So the Lib Dems took a battering last week. A lot of postmorteming is going on, and the consensus seems to be that what happened with tuition fees is the issue, and that we cocked up. Well, when I say "we", I mean those of us who had votes in parliament and toed the government line.
I still think that the leadership don't get what the problem is. People know
that we are the junior partner in the coalition. They know
that we couldn't be expected to enact Lib Dem policy on tuition fees because the Tories would never have let us abolish them. Bleating on about those facts is only making things worse. To an extent, it's not even what happened with tuition fees that's the problem in itself. The problem is that all our MPs signed a personal pledge to vote against any rise in tuition fees, and then most of them voted for it.
If all of our MPs had signed a pledge to vote against naming the colour of the sky blue, and then had voted for it, our leadership would now be debating the blue sky problem and wondering how to win back the trust of people who like looking up in the daytime.
Let me spell this out in very small words: the problem is, as I said before it even happened
, that, with twenty-one honourable exceptions*, our MPs broke their word
. We ran our whole damn general election campaign on no more broken promises, we're not like all the others, vote for us and things will change because we're honest
... And then we broke our word.
It doesn't matter
if most of our MPs breaking their word made things better than they would have been if they'd kept it. People really, genuinely believed that we were different, and in that one simple act of word-breaking, our MPs undid decades of hard work by thousands of Lib Dem councillors, activists, and those MPs who kept the pledge. They cost the jobs of hundreds of Lib Dem councillors, and they cost lots of areas of the country a good working council. They cost us the AV referendum. They cost us our USP: what made us different in the eyes of the electorate is gone, and the voters think we did it for vainglorious reasons, and no amount of saying
but we didn't! It's not fair!
is going to change that.
Now, I know
that Labour and Tory politicians break their word all the time and they don't get this level of punishment. That's because people expect it from them. They didn't expect it from us, and now they do. Can you blame them for reflexively thinking
Oh well, better the devil you know?
The electorate now think that we are exactly
the same as all the others. It's not just the trust of students we need to win back, it's the trust of everybody
, because everybody saw us do it.
It's going to be incredibly difficult. It may take decades (again). And I don't know what all the steps involved will be. I do know what the first step is, though. The first step is for the Lib Dem leadership, and Nick Clegg in particular, to actually acknowledge what the problem is: people are upset that you broke your word, that they are right to be angered by it. The second step is to apologise. Apologise unreservedly and without qualification. Any, and I mean any
attempt to qualify an apology, to dress it up in fancy words, to say that what we pledged to do would have made things worse, and that we did the best we could, and anyway look at all these OTHER promises we've kept, you can't be cross about just ONE... That's just going to make people angrier because it will make them think you still
don't get why they are angry. And that's going to make things so much worse for us mere footsoldiers. We've all been tarred with your brush, and until you acknowledge what the problem is, it's going to keep happening.
It's a very simple sentence you need to say, oh Glorious Leader:
I'm sorry I broke my word
. And you need to say that sentence over and over again until people believe you, and even then it probably won't be enough because they'll think you're only sorry because it's cost you votes, not because you realise it was wrong.
Only when people believe that we all know breaking promises is bad and wrong and hurts people can we start to rebuild trust with the electorate, and no amount of trying before
that has happened is going to butter any parsnips.
Sorry.* Step forward Annette Brooke, Menzies Campbell, Michael Crockart, Tim Farron, Andrew George, Mike Hancock, Julian Huppert, Charles Kennedy, John Leech, Stephen Lloyd, Greg Mulholland, John Pugh, Alan Reid, Dan Rogerson, Bob Russell, Adrian Sanders, Ian Swales, Mark Williams, Roger Williams, Jenny Willott, and Simon Wright. I'm sorry that you are suffering, along with the rest of us, the fallout from this.