Wednesday, 28 September 2011

First they ignore you...

I've been reflecting on our situation as a party recently and I was reminded of something. Specifically I was reminded of these old words:

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi

And, as I thought about them, the more they seemed to apply to the history of the Liberal Democrats.

In the late 80s and most of the 90s we were treated as an irrelevance. There were a few brief headlines due to good polling results around the era of the Alliance, prior to the merger of the Liberals and the SDP, but those polling results, and those headlines, faded following 1983 general election and Thatcher's landslide victory.

So then we went to being ignored, at one point sinking so low in the polls that we technically might not have had any support at all due to the fact that the margin of error in the poll was greater than the percentage of people saying they supported us. Even when we bounced back two years later to win 20 seats in the 1992 general election we were still ignored and seen as an irrelevance.

Following 1997, we started to get occasional media coverage. Journalists would attend our conferences - even if only to write condescending columns where they professed bemusement at our earnestness. Though, in fairness, they never failed to mention when we passed some sort of outlandish policy (such as the policy to lower the age at which teenagers could legally watch porn to the same age as which they could get married - 16).

We were mocked for our support of gay marriage, for our lone opposition to the Iraq War and for our warnings about the state of the economy in 2007. Even in the 2010 general election campaign, when there was the brief Cleggmania, people like Paxman still mocked us for saying we wanted to win the election.

And then we also saw the attacks by the press, the false allegations about Nick Clegg pocketing donations to the party, the headline about David Laws, er, paying the exact amount of tax he was supposed to whilst calling for the tax rate to be increased, the Daily Mail screaming about "NICK CLEGG'S NAZI SLUR ON BRITAIN!"

In fact, there has definitely been a noticeable shift towards attacking us. Although the media tries to ignore us wherever possible (witness the complete lack of coverage of the Lib Dems pointing out that they had opposed Murdoch long before Miliband deemed it fashionable, or Nick Clegg offering a sensibly response to the riots instead of the knee-jerk draconian populism of David Cameron), they also now tend to attack us a lot more as well. The attacks aren't as blatant as those during the general election campaign but they are a lot more frequent.

Witness the Telegraph waiting to publish its revelations on David Laws' expenses until just after he had become a minister, or its undercover sting operations designed to try and undermine the coalition. Witness the Daily Mail calling Nick Clegg "the most dangerous man in Britain". Witness the Telegraph drag up ancient history about a Lib Dem donor who was convicted of fraud as an attempt to tarnish our reputation - despite the fact that the Electoral Commission ruled that we had accepted the donation in good faith and had done nothing improper.

And, it might just be me, but it seemed to me that the coverage of our conference in Birmingham earlier this month was a lot more sneering and gave a lot less recognition of our achievements and policy proposals than that of the Labour conference. Oh, and please don't get me started on the near daily vitriol in the Sun and the Mirror.

And of course, Labour's first act, even before their conference had properly started, was to announce a policy gimmick on tuition fees with the aim of capturing our supporters. That their policy is flawed and ineffective is beside the point - the key thing to take note of is that attacking us is a significant part of the strategy. Of course with Labour it's understandable. They arrogantly assume that they have a god given right to the votes of everyone who doesn't vote tory and they still can't accept that we didn't meekly jump into their arms to prop up a fourth Labour government during the coalition negotiations. They still haven't got their heads round the idea that we can be a party composed predominantly of centre left supporters and yet view the Labour party with just as much distaste as the tories.

The media's excuse is a bit more depressing and childish. For decades they have been used to the easy analysis of two party politics. That kind of system is easy for them. They don't need to bother finding out the facts and informing people, they can just say "he said, she said" and leave it at that. The transition to a more pluralist politics makes all that much more difficult - the old lazy way of oversimplification and patronising explanations won't work any more. So by scoffing, criticising, sneering and pretending the situation hasn't changed they can kid themselves into thinking that this is just a blip and that at the next election the Lib Dems will implode or fragment and things can get back to business as usual.

Unfortunately, that's not going to happen.

There's no denying that the Lib Dems have been bruised over the past year and a half. There's no doubt that we took a hammering in the council elections in May either. But the Lib Dems are far from finished. Behind the scenes the party has been quietly reforming itself. A new headquarters and a new campaign structure. New and powerful election software. While our opponents take pot shots at us we are transforming ourselves into a professional, organised party. At conference the spirit was not of despair but of optimistic determination and unity. A recent poll showed that in marginal constituencies across the country half of voters reported receiving leaflets from the Lib Dems in the past six months - far more than contacted by any other party.

Across the country we are picking ourselves up and carrying on. The May council results were not the death-knell for the party - they were a wake up call.

With the current political situation it does seem highly likely that we will lose seats at the next general election but that was inevitable having gone into coalition - for example, people who voted for us as a protest vote against the government are hardly going to do so now we're in government.

But already we are out on the ground. My local party, for example, recently had a training session on campaigning and people are raring to put the lessons into practice. Already we have plugged the deficit in our internal funds, increased our membership and received more corporate donations than Labour. In short, all the key infrastructure is falling into place. In the long term, we will be stronger than ever and that is the key to winning elections.

So let the media and our political opponents fight us. We're getting ready to fight back on an equal footing. And when we do, we'll win.

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