Feet to the fire - The lessons of the 2010 election and the Coalition Government

Without the good fortune of our capricious electoral system failing to produce a majority for any party, the missed opportunity of the 2010 general election would be far more visible. It certainly produced the most inexplicable outcome of any of the fourteen elections with which I have been involved. Ostensibly there was no evidence "on the doorstep" right up to polling day of the 4% overnight shift away from the Liberal Democrats' final opinion poll rating. Curiously - and this may be a quirk of the pollsters' problems in identifying support for minor parties - the shift did not go to either major party but to "Others." I hope that significant research is being done, whether independently or for the party, to try and understand why we could win Burnley and Redcar but lose seats in Cornwall.

There are, however, a number of anecdotal points to make from experience in Leeds. First, despite all the media hype, there was no indication that there would be a very high poll. There was still a great deal of antagonism evident towards all politicians and the eventual turnout figure of 65% is still disturbingly low. Second, although there was evidence of a shift towards us, it was not as evident nor as enthusiastic as the media and the polls suggested - apart, perhaps, amongst students. Third, and most significant, there were a great many "undecided." Being a long term cynic, I usually assume these are supporters of other parties who don't wish to offend the canvasser, but, on this occasion, it was all too accurate, and apparently largely made up of electors pondering whether to vote Liberal Democrat who didn't go through with it when faced with the actual ballot paper.

What of the election campaign? Nick Clegg clearly did a superb job out in front and transformed the party and its leadership from a half-known, partially rated, third party to a contender for government, wooed by all. However, I will risk the heresy of essaying a couple of critical comments. I accept that Nick had to avoid sounding either ridiculous or triumphalist, but when his brilliantly judged performance in the first television debate added an average of 9% to our poll ratings, it was the moment to state firmly that the momentum was with the Liberal Democrats and that we were eminently capable of leading the government. After all, if one is at 30% or more in half the opinion polls in the fortnight after that first debate - including six of them in which we led - that is what the voters are saying.

The credible aim of "winning" the election never impinged itself on the campaign, even if it was tentatively essayed on a couple of occasions. In fact, in his very last Radio 4 interview, Nick was asked by Eddie Mair on the PM programme, "to imagine for a minute being in Number 10." After a short pause, Nick responded that he couldn't imagine it. Sensitivity and humility are winsome traits in political leaders but this was a moment to state his, and the party's, readiness for office. I have a feeling that some at least of the Liberal Democrat leaning "undecideds" wanted their decision to vote for us to be responded to more confidently.

My other, linked, concern is that the burden of Nick's later direct appeals, both in the third television debate and in the final election broadcast, was unduly negative. The "don't let them tell you ...." line was, of course, relevant, not least given the vicious right-wing media attacks, but it sounded as if we lacked enough confidence to win. I was reminded of the different approach to the same message in the 1964 general election when the slogan was, "If you think like a Liberal, vote like a Liberal." The final television broadcast was anchored by Ludovic Kennedy on the theme that "you, the voter, have to have the courage to vote Liberal," and his final - live - appeal to camera ended with the statement that "if you do think like a Liberal but don't vote Liberal, you don't have much courage, do you?" It had a powerful effect in strengthening wavering Liberal voters.

In retrospect, it seemed that the party managers did not know what to do with the immediate surge in support following Nick's success in the first debate. Certainly we didn't know what to do locally! There seemed to be a sudden millennial belief in miracles and that, with two more debates to come, Nick's charisma plus the usual surge would carry us inexorably upwards. It was not to be and the polls peaked even before the second debate. The scandalous media attack dogs bit deeply and this may have had some effect, although the evidence for media influence on voting habits generally is pretty feeble. We do, however, pay a very high price for press freedom.

I have a sense that the obsession with targeting was a factor in our inability to clinch the surge in support. Heretical it may be, but I am less and less enamoured with the principle of targeting. It may be justified in the final dash to the tape but in the weeks and months beforehand it is a substitute for building up self-supporting organisations and, by laying waste to every other seat in the vicinity, it ensures that there is no broad party campaign able to respond to and to utilise those many individuals who turn to us, as they did in large numbers after the first television debate. There is a veritable Liberal Democrat desert around target seats, which greatly exacerbates the intense difficulty of trying to focus on target municipal seats in non-target constituencies in the midst of a parliamentary election.

There is no substitute for building up a committed and motivated membership. Unless there were thousands of recruits during this election campaign, the party still has fewer members than the Plymouth Brethren and exhortations to work even harder were increasingly cries of wolf to a frankly tiny membership worn down by the tyranny of Focus and "Action Days" that had no visible gap between them. We have to develop an emphasis on liberal values and on a liberal vision that captures and inspires those of like mind. It can be done as was evident in the determination of Liberals to survive and to challenge the establishment parties against huge odds in the 1950s.

There are those - a minority no doubt - who are liberal by nature and by instinct who can be drawn into membership and who, with sufficient intellectual and organisational support, will be prepared to try and persuade the voters. We have to "win the winners." By and large the electorate does not vote for its prejudices but, like a jury in a rather large public court, for what it perceives to be "right." Nick did a great job in arguing for an amnesty for long stay illegal immigrants but the ground for liberal measures generally had not been sufficiently prepared over the years. The test of whether being in government, particularly with even the merest measure of electoral reform, transforms the political scene will be seen in whether we can build a broader based party capable of taking the political argument to the voters in literature and on the doorstep.

Post-election our negotiators did a remarkable job. With the hand they were given they probably got the best deal possible. It is no use having the visceral feeling, as I have, that being a radical progressive party precludes a coalition with the Conservatives when all one's experience in an industrial city like Leeds is of a politically corrupt and opportunist Labour party. I have been fighting conservatism for fifty-two years now, but it has been as much a conservatism of the Left as of the Right. Labour's inability to deliver its part of any putative coalition is endemic with its tribal conservatism. It was bad enough having David Blunkett and John Reid attacking any potential deal from the outside, but the killer blow was landed from within by Douglas Alexander when he said that he could not in any way work with the SNP. That one public utterance destroyed a parliamentary arithmetic that was already teetering on the brink.

The logic of three party politics is that there will at some point be a coalition with the Conservatives, otherwise there is the risk of an unchallenged partnership becoming moribund and of one's negotiating strength being dissipated. We have got it much earlier than once imagined partly as a consequence of the sheer arithmetic and partly because of the political reality that a Labour party in government for thirteen years had lost the election and ought not to be put back into office by any deal other than one which could sustain genuine electoral reform and an unlikely reversal of Labour's lousy record on civil rights.

And those who might be tempted by the "purity" option of allowing the Conservatives to have a minority administration were certainly not around in 1966 or in 1974 when, in similar situations, Harold Wilson held early "second" elections, blamed the Liberals for the need for them, and set back our progress by eight and nine years respectively.

I am much taken by having a leadership and a parliamentary party prepared to act in the national interest, even at great political risk, but the national interest is never served by diminishing liberalism. The best test of Liberal Democrat participation in this government will be to see by how much liberal influence in the country is increased.

The party is certainly in some danger, at least in the short term, and I am anxious to see how far the new recruits from the election campaign remain active and whether we can recruit more. We may well have to work harder to explain and cajole. Ours can be a remarkably mature party, as witnessed by the special assembly a mere ten days after polling day. After a lifetime of party conferences I'm usually unaffected by the hype and the "fixing" but I was genuinely moved by the event, not least by the awareness that neither other party would have dared to hold a full party conference in such circumstances.

As a party we have a very difficult dual role to play. We have to be supportive to our parliamentary colleagues whilst maintaining the party's independent role in campaigning for its aims, even when they are at odds with the coalition policy. The problem in parliament will come when the individual measures in the coalition agreement come to the floor of the House. It is one thing to support a package, whether the agreement or the Queen's Speech, but quite another formally to go through the lobbies for measures to which the individual MP, peer and the party are opposed. In this context Tony Greaves' curiously cryptic letter of 21 May in The Guardian, appeared to suggest that Liberal Democrat peers will treat the coalition in the same way as it treated previous administrations.

The crucial point to keep on stating is that, as a party, the Liberal Democrats are no less liberal and no less independent than they were on 6 May.