear. The SNP, hiding behind an ‘anti-austerity’ banner, continue in their mission to break up the UK. Meanwhile UKIP continue to peddle myths to disenfranchised and disenchanted British voters that immigration and the UK are the causes of all our woes. In response to these, the Conservatives were able to spread a fear amongst English voters that a vote for anybody but themselves would lead to economic oblivion at the hands of a week, propped-up Labour government. Whilst one has to admire the political machinations, it is a sad moment for our country that progressive forces in our politics, despite the increase in Green popularity, have lost so much ground. Labour couldn’t offer a viable alternative to the Tories. When the British public asked questions of Labour, the party just didn’t have the answers that people wanted to hear. Meanwhile, as I’ve already said, the Liberal Democrats weren’t offering a coherent vision based on our unique identity, but rather were hoping to ‘split the difference’; our entire message seemed to, with hindsight, be about trying to sneak back into government with whichever party going. From out of the catastrophe of last week, it is vital that the Lib Dems regroup and make a progressive and liberal contribution to the debates that will dominate the next five years. We must defend two unions – the UK and Europe. To do so, we must point out why these unions are a good thing for ordinary people. We must also point out how we’d seek to improve the way these unions work, in order to overcome some of their current weaknesses that their opponents often point towards as a reason to abandon them. We must also defend our civil liberties, especially as an unmitigated Tory government have already put new snooping powers and a British Bill of Rights back on the agenda. We must also defend our welfare state from a liberal standpoint. Liberals don’t believe, as Labour do, that the state has all the answers. There is also a role to play for local government, for stronger communities, for religious groups and by charities. That said, there is an absolute role for the state to protect the most vulnerable in our society and to ensure that opportunity is not restricted by forces beyond any individuals power. I am not sure that the Labour party can strike the right balance to build a fairer society for the 21st century. With only eight MPs in Westminster, it will be difficult to get our liberal voice through to people via mainstream channels. This makes it all the more important to get back to grassroots community campaigning. In doing so though, it is essential that local activists across the country strike the right balance between community action and national message. With a fear, part real and part perceived, that the national message can cost local success, it is important that in defining the Liberal Democrats we also translate into how liberal values motivate our work at the grassroots level. Now I’m not suggesting that reporting potholes is approached differently from a liberal perspective, rather I am arguing that councillors and campaigners should speak of their motivation to serve their communities and link these to the liberal values that we all share.
- During the election campaign, I had the absolute pleasure of leading the organisation of a weekend festival of community activities. This was the culmination of a year’s planning, co-ordinated by Grappenhall and Thelwall Parish Council, which sought to showcase the fantastic work of our diverse community groups and allow the public to see new sides to our vibrant area. Working with committed volunteers and leaders from across the community and building new relationships was a real pleasure. Bringing people and groups together for a common cause and building on people’s shared commitments to serving their area summed up for me what community politics is all about. It also highlighted for me the idea which I mentioned in my previous point – the massive opportunity for strong, organised communities to make a real difference to people’s lives in the space between the state, the corporation and individuals. The groups that I worked with crossed a range of interests including sport, learning, heritage, faith, recreation and the environment. Those groups sought to engage across almost every possible section of the public, from young to old, and from those seeking physical activity to those seeking social contact. It was in many ways humbling to see a snapshot of the year-round contribution that hundreds of volunteers make through thousands of hours of their time. I am really looking forward to bringing this festival back in 2016 and also developing other ways that we can strengthen our local communities.