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Perchance to Dream...

28/05/2015 12:39 BST | Updated 27/05/2016 10:59 BST

In his book "Descartes' Error", Antonio Damasio describes a patient whose neurological defect meant that he was unable to feel any emotion. He was perfectly rational. He could compute, calculate, discuss logically and rationally. The net result of his lack of emotion was that he was unable to take even the simplest of decisions.

The evidence is now overwhelming that we are fundamentally emotional creatures; that we make decisions almost purely based on emotion and then clothe them in the more socially acceptable language of rationality. This is a lesson that some political parties seem to have forgotten but it neatly explains the outcome of the UK general election.

In the election I supported the Liberal Democrats. It was a disastrous election result. As was Labour's. The winners were the Conservatives and the Scottish Nationalists. They were the ones who offered dreams rather than the dull, practical realism of managerial politics.

The killer element of the conservative campaign was one thing and one thing only - the vision of an incompetent Labour government held aloft by the SNP. For the Scots, this was a dream - a Westminster government under the heel of Scotland, reversing the centuries old perception of Scottish subjugation by the English. They turned out in force and the SNP swept the board. For the English this Scottish dream was their worst nightmare. They ensured that it would not come to pass. Emotional decisions all of them.

Labour had no dream to offer. It was torn between trying to present a rather weak vision of a better future and trying to seem competent, rational and able to manage the economy. Tablets of stone notwithstanding, their campaign was bloodless; more defensive than offensive. The Lib Dems also lacked a dream. Their campaign was 'sensible' - focused on what they had achieved in government and presenting themselves as the moderating force in a next government. This is not the stuff that makes people's blood boil. Not that the campaign team can be blamed. There was no dream to offer for the smaller party in a coalition; a party inevitably tainted by the prudent compromises necessary to maintain a stable coalition in the face of a major financial crisis. In government they did the sensible thing, and they promised to do more of the same if re-elected as a coalition partner. But sensible, sanitized campaigning does not win elections. Sensible is rational not emotional.

Contrast this with the Cleggmania that propelled the Lib Dems to 57 seats in 2010. Then Nick Clegg emerged as a breath of fresh air. An appealing politician committed to the liberal values that still lie at the core of what most British people believe in. A politician who allowed people to dream that there was an alternative to politics as usual. And there was the element of surprise. Clegg came out of nowhere making the voters feel that they had just stumbled on an unexpected gift. All of that was soon buried under the weight of the responsibilities of governing. It was simply impossible to reclaim that ground in 2015.

The recent UK election was not a triumph of fear over hope as some have claimed. Neither was it the triumph of good policy over bad policy (most voters have no idea of any of the policies proposed by the party or candidate they vote for). It was simply a triumph of emotion over dull rationality. And this will repeat itself over and over in every forthcoming election and, more immediately, in how people will cast their vote in the European referendum.

The task of re-building the Lib Dems will start with the election of a new leader. My friend David Boyle has stated that he will support Norman Lamb because he is a thinker. I will support whichever candidate emerges as the better dreamer - one that can feel, construct a vision of the future and infect the public with the emotional appeal of a dream that seems to be within reach - just.