What are the Liberal Democrats for in 2015? This is a question that probably hasn’t been discussed quite as much over the course of our party’s leadership election campaign as it perhaps should have been. We’ve had plenty of defiance and pride concerning our record in government (and rightly so), but that key existential question that any defeated political party must confront still hangs over us. Why did we all sign up to this party in the first place? What is it about the Liberal Democrats that makes our survival so essential to the good of British politics? As a relatively young political party, we know perhaps better than most that we do not have a god-given right to exist, and frankly the next five years are shaping up to be exactly that: a fight for our political existence.
Apologies if that all sounds rather downbeat to any liberals reading this. For what it’s worth, I have every faith that no matter who is elected out of Tim Farron or Norman Lamb our party will continue fighting for the liberal values that have defined us for years. However, the uncomfortable question that we cannot afford to leave unanswered is this: “How can we make people believe in us again?” If we do not answer this question, our message will not be heard.
So, how do we stand out in an increasingly crowded political marketplace? The one thing we cannot do now is be seen to simply go through the motions as a party, appearing on Andrew Marr or Question Time to deflect questions, which we were perhaps guilty of during the Coalition years. Ultimately, we cannot be seen to be a standard, ‘professional’ political party. We can no longer be part of the ‘Westminster Elite’ that Ukip, the SNP and the Greens have vilified to such an effective extent. This is because our credibility as a political party has been totally destroyed thanks to tuition fees. It doesn’t matter what we say, it can always be shut down by our opponents with a glib comment along the lines of “well we all know how far we can trust a Lib Dem, eh students?”
For what it’s worth, I think this situation is disastrously unfair. Not only is the current fees system better than the one we inherited, it’s also far fairer than what we would have got had we not entered Coalition. Thanks to the Lib Dems, fees are paid back at a more reasonable rate, only after you earn £21,000 and there are no up-front fees. But nobody wants to hear that, because the tuition fees story isn’t about tuition fees at all. It’s about trust, and we need to elect a leader who recognises that.
Our reluctance to face up to the tuition-fee-shaped elephant in the room during the last election was summed up for me by a chance conversation I had with Nick Clegg. As a student at the time, I had been talking to a lot of people who said they had no idea the Lib Dems made the changes I mentioned in the previous paragraph, and that having learned this they felt much more positive about the party and would consider voting for them (I even managed to persuade two of them to volunteer). When I saw Nick Clegg, I thought I would never forgive myself if I didn’t share my winning formula with him. Upon hearing my advice, he listened politely but said twelve words that I still remember to this day: “thanks, but I don’t want to make this election about tuition fees”.
Now, Nick Clegg may not have wanted to make the Lib Dem campaign about tuition fees, but it WAS about tuition fees. In fact, it was all anyone I spoke to seemed to want to talk about. As preposterous as this sounds, it really was our Iraq. It was the moment at which we were seen to sell our political souls to the devil. It was so frustrating to me that this obstacle could be overcome but our leadership seemed to think that there was no obstacle worth overcoming.
Turning now to our leadership election, I see one candidate who unfortunately perhaps had no choice but to vote in favour of tuition fees in order to keep his ministerial position, from which he did much good. However, I see another who was brave enough to defy the party whip to vote against tuition fees, and the bedroom tax to boot. Tim Farron’s record is one of firm liberal principles, and rightly or wrongly that is what we need in order to rebuild the public’s trust. Norman Lamb’s work in government, particularly on mental health, cannot be understated and as a former employee, party member and volunteer I am hugely proud of his record. But people like Norman will never be able to affect that kind of change again if we don’t win enough seats.
I don’t want to just be right, I want to be right and win.
So what are the Liberal Democrats for in 2015? Well for me it’s simple. We are the party of progressive change. We are the party who would change the voting system to make it fairer. We are the party who would never allow £12bn to be cut from those who cannot afford to pay it when such a sum could easily be recouped from tax avoidance. We are the party who would rebalance our economy to make it greener and less exploitative. We are the party who would bring power back to the people through further devolution. We are the party who would commit to building the houses we so desperately need.
That is a message worth shouting about. We have no choice but to elect a leader who has the political credibility to shout it.
Adam Bennett worked as correspondence assistant to Nick Clegg and worked for the Liberal Democrats until the election.