Life in the tunnel. Being a Liberal Democrat

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I just want to ask: when will the party face up to the fact that whatever it is doing isn’t working even in the slightest?

This was from Lib Dem blogger Nick Tyrone before the recent local elections, after a London opinion poll showed weak figures for the Liberal Democrats. The party’s appeal to Remain voters had pretty much failed, he thought, with the party lagging even the Conservatives in this group, never mind Labour.

Then came last week’s local election results. If you are going to take a cold, hard look at them in the round, they were nothing to shout about. They were perfectly consistent with that poll. In equivalent vote share they even marked a slight fall from the rather dismal 2017. And yet. Look at the London results (as a Londoner, I have an excuse for being London-centred – though my story works just as well outside it). The two most spectacular results for any party on the night were the Lib Dem gain of 25 seats from in Richmond, and 21 seats in Kingston, mostly at the expense of a Tory party that collapsed to a rump in both boroughs. And at last the party started to win seats from Labour, gaining seven in Haringey, for example. And the party had its Wandsworth moment too, fending off a sustained and confident campaign by Conservatives in the one borough it controlled in Sutton. Minds aren’t swayed by dry statistics but by stories – stories that show what is possible. In London, and across the country, the Lib Dems had plenty of good stories to encourage them. That made them a much better set of results than the party has had for a long time, even in 2017 when the equivalent poll share was higher.

Not that you would have guessed this from the media coverage. Even in its later coverage (when the Kingston result was known, giving resonance to the Richmond story) the BBC chose to highlight the relative failure of Labour in Wandsworth to the spectacular écrasement of the Conservatives in two neighbouring boroughs, which went unmentioned. Why were the non-events in Wandsworth and Westminster more important? Because, apparently, they are a “flagship” boroughs. Actually I think the Wandsworth result is an important story, but this prioritisation is an interesting window into the current journalist mindset, even at the politically balanced BBC. This may not be bias; it may just be a bid to cover up the humiliation of the editorial team of not getting the story right in advance, and sending its big guns to the wrong places. News is made on expectations, not real events.

Which, I think, is the issue at the heart of Nick Tyrone’s critique. Whatever the party does, nobody in the media, mainstream or otherwise, is listening. The only stories that are of interest are the sorts of stories that Ukip still manages to pick up: ones that point to the parties final, humiliating death spiral. I don’t think it is fair to blame that on the party’s leadership or messaging.

Life as a Liberal Democrat supporter is like being in a long, dark tunnel. Things are miserable; nobody can see you; and too often any small flickers of light vanish, rather than grow into that light at the end. But last week’s small chink of light just could be what we hope it is.

The point is this: the problem isn’t the message, it is getting people to listen to it in the first place. It is nearly hopeless achieving this through the media. It is just possible that a moment of genius or massive good luck suddenly does the job. But waiting for such a moment does not amount to a strategy. The other way to get noticed is to go out and talk to people directly – through door-to-door canvassing and attractive literature pushed through letterboxes, and with videos promoted through paid-for advertising. This is inevitably very localised, and it tends to happen in the run-up to elections, when people have a good reason to take notice. The good news is that when the party was able to do this, it, by and large, raised its share of the vote. And sometime spectacularly – in Remain-voting Richmond and South Cambs, in Leave-voting Kingston-upon-Hull, and in the somewhere-in-between Kingston-upon-Thames. That suggests that Nick Tyrone is wrong. What the party is doing is working at least a bit more than the slightest.

And the hope is that if the party keeps going, the general public, and the media that follows it, will start to notice. Even now, the BBC must start to question its policy of giving the party so little coverage compared to Ukip, which has now virtually ceased to exist.

But why soldier on in the cold, dark place, where hope is but fleeting? Because we believe in our liberal message. That humanity is more important than the nations and religions that divide it. That all humankind benefits when we listen to different points of view with respect. And that we should look at facts and evidence rather than let our prejudices run riot. No other party is doing that as much as the Liberal Democrats in British politics. It is worth pushing on through the tunnel.

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5 thoughts on “Life in the tunnel. Being a Liberal Democrat”

  1. I have a couple of reactions to this interesting piece.

    First, as you say Matthew, Lib Dems have a strength in communicating at local level, as I think recent experience in Wandsworth and elsewhere shows. It is helped by the fact that we have , I think, a good story to tell in respect of local Government services; that we are more concerned with people and their well-being than the hard-nosed Conservatives, that we are not open to charges of irresponsibility with money as are some Labour Councils, and that we genuinely believe in local democracy and the delegation of power to local level. I would not be too despairing if the national media ignore the Lib Dems; at least this is an advance on the message I can recall from a year or two ago, that some commentators were claiming that the Lib Dems were finished.

    I am however less confident that the Lib Dems have yet developed an adequate national message. We seem to me to be hoist on someone else’s petard, if I can put it like that. As Professor Paul De Grauwe diagnoses in his book ‘The limits of the market’ since the 1980s ‘market mechanisms and principles increasingly crept into areas of society where they were previously absent’. And this trend has been showing signs of being carried to excess:
    • While the privatisation of the likes of British Steel, British Airways and British telecom has been a success, the extension of this movement to the natural monopolies such as water and power supply has been running into controversy, as a series of articles in the FT have documented in some detail. For example, in water, pay-outs to shareholders have been excessive, assisted by dubious financial engineering, and the hoped-for extra efficiency from private management has not materialised.
    • While the original cautious application of PFI may have been a good idea, the extension of it by New Labour into, for example, hospital construction has been roundly criticised by the Parliamentary National Audit Select Committee
    • The Grenfell tower disaster has shown the limits of light touch regulation.
    • There is a clear market imperfection in training Industry’s manpower, in that firms who train lose part of the benefit when their workers are ‘poached’ by other companies doing less training: an imperfection which the British state has been failing to correct.

    These excesses were not the product of LibDem thought within the tradition of Mill, but rather right wing thought deriving from Hayek; but given LibDem’s generally free-market orientation (which I, like Mill, support) , we have difficulty disowning them. As some crumbs of comfort, at least Vince Cable spotted in advance of the 2007/2008 crash that light touch regulation of the financial markets had been taken too far; and Shirley Williams resolutely opposed conservative ideas on yet more NHS reforms, which even in their watered-down form many observers think have made matters worse rather than better..

  2. I agree with your assessment, though you don’t talk about the significance of social media which reduces our dependence on traditional media for getting our message to the public and enables effective communication with and coordination of supporters for campaigning.

    1. Yes social media helps to sustain the tribe, which may be one reason that the party’s membership is healthy and renewal rates look to be pretty strong. But the other tribes are very strong, and it is very hard to break into their narrative. That’s why more mainstream media, especially the BBC, are so important. The first step is to get noticed; then they might start taking on board what we have to say.

  3. “The point is this: the problem isn’t the message, it is getting people to listen to it in the first place.”

    I seem to remember Watneys taking as similar line in the 70s. The problem wasn’t their beer it was getting people to drink it in the first place.

    Well we did drink it but we didn’t like it! That’s why we set up the Campaign for Real Ale!

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