About 20 years ago the Liberal Democrats in Hull crashed from about 8 seats to just one survivor, (Simone Butterworth) grimly hanging on and maintain a presence for us. Eight or nine years later I was asked at very short notice to go to the first meeting of the controlling group on Hull City Council where they had swept to victory following all up elections.
That made me think about the metamorphosis of council groups and what changes they go through on the way from one person to control. I don’t believe that the changes will be or should be any different for the Parliamentary Party (although there is a slight complication of the second chamber).
So what is the role of:
One elected member: To be a major nuisance to the controlling party and to be highly visible in the City covered by the council as well as the area that they represent. Crucially they should not spend too much time in the Town Hall.
A small group of elected members: To be a guerrilla force within the Council and within the council area. Being highly visible; asking awkward questions and creating liaisons and partnerships. Crucially they should not spend too much time in the Town Hall.
A large group of elected members: To be the opposition to the controlling group and the Controlling Group ‘in waiting’. To be much more visible in the Town Hall; being much more coherent in terms of being proactive on policy rather than reactive. Continually being out with partners and potential allies both within and without the political circles. Crucially they should not spend too much time in the Town Hall.
The Controlling Group: Making sure that you are on top of issues; that there are no surprises; that the work you did in opposition to clarify your ambitions for your area get translated into practice by your officers and by your partners. Crucially they should not spend too much time in the Town Hall.
You might just have picked up a theme here about not spending too much time in the Town Hall. Too many councillors get ‘Town-Hallitis” and cannot drag themselves away from important committee meetings at which they make no contacts with anyone who can advance the cause.
I have observed our Parliamentary Party grow from just 6 to 62 and then, obviously slump back to 8. Oh so important parliamentarians might not think this but basically they are no different to a council group.
So what of our gallant band of 8 in the Commons and of 102 in the Lords? My advice to them is that every minute spent in the Commons or Lords for the next 5 years is a minute wasted unless:
1. It is a cause which is dear to the hearts of liberals such as civil liberties even if there is sometimes not much public interest in these ideas:
2. It is a cause which will generate the lifeblood of an opposition group – media attention.
3. It is a matter where our Lib Dem votes (most obviously in the Lords) will make a difference; could change a law in a way that we think possible and will demonstrate our Lib Dem beliefs and policies.
Let’s be clear the Parliamentary Party are basically in the equivalent of a single member position. We have no Shadow Secretaries of State. We have the opportunity to have 8 people in the commons who will be a tough little awkward squad who ride in raise questions and issues and ride out again to build the partnership and political base that will, at the next election, move us to stage 2.
One of the problems of the last election was that we produced a manifesto that was useless. I agreed with almost everything in it but it was too long and massively unfocused. It was marginally useful to say to a constituent that they could actually look up our policies on cycling but overall it said too much and in doing so it said too little.
Our team, no matter what support they get from research assistants using Short money, cannot be an expert on everything and cannot create the partnerships we need on key issues. Let me take two examples to show what I mean.
If we look within the DCLG brief there are two issues on which we could specialise:
Devolution; which must be discussed because it is a major push from the Tories in a direction with which we are sympathetic. Our MP covering this area must be well briefed BUT a lot of the work could be left to a Peer with the clear Devolution and City Region Brief. That Peer would be charged with not only developing a policy to share with the MP but would also have the responsibility of going out to meet Lib Dems and other Leaders inside area that are discussing devolution or have had devolution granted to them.
Housing. We all have a house and there is a desperate need to provide more and better housing. Here there is no need to develop a new policy but to ensure that our existing policy is communicated better. Again I suggest that the MP takes overall responsibility but with the Peer working closely. Between them they would become a clear source of knowledge within the Party and an obvious point of contact for those within the housing movement ranging from housing providers to housing campaigners.
If we look at health there are two obvious and related routes route we could follow which would have a tremendous resonance and create countless opportunities for partnerships.
Firstly we need to look at new ways of dealing with the crisis that an increasingly ageing population will have e of the health and social care budgets. This affects huge numbers of people and their carers and there has been a total failure from politicians of all Parties to engage in a real long-term strategy because it is all so very difficult.
Secondly we should become the specialist on mental health. I was so proud of the work that Paul Burstow and Norman Lamb did in this field and again it is an area where there has been insufficient discussion and little real progress outside the Lib Dems.
These are four ways in which we could become experts. People will want to work with us not because of our power and influence but because they see us as a partner as a solution because of the force of our radical ideas.
We should have no more than a dozen or so areas of activity. We need to link MPs and Lords together in a way that does not reflect parliamentary business but campaign optimisation.
Now is the time to be bold, to be radical, to reassert our basic liberalism and to rebuild a partnership with those who share our fundamental beliefs of liberty, environmentalism, internationalism and fairness. The cure for Westminsteritis or Town-Hallitis is a good dose of community and pressure group action. I am sure that our Parliamentarians all of who are first class people, are up to this and that the rest of us will support them in what they do.