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Elections 2014: Lib Dems’ biggest challenge is not to lose our heads - Lord Ashdown


“I bring you nought for your comfort,
Yea, nought for your desire.
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.”

I suspect that many Lib Dems waking on Monday morning will identify with King Alfred’s speech to his ragged army in G.K Chesterton’s epic “The Ballad of the White Horse”.

We Liberal Democrats have endured some sombre post-electoral dawns recently. And this one is going to be another of them. With the election just a year away, this poses some serious questions for us. But they pose questions for the other parties too.

With Ukip on the stage, can the Tories ever win a majority on their own again? They may hate coalition, but is it now the best the Tories can hope for? Mr Cameron famously wouldn’t “obsess about Europe” because he knew it was toxic for his party’s unity. But by helping Ukip put a European referendum centre stage, he has now cheerfully taken the viper to his breast. A 2017 European referendum could be as deadly to Tory unity as the 1975 one was to Labour. Listen to the Tory voices calling for an electoral pact with Ukip and you can already hear the distant thunder.

True to form, Labour’s answer to its difficulties is an enquiry and another outing for its traditional circular firing squad.

Mr Farage, of course, is the clear winner in all this. With a clear message, a mostly sure touch and a hotline to the sentiments of a large section of the electorate Mr Farage will never again be underestimated and his party are entitled to the respect they are due for speaking for a section of the English people (Ukip is a curiously English phenomenon) in a way which the rest of us have failed to do.

People are surprised that all the attacks on Ukip either backfired or bounced off. They shouldn’t be. It was lazy politics to charge Mr Farage with racism (even if many of his messages appealed to those who are). To call Ukip racist is not the point. The real charge is that they are a blast from the past. At a time when Britain is struggling to find its way in a fast changing world, Ukip’s answer is to return to a “better” (but mythical) yesterday.

This is the “stop the world, I want to get off party”. The fact that Mr Farage has persuaded so many voters to want to get off with him, is a tribute to his skill and a damning indictment on the rest of us who have failed to provide convincing answers to an electorate, many of whom are by turns frightened by foreign threats and disgusted at the domestic failures - and worse - of Britain’s establishment and political class.

So Mr Farage is entitled to his celebrations – he has earned them. But he would be wise to remember that victories pose questions too. In the over-heated language of post-electoral commentary some have talked of “an earthquake moment” (I wish I had a pound for every time I had heard that before). I am not so sure.

This looks to me more like Britain’s “Tea Party moment” than anything else. Ukip seems more a movement, albeit a powerful one, than – yet – a political party. It is united by only three things; nostalgia for the past, hate of Europe and anger at Westminster. It is easy to ride these three horses to victory in a European election – much more difficult in a general election. “I am the leader of the people’s army” makes a good slogan, but a poor manifesto. Ukip is loud when telling us the problem – but silent on proposing solutions acceptable in a civilized country.

The question for Mr Farage is now can he unite his polyglot party behind a coherent and attractive plan for the better government of Britain? It is one thing for him to breezily dismiss the manifesto around which his party united in 2010, as rubbish. With its proposals for a 30 per cent  flat rate tax, abolishing maternity allowance, introducing health vouchers and legislating for smarter dress in theatres, it manifestly was.

But what will he put in its place? Mr Farage pronounces that he wants to “do a Paddy Ashdown” and target a few seats where he could win. But I had a party united around a political philosophy and a programme to go with it. What policies beyond an instinct for dislike, nostalgia and distrust, unite Ukip?

So what about us Lib Dems? Well, we have challenges aplenty. But the biggest is not to lose our heads.

If you think this morning is tough, try the European elections of 1989. We came last behind the Greens in every constituency in Britain bar one! The press read the funeral orisons over us – just as they will today. But they were wrong. In the general election which followed we not only re-established ourselves, we laid the foundations for doubling our seats in 1997.

The Euro elections are always tough for us. Did we expect anything different this time? Parties in government always get a kicking in these elections. Did we think, just because we are Lib Dems, we wouldn’t?

It’s not what has happened in all the elections up to now that matters. It’s what happens next. Now is the moment we have been through all this pain for. The moment when, in the context of a general election, we can take our message to the electorate – a proud message – a message of achievement in government. 

Andrew Rawnsley recently wrote of the Lib Dems: “For four torrid years, they have displayed a remarkable resilience, an astonishing discipline and an incredible resistance to despair.” Exactly!

Now the days of the back foot are over. Tough though it may be this miserable morning, if we keep our nerve and our unity, there is still everything to play for and a great message to campaign on through the summer and autumn and right up to the real election next May.

Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon is chair of the Lib Dems’ general election campaign