Monday, May 15, 2006


Don’t Panic! Don’t Panic! Aaarrgghh (Muppet arms)!

…is the understated press and Lib Dem response to disappointing local election results, complete with another absurdly destructive bout of Leadership whingeing. Hey ho. The election results were only disappointing because we expected to make easy gains and instead found ourselves holding our own in dogfights. To those MPs whispering that Ming isn’t a widely known and popular Leader, there’s only one response (other than ‘shut the **** up’): none of our Leaders have become widely known and popular overnight, not Paddy, not Charles, and if you wanted one for the local elections you shouldn’t have ditched him. Sigh.

Charles had many qualities Ming doesn’t, but the reverse is also true, and by all accounts the party at ‘the top’ is pulling together better (despite the whispering). But it’s ludicrous to set a deadline for a Leader starved of publicity – as ours always are compared to the other two – to build a brilliant profile. In 1994 Mr Blair was a phenomenon, but that was due to an already huge media presence and being talked up by pretty much every commentator. He took a large slice of Lib Dem support overnight from which it took us nearly a decade to recover. Mr Cameron, despite a highly effective slogan in ‘Vote Blue, Go Green’, six months of virtually unbroken great publicity in a mass of media cheerleading led by the BBC bias of Nick ‘Mate of Dave Cameron’ Robinson, and having taken over from an unpopular predecessor, still has several mountains to climb; people hate the Tories less than they did, but they’re still not prepared to like them much. No wonder people haven’t paid a lot of attention to Ming, but really, you need to think back to some real disasters to put ‘momentum puttering to a stop’ into perspective.

Yes, I was disappointed with the local elections, too, but I wasn’t gobsmacked. On the bright side, we’ve still got 4,700 councillors, we still beat Labour in the vote, and we still gained a council or two overall. On the downside, we said we’d make gains and didn’t, our vote slipped slightly from our best ever, we didn’t have a thrilling national message (James Graham, another activist turned a bit of an armchair general like me this year, makes some good points on narrative, though is rather more pessimistic) and, obviously, we’re still rubbish at spin.

The Tories still don’t have it all their own way. We made about as many gains from them as they took from us, their vote share’s still much lower than they need, and their strategy of breaking back into urban areas where they were embarrassed by having not a single seat has largely failed – if not completely, as I know from my new Tory councillors. David Cameron was so rattled when the interviewer tried to spoil his triumphal appearance on the next morning’s Today Programme by mentioning the Tories’ loss of Richmond to the Lib Dems by an even bigger majority that he had to make up counter-jabs that the Tories had cost us control of Kingston and Sutton. Neither of which were true. Today being not much cop, obviously, he wasn’t called on fictitious results, but it’s a tendency to watch for; he displays a marked tendency to fall apart under tricky questioning (though not ‘hostile’ questioning, which plays to his ‘nice’ pose).

The real story for me was how Labour held up, on a night that was terrible for them rather than suicidal (though the strategy of ‘blame everything on the previous fortnight’ doesn’t seem to have fooled anyone), partly perhaps because of overambitious targeting meaning we were pushed back in areas where we might have held our own or made just modest gains.

So I wouldn’t call the Lib Dem result ‘consolidation’. It looks from a distance like trench warfare – many shots fired but leaving both sides stuck in the same positions – but, if I may switch tasteless war analogies, it seems we were really stuck in dogfights round the country, hard-fought, close-quarters and with uneven casualties on all sides. For fifteen years or so we’ve had the relatively positive terrain of one or other of our opponents being on the slide and picking up at their expense. I reckon Labour’s as low as they’ll go, and the Tories’ll take a while for the shine to come off. That means holding our nerve for probably harder work and more limited short-term ambitions, and that the party nationally has to come up with something easy and persuasive to make people think, “Oh, that’s what the Lib Dems are for, and I like it.”

Of course, we’ve been looking for the last thing for about a decade, but that does mean we’ve come up with some goodies along the way that we might rediscover rather than starting from scratch. More on that story later.

> I reckon Labour’s as low as they’ll go

Oh, I dunno - they haven't reached the point that the Tories did, where they poisoned an entire generation of people like us from ever voting for them ever again, under any circumstances...
Good point – but my intended reply got a little out of hand, so you’ll find it appearing in a post of its own:
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