One thing that most people who take an interest in the Liberal Democrats agree on is that the party needs to develop a clearer identity and, to use the popular marketing speak, a clear “brand”. This has characterised much of the coverage of the conference, such as this from the Economist, showing not a particularly good understanding of the party, and this from Michael Meadowcroft, who has an excellent understanding, but does less well in explaining what the party actually needs to do. Unfortunately these articles are all too characteristic of the debate. On the one side outsiders, including recently recruited party staffers, who simply assume the whole thing is about deciding on a politically convenient position and then moving the party to it, and on the other by insiders who fail to articulate exactly what they mean by the clear liberal (or Liberal) principles they want the party to espouse. Let me try to pick a way through.
First: does the party really need to worry about this? Just because all the pundits agree doesn’t make it true. The answer is yes. There are two problems with the party’s current standing, or lack of it. The first is that it struggles with a “core vote” strategy. This is particularly important for elections fought under proportional representation. The ones we fought in London earlier this year were a disaster; party campaigning was directed to floating voters who had long since floated away, and bringing out the vote people who supported the party in other elections for largely tactical or local reasons, and who large did not vote for it on this mandate. Contrast this with Greens, who for much less money and effort got out a similar vote based purely on setting out who they were and what they stood for. This matters because a disaster beckons for the party in the 2014 Euro elections, fought under PR, unless this changes.
The second reason is that there is the perpetual danger of policy confusion. This has been clearly on display in the debate on NHS policy. Do we want to follow the Liberal idea of a service with strong accountability to local communities, but flexibility on who actually delivers it? Or do we want a Social Democratic service which is pretty much the same throughout the country, provided by a single organisation? With the help of Lib Dem ministers, the government started off with something that looked a bit like the former, only for activists to reject it for the latter. This confusion matters when you are an aspiring party of government rather than one simply of protest and opposition, and a party of government is what the party aspires to be.
But a word of warning: you can overdo the clear identity. Successful political parties are coalitions, combining both a sense of common identity and a high spectrum of disagreement. The Conservatives, for example, identify with the rich and those who aspire to be rich: but this brings together social conservatives with those who just want to cut taxes.
It is instructive to consider the two attempts to rebrand political parties that have shaped British politics in the last couple of decades. The first was Tony Blair’s New Labour project, and the second David Cameron’s attempt to de-toxify the Conservative brand. Both involved challenging some deeply held beliefs, and have left a deep sense of betrayal in their parties. In Mr Blair’s case the effort has not been unsuccessful. The party won three elections and even in opposition is cohering much better that the Conservatives have in a similar position. I think that is for two reasons, one intended by Mr Blair, and the other not. The intentional part was the illiberal, strong government aspect, clamping down on civil liberties. This has played well with the working class communities that are the core of the party’s identity – and has also helped forge bonds with paternalistic ethnic minority communities. When Mr Blair assiduously wooed liberals in the 1990s, he never really meant it. The unintentional part of Labour’s rebranding is its identification with public sector workers, expanding their numbers and protecting their interests. A modern economy requires a large state, and appealing to these workers is a powerful political strategy – but one that Mr Blair tried to resist, unlike his successors Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband.
The Conservative rebranding, five years or so on, looks a lot less happy. What quickens the pulse of most young Tory activists seems to be an entirely different agenda from Mr Cameron’s, reminiscent of US Republicans: lower taxes, smaller state, escape from the EU, climate change scepticism and an outmoded idea of “competitiveness”. While some of this chimes with public sentiments at large, as a package it it is not a winner. Combine that with an electoral system that is tilted against them, and the project is likely to be a failure. The Coalition with the Lib Dems, as Mr Cameron clearly saw, was an opportunity to consolidate this rebranding, but the price stuck in the throat of his party and he was unable to follow through. The lesson there is don’t try to take a party to a place that it will not stay.
So what of the Lib Dems? Firstly the party needs a core identity which is able to withstand a large diversity of views. This is both easy, and tricky. The easy bit is that the party stands for openness, freedom for individuals to choose the life they want, all underpinned by a sense of social responsibility and compassion. All Lib Dems, pretty much, will identify with this, and they will think that the other parties do not. The first difficulty is that this identity is an anti-identity: an identity that rejects, or downplays, the usual identities of class, nationality and race. That is a difficult trick to pull off. The second difficulty is that each of the other main parties (and the Greens for that matter) will think that such nice and inoffensive people can be appropriated into their own coalitions with a few warm words. And indeed, many people with these values work for these other parties. It is not quite enough.
But it has two important advantages. First is that it is a natural second choice: not the most liked position, but not the most hated either. Second is that the forces of history are with it. The old identities of social class, nationality and the rest are gradually being eroded – and to the extent that the other parties lean on them, it makes them unattractive.
This is enough for one post. What will count is not this sort of abstract speculation, but the practical steps that follow from them to create a successful political movement. That, I will return to.