The real advantage of having been around a long time (52 years as a member and 36 as a councillor) is that you can usually say, “I’ve seen it all before”. There are two things about the emergence of the “Independent Group” which are different to the huge surge of support for the SDP when it was created. Firstly, there are no big names amongst them. Most people outside their own constituencies probably couldn’t put a name to a face if shown the magnificent 11. Although at a pinch they might just know Anna Soubry and Chuka Umunna.
Secondly, this time there are splits in both the other Parties not just one. The fact that 3 Tories have joined TIG today creates both opportunities and challenges for the new Party when it is inevitably formed sometime in the near future. The attraction is that more people can be attracted to the centre ground. The problem is that the 11 in the Group have previously stood on very different manifestos. Now, of course, they can say that they did not agree with everything in their Party’s manifesto but they must have agreed with most of it!
It’s very tempting for journalists to see things only through the Westminster prism. Numbers matter there in terms of votes and majorities. Big press conferences and breakaways are good news stories but not necessarily real politics. The numbers that really matter are the numbers on the ground and in particular the number of councillors. Political Parties are very like armies. We have Colonels and Generals in Parliament. We have the poor bloody infantry who knock on the doors and stuff the envelopes. The glue that holds them together and makes sure things happen are the NCOs. In our parlance, Councillors.
Surges in membership for political parties are nothing new for a variety of reasons. In addition to the SDP we often get local surges as people support the people locally who they think might win and have influence or who, quite simply, might find them an easy seat. The SDP surge has actually been outperformed by the huge increase in Labour and to a lesser extent in the Lib Dems since 2015. But the real question is, “how many stick to actually make the Party, new or old, work?” Many of the people who will excitedly sign up when the Independent Group becomes a Party will rapidly find that politics is not very exciting at all. Much of it is necessary but boring work interspersed with the stuff they have seen on the telly. They will be like the froth on the top of a cup of coffee that quickly disappears after the fresh brew begins to cool.
In Liverpool I’ve seen three surges and, in some ways, do not want to see another one! In both previous surges (plus the SDP one). Those surges brought in new members many of who got elected. Many of those we wish we’d never heard off very quickly. Group meetings became nasty places full of political infighting between people whose basic ideologies did not reflect the core values of the Party they had joined.
In the SDP surge a number of new councillors were elected but not a huge number. Almost all those elected and stayed the course became quickly indistinguishable from the old-style liberals. Many, however, did not get elected because they had to fight to win a seat and it was too much for them or if elected rapidly give up for the same reason.
Nothing must distract us from the fact that we are currently shaping up to the biggest round of local elections in England and the Independent Group will not be fighting it. It’s simply too late for them to do all the necessary things. This is, of course good news for the Lib Dems. We will have our biggest number of candidates for many years and were already expecting to make good gains before the events of this week. Our grizzled Lib Dem veterans will be added to by some of the new faces that have joined us over the past 3 years.
It is those people and the other councillors that might choose to work with us in communities and council chambers up and down the Country that will be the final deciders on whether what’s happening in Westminster is a permanent realignment of the Centre or a flash in the pan. The more Lib Dems we get elected in May the more influence that we will have in any negotiations with other people at both a national and local level.
Negotiating with the SDP in the early 80s was a boring and protracted procedure which stifled most of he life out of what should have been an excited and enervating time. Tis time I would urge everyone who is involved in such negotiations to concentrate on principles and not personality and total reach and not a spilt of winnable seats.
In the meantime, our Lib Dem job in Liverpool and nationally is to fight even harder than we had planned the local elections on May 2. We are assessing every seat in the light of the new circumstances with a view to expanding our target wards. As a result of this week our boat will float higher than we were predicting a few days ago. The targets that we will set must still be sensible not hopelessly optimistic.
Our Group might also grow in other ways. We were joined by Cllr Kay Davies in September last year and other Labour Councillors have been sending very friendly e-mails to me in recent weeks. I don’t expect any urgent changes but please do keep sending me the tweets which provide a running commentary as the Labour Group meeting takes place!!
The new Independent Group is not the panacea for all our problems nor will it sprinkle our election results with a huge positive effect. It does, however, give us a renewed cause for optimism and a renewed determination to get on with the boring but necessary jobs of door knocking and delivering. We can do even more if more people join us or donate to our cause. You can do both at http://www.liverlibdems.org.uk