The tragic passing away of former Liberal Democrat leader, Charles Kennedy, which rightly resulted in eulogies from all sides of the political spectrum, also provides a moment for the depleted Liberal Democrats MPs to consider the future of their own party. Under Kennedy’s stewardship, the Lib Dems gained the highest number of Liberal MPs since 1923 but following the disastrous 2015 general election, this legacy of 62 seats has been decimated to a mere 8 seats only a decade on.
Following the election disaster, many prominent Lib Dems, from Vince Cable to Paddy Ashdown have found a wide range of reasons to explain their electoral collapse, except one : The Coalition Agreement (which Kennedy himself didn’t support). Local and European election results from 2010 indicated growing public disaffection for the Liberal Democrats, resulting in their calamitous sixth placed performance in the 2014 European elections. The idea that the SNP, opinion polls or divisive Tory rhetoric killed the Lib Dem’s election chances is ludicrous. More worryingly, if the party continues to live in a parallel political universe, it could turn the Lib Dems into a political irrelevance.
During the five years of the Coalition, the Liberal Democrats, a centre-left party which still, somehow, prides itself on fairness and decency, supported the Bedroom Tax, oversaw cuts to legal aid, cuts to their cherished mental health budget, the introduction of fees for employment tribunals and an explosion in the number of food banks and homelessness. At the same time, they broke promises on tuition fees, VAT increases and the mansion tax. This was a complete dereliction of democratic duty and political suicide. This is the real reason why the Lib Dems lost 85% of their MPs. Squeezed on all sides by the Greens, Labour and the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats ended up in a no-man’s land where they criticised their coalition partners, only taking responsibility for their favoured policies whilst shirking responsibility for their part in a government which ’hit the poorest hardest’
If the next Liberal Democrat leader has a fraction of the political and moral judgement, principles and courage of Charles Kennedy then the party might just rebuild itself from this nadir. Otherwise, the stark alternative is an obsolete or even defunct political party.
Public trust in politicians has reached such depths that even estate agents and bankers are more trusted to tell the truth. In addition to widely stated reasons such as the expenses scandal, empty rhetoric and broken promises, I believe one underlying reason is the lack of expertise and professionalization in British politics across all parties. The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice is an English graduate without any legal experience. An ex-Labour shadow Chancellor, without any relevant qualifications or experience, admitted to needing a book in economics for beginners when given the role. The Education Secretary is a former corporate lawyer without any teaching experience. The Equalities Minister voted against gay marriage. The list of examples is endless but the random nature of the government ministerial appointments does not inspire public confidence. Furthermore, ministers could feel less confident introducing policy reform especially in the face of civil service opposition. Therefore, relevant expertise in their field would not only make the public more confident but the minister in the implementation of their own policy agenda.
My policy suggestion would be for the Prime Minister to insist on previous experience or qualifications before awarding a portfolio to a minister. This criterion could be met through previous and/or current academic studies, extensive professional experience before entering politics or a mandatory acclimatisation period of, at least, 12 months if the party is currently in opposition. This mandatory training period would involve work placements, shadowing and academic study of relevant policy issues facing the department. This training period could be necessary in order to compensate for the lack of expertise around more modern departments such as the Department for Communities and Local Government.
The initial problems of narrowing the talent pool for current Members of Parliament would be far-outweighed if political parties started to look at potential parliamentary candidates from professional bodies, for example Keir Starmer as a prospective Secretary of State for Justice. Although future reshuffles would be more limited as promotions would effectively be ‘in-house’, junior ministers, who were familiar with their brief, would be able to take on more senior positions.
This relatively cost-free policy would bring credibility to Cabinet ministers, improve public confidence in politicians and increase the levels of professionalism and expertise in British politics as a trend emerged away from ‘career politicians’ towards distinguished experts in their respective fields.
The election night provided many notable stories. One of the most remarkable was what happened in Scotland. The SNP won 56 out of the 59 seats including some dramatic gains from the Labour Party.
The people of Scotland showed they had lost trust in the Westminster parties and didn’t appreciate being taken for granted. Whilst on the night this hurt Labour far more than the other parties, it should be seen as a failure for all the big parties who now all have almost no representation in Scotland.
This was not a vote for independence though or even a vote for an independence referendum. It was made clear independence wasn’t on the ballot paper this time and results may have been different if a referendum promise had been in the SNP manifesto.
Despite this, the chances of independence have risen after this result. There is a clear and obvious division now between the people of England (broadly Conservative) and people of Scotland (broadly independent socialists). In the election campaign the Tories successfully played on the fear of the SNP having an influence in a UK government. Whilst this clearly influenced voters England, it served to anger many voters in Scotland increasing the level of discord between the two nations.
However, independence is not inevitable. There is no overwhelming mood in Scotland for another independence vote yet, leaving a window of opportunity for Cameron. Cameron’s first task is to improve relations between the countries which clearly soured during the election campaign and then to display that he has understood the concerns of the Scottish electorate and respects what they have voted for.
Sturgeon is right to say that it cannot be business as normal. Cameron and the government have to make a clear and concise offer to the SNP and the Scottish government. This means delivering both on promises which have already been made and going even further. If done in the right way this could highlight how a devolved Scottish parliament could work in tandem with a Westminster government and render another vote on independence pointless.
On Friday morning after the election, we were probably closer to Scottish independence. The Scottish people had placed their faith in the SNP. What happens next is pivotal. Cameron has been given a clear mandate to lead England country, now he must do his part to save the Union.
The scale of Labour’s general election defeat, its worst since 1987, and the multitude of reasons behind it, coupled with the Conservative boundary changes, means that Labour has a mountain to climb to win in 2020. The triple bind of SNP’s inexorable rise, traditional Labour voters in the North switching to UKIP and the inability to convince English voters of Labour’s economic competency, perceived lack of centrist values and possible reliance on the SNP resulted in a perfect storm scenario for Ed Miliband. Although a Labour victory seemed unlikely in the light of the Conservatives’ commanding advantage in both economic management and Prime Ministerial ratings, calls to return to New Labour Mark II downplay the underlying reasons for this crushing defeat. A radical and multi-faceted approach is required if Labour intends to claw back a 100 seat deficit against a post-austerity Conservative Party by 2020. After taking for granted its traditional voters in Scotland and the north, Labour now needs to reach out to these voters and address their concerns. In Scotland, a self-governing Labour party, which is no longer ran as a branch office is a must. An independent Scottish Labour should attack SNP’s lack of progressive credentials and redistributive policies, especially if full fiscal autonomy is granted to Scotland, thus depriving the nationalists of its get-out clause of blaming Westminster. This strategy, combined with the SNP’s inevitable drop from such dizzying heights, could be the beginning of Labour’s recovery in Scotland. The next Labour leader will also need to reach out to those UKIP voters left behind by New Labour and globalisation, breaching the subject of English identity, immigration, and possibly most importantly, integration in order to not alienate more centrist Labour voters and work within the realities of our (presumed) membership in the EU. The introduction of a contributory benefits system, as mooted by Jon Cruddas in the past, could also be a step in proving that Labour is on the side of workers and neutralising benefit tourism. Additionally, UKIP’s fluid positions on the NHS, tax cuts for the rich, small state neo-Thatcherism provide significant targets for Labour to attack on and win back disillusioned voters. Finally, Labour need to promote a more positive, aspirational message supported by economic credibility aimed towards the 90% of voters not in the super-rich apex or the disadvantaged base of society, to win back marginal seats in the Midlands and South. If Labour can marry its credibility for the intrinsic social justice values present in the British electorate and demonstrate that it has learnt lessons from past mistakes on the economy, immigration and loyalty, then the long journey back to power can begin.