The Lib-Dems: A few warnings from history

So the Lib-Dems are determined to impose a Cyberlock on themselves after the election. Led by Ben Orrel – former Cyberman actor from BBC’s Dr Who – this involves a complex set of mandates that the party negotiators will be subject to.

This essentially means that – if they are going into a complex negotiation, they will have to agree and publish their options and won’t have any leeway to make trade-offs, be creative, take opportunities that are evident then, but not now, and so on. As Liberal Vision concludes, it doesn’t inspire confidence.

The timing matters here. There is a very real possibility of a hung parliament. The cherished Lib-Dem objective of electoral reform may be on the table. The Lib-Dems could be looking at a game-changing opportunity here and there are a few warnings from history that they should heed.

Firstly, the Ulster Unionist constitution allowed the party membership to recall it’s delegates (and in parties like this, your negotiators are delegates and not representatives) and instruct them on what position they could take in negotiations. This had three results

• They were unable to negotiate meaningfully while their opponents were under no such duress.
• They became an attractive target for ‘entryism’ and as soon as the negotiations were over, a large section of their party left to join a different party – the party for whom they had clearly been the agents for some considerable time
• They were electorally smashed at the subsequent elections. A lot of the sharper leadership material departed leaving the sort of geniuses who were able to negotiate this great victory in charge.

The British Labour Party succumbed to similar madness in the 1980s. The Bennites made a strategic decision to expose the party leadership to the wrath of its activists. It campaigned on a ‘deselect your MP’ platform whereby a small number of fanatics in the Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) would seek to unseat candidates who didn’t toe the anti-EEC / pro CND / Alternative Economic Strategy (AES) line. The net result was supposed to be a coherent party that could campaign on a socialist platform. It ignored a few key points:

1. They were they not popular polices in the first place. And, compounding this error, most political parties form their policies by negotiating with the electorate. This was effectively ruled out by this process
2. That there were small unrepresentative groupings – particularly Militant – that would be able to use this opportunity (in much the same way that the DUP used the UUP more than twenty years later) to use the party as a vehicle for their own party development

Militant weren’t as capable as the DUP and they managed to seriously damage the party and facilitated a polarisation of British politics. It allowed the Thatcherite Tory radicals a much more open run than they really deserved.

So, are the Lib-Dems open to a spot of Entryism of the Militant / DUP variety? None is evident at the moment. But take a look at their slogan, will you?

“Change that works for you. Building a fairer Britain”.

Labour’s slogan is “a future fair for all.” The Tories are going an a “year for change” message. This is not a party with a distinctive principled vision that it has communicated to the electorate. It’s not one that has a coherent membership.

Their leadership may have to conduct the biggest negotiations of their lives as delegates. Their instructions will come from a membership who is receiving overtures from the two other main parties.

I’m glad I’m not in Nick Clegg’s shoes.