Hard lessons for the Liberal Democrats

It is hard being a Lib Dem now in the wake of the recent General Election. The disappointment is oppressive. So many in the party were close to success, and yet it was snatched away and it is probably at least four years before the next opportunity will arise. I notice two sorts of displacement activity. First is to take a close interest in the election post-mortems of the Labour Party with a strong dose of schadenfreude. Second is to discuss (and criticise) the tactical mistakes of the Lib Dem campaign without addressing the party’s strategic predicament.

We have the time to go back to basics, and that is what we need to do. Indeed, understanding the strategic challenge is critical to understanding those tactical mistakes. After reflecting on this in the last few days, I am going to share my current thinking.

The first big strategic challenge is the electoral system. Labour and the Conservatives present the election as being a choice between two Prime Ministers. And they are right. The Lib Dems learnt that the hard way with five years of coalition government with the Conservatives from 2010. Much as people might try to present that as a partnership, or point to the important influence that the Lib Dems had on government policy, the Conservative prime minister was constitutionally and practically in the driving seat. It would have been even worse with a confidence and supply arrangement with a minority government, so that isn’t a satisfactory alternative. The British constitution allows even a minority government to do a lot, one reason why so many people were worried about a Corbyn minority government.

So if the election is primarily a choice about prime minister, the question inevitably arises for Lib Dems as to whose side they are on. It is usually a very hard question to answer, as to take sides alienates a large part of the party’s support, while not taking sides means denying voters a say in that critical question. It presented an insuperable obstacle for the party in this election, since both prime ministerial choices were highly alienating, and it mattered a lot to people how that was going to be resolved. At first the party tried to dodge the question by suggesting that they themselves would be the largest party after the election. But the party was over-stretched targeting 80 seats, never mind the 250 or so which was the practical minimum for that to be realistic. And yet the other answer, “neither”, was very unappealing as it suggested yet more parliamentary drift in the event of a hung parliament and perhaps a further election not long after.

And the electoral system is here to stay. The public is far from convinced that it lies at the root of the country’s political difficulties and needs changing. And they are not wrong about that. Proportional systems bring their own problems, of a sort that the public may not have much patience for, at UK level anyway (local and devolved government is another matter). It is just possible that Labour may take a more pluralistic approach to politics and put electoral reform into their manifesto. But it goes against their whole organisational raison-d’etre – it would be a promise they would fail to keep, like the Canadian Liberals. And the most sensible electoral reform, the Alternative Vote, has been ruled out by the 2011 referendum on it – though in the long run even this would probably not have helped the party by much.

Which brings me to a second strategic problem: a core vote is not enough. Successful parties under our electoral system are broad coalitions of political activists, seeking the votes of even broader coalitions of voters. The Conservatives embrace social conservatives and free-market liberals, and successfully attract working class voters in spite of being an overwhelmingly middle class enterprise. Within the Lib Dems much thought has been given to developing the party’s “core vote”: a subsection of the electorate that so identify with the party’s values that they will vote for the party whatever. It is argued that under previous leaders the party fudged its values in order to attract as wide a spectrum of voters as possible, which in turn meant they were impossible to hold onto when the going got rough. There is plenty of truth in this. The party does have clear values, which could be used as a base for a significant core vote. The party’s strong identification with the Remain cause in recent years was meant to demonstrate this. Membership of the EU, and questioning the referendum result, were policies rather than values, of course – but people with values show a strong commitment to key policies rather than blowing with the wind.

But the party overdid this. I have already written about the Revoke policy on the EU, which was designed to appeal to core voters, but which also had the effect of insulting almost everybody else. The party also promoted its commitment to transgender rights; this might be a good case study for what core liberalism means, but sceptics don’t just include the usual social conservatives. Meanwhile the party’s most important non-EU policy commitment, on child care, which managed to persuade the Resolution Foundation that the party cared more about child poverty than Labour did, managed to get buried, in spite of potential for broad appeal. The strategy should be to build a core vote outside election time, and broader coalitions during elections. And annoying large sections of the electorate should be avoided if possible – a mistake Labour also made. This should be perfectly feasible for liberals. They may be few people’s first choice but they are many people’s second choice: that is good for coalitions. Meanwhile the Lib Dem core vote looks increasingly like an upper middle class ghetto.

So what are the implications? To break the system the party has to do one of two things. It could align itself with one or other of the main parties and gradually subsume it by good organisation and presenting a more appealing vision to the public. Labour did this to the Liberals in the 1920s and 1930s, capitalising on Liberal divisions, while making a more appealing offer to working class voters. The other strategy is to knock one of the other parties into third place in a single, spectacular blow. This is was what Emanuel Macron did in France, going one better and achieving first place in one go. The party can maybe build a bridgehead of 50 seats or so as an interim while dodging the hung parliament bullet. Doing either of these things is more than hard: it depends both on mistakes made by the other parties, and luck.

Or, alternatively, the party can content itself with being a junior partner in a “progressive” coalition, by building up areas of geographical strength. This is harder than it was in the early 2000s, when the party had a base in large parts of South West England and Cornwall, which has now disappeared. It also reduces the party’s appeal to former Conservative voters.

And, of course, the party needs to work out how to broaden its appeal. It needs to appeal across the social spectrum, including to people who voted Leave in the referendum. These voters need not comprise part of a loyal core, but they should not find the idea of voting for the party toxic, as so many do now. The party’s new policy towards Europe is going to have to strike a careful balance – it needs to continue to attract the fanatics while not putting off people who want to move on. That probably means not talking about the issue too much, and developing other signature policies to divert attention. But what?

Of course it is not just a question of developing policies. it also needs to develop an emotional narrative. I suspect that harking back to a golden age when politics was more respectful and public servants more competent and less politicised, and the economy flourished as part of the EU. Largely bunkum perhaps, but so is the nostalgic appeal promoted by the other parties. The party has to get beyond dry intellectualism.

All this is hard, but there is another awkward point. What the party does depends on what Labour and the Conservatives do. If Labour turns over a new leaf, embracing liberal values as well has re-learning how to appeal to lower middle class and working class voters, then the Lib Dems will struggle. But if Labour divisions worsen, that is another matter.

Or, of course, we can give up. We can quietly go back to the Labour and Conservative parties hoping to change them from within, or just watch from the sidelines. And yet the party’s remarkable success in 2019, and being the only nationwide party to substantially increase its vote in December, point in a different direction. Both the other parties have become hostile to liberals. We have to continue the fight.

Meanwhile, it is probably more helpful to cast a close eye on the Conservative and Labour Parties to gain an idea of how the country’s politics could and should develop.

2 thoughts on “Hard lessons for the Liberal Democrats”

  1. Probably it’s a time to just wait and see what will happen in the economy over the next year or two. Europhiles are predicting a severe economic downturn. They/you are likely to be right but for the wrong reasons.

    If you look at the sectoral balance graph about a third of the way down this page:

    https://gimms.org.uk/fact-sheets/sectoral-balances/

    You’ll see the upcoming problem. Going back to the late 80s we can see that the private sector was heavily in deficit during the years of the Lawson boom. As soon as the borrowing stopped and the private sector put itself in credit again the economy crashed in the early 90s.

    The same thing happened around the turn of the millenium with the yellow bars being in the red. (so to speak!) Then they went into the black again and we had a smallish recession but nothing too severe until the big one of 2008.

    The private sector stopped borrowing big-time and we had another crash.

    We’ve got all that to come again in the next few years. So the big question is: How will the Tories handle it? If they start to panic about the size of the public deficit and try to reduce it by raising taxes and cutting spending then we are all are going to be in big trouble. Especially when the property market crashes.

    Interest rates are now so low that we can’t any longer temporarily fix the problem of too much private debt in the economy by creating even more private debt.

    How will the opposition parties handle it? Are we going to recognise the problem of too much private debt, and demand that the govt should abandon austerity economics by running larger deficits or are we, politically, going to make the most of a dire situation by heaping all the blame on our leaving the EU?

    1. Actually I think this government is going to be much more relaxed about deficit spending than the last one. The problem will be whether the large and continuing external deficit will spook anybody, as it did in 2010, when the people thought that the government deficit was only sustainable through the kindness of strangers. I know you simply think is just the flip side of surpluses in Germany, Netherlands, etc and entirely sustainable, but the Treasury is not usually so relaxed!
      Of course Brexit is such an obvious scapegoat that politicians will be bound to use it. There may be an element of truth too – it could deliver a supply-side shock that constrains demand or causes inflation. Not that truth has much to do with politics. Still, it is all highly unpredictable. I don’t have a feel for who is borrowing and what for – we don’t seem to be in a property bubble in the sense that property prices have stopped inflating and volumes seem to have shrunk.

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