Mark Pack and David Howarth have published a second version their 20% Strategy, originally published last summer. In the preface the authors bemoan the lack of controversy over their proposals, which signal that their implications have not been fully internalised. This is exactly what I predicted in my reaction to the document at the time. I stand by my suggestion then that the party must work on a political strategy too.
The document is well worth a read if you haven’t already. If you read the first edition, I’m not sure the second version says much that is different. I must admit that I just skimmed through it. What struck me this time was that there was a bit of a diversity paradox in it. In one sense a core vote strategy is a step away from diversity in order to secure greater cohesion. In principle that is based on a sharper focus on liberal values, but it can easily stray from that. The document suggests that the party concentrate its messaging on more educated people, as they are more likely to be liberal. On the other hand their research suggests that the potential core vote has a great deal of ethnic diversity, which is not reflected in the party’s membership. There is also a bias towards women, which suggests that the male dominance of the party’s upper echelons is an issue too.
That’s a worth a bit more reflection – but I have to admit that I am struggling to think through how to promote diversity in a liberal organisation. Some attempts to promote diversity end up by reinforcing a sense of difference between different groups, and collective victimhood amongst some of them – when it is what we have in common that is most important, and victimhood gets in the way of personal empowerment and agency, which are keys to the liberal vision. A further concern (and not unrelated) is that a “core vote” strategy will too easily become a “middle class comfort zone” strategy. I think the party would benefit from a stronger diversity across social classes – which would help make the party sharper and more politically relevant.
But for now I want to come back to the issue of what I am calling “political strategy”. If the party’s values describe the “What?” and, perhaps, the “Who?”, political strategy addresses the “How?”. And in particular, how the party proposes to advance the liberal policies for which it is fighting. In my piece last summer, I suggested that the party needed to talk about this to create a bit of the controversy that is needed for the party to sharpen its collective thinking.
But in fact it goes deeper than that, because as well as “How?” it addresses “Why?”. In order to attract core supporters it is not enough simply to say things that they agree with. The party needs to explain how support for the party will actually have a positive effect in the Britain’s political system.
It is here that the party is weakest, because its strategy up to 2010 has completely collapsed, unless you think that 5 years as a junior coalition partner in national government every 50 years or so is enough. The party’s strategy had two main elements: to build up strength in local government, and use this to win parliamentary seats. And second to use its parliamentary presence to join coalition governments as a junior partner, and maybe one day as a senior partner. The Conservative strategist Lynton Crosby has exposed the hollowness of this strategy in his 2015 election campaign.
The trouble is that it matters who leads a coalition government. Labour supporters cannot forgive the Lib Dems for being part of a Tory-led government, however much Lib Dems claim that they moderated it. Likewise Tory voters were worried that the Lib Dems might switch sides and support Labour (and the SNP). Mr Crosby showed that that fear trumped all the excellent local knowledge and case work that so many Lib Dem MPs offered. So, it matters whose side are on (or at any rate whose side you are not on), and ultimately national politics trumps local politics.
What to do about this? I think the party has to be public about its preferences between Britain’s two main parties. The obvious way to do this is simply be to spell out its preferences. So the party could (like the SNP, the Greens and Plaid Cymru) rule out a coalition with the Conservatives. Mark and David’s research shows clearly that the potential core vote inclines left rather than right, so that is the way it has to be (much to my personal disappointment). There is an extra complication, in that the current Labour Party is becoming politically toxic amongst the party’s potential supporters. For now it would be necessary to rule out a coalition with them too. But the party can say that this view would change if Labour moves back towards the centre.
An alternative approach would be transactional. The party might make a series of core demands, and insist that it will only enter coalition with parties that sign up to these demands. But the party’s activists are likely to set the bar too high, in which case the party either becomes irrelevant, or it is forced to break its promises. To judge by the way the Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron, handled the vote to intervene in Syria, such a stand would have very little credibility. He set a number of stern conditions for his support, only to bend them to beyond breaking so that he could vote with the government.
A second strategic question the party needs to think about is the idea of electoral pacts. Britain does not have a pluralistic, proportional voting system. Our electoral system is essentially a binary one, and without preferential voting, or run-offs, parties agreeing not to run candidates against each other is the only realistic way of forming alliances. The basis of an alliance might be to change the electoral system itself – although it is far from clear that the British public would support this. Whether or not electoral reform is the subject, any pact needs to have a clearly understood common goal. Electoral pacts do not need to be universal. They can apply to different levels of election (local or national), and to only a limited number of seats. Thus Labour might withdraw candidates in a number of south western marginals, while the Lib Dems do so in Labour ones elsewhere. Such pacts have a long history within the British political system, before dying out in the 1950s (or even early 1960s?).
Preferred coalition partners and electoral pacts: these must be elements in any future political strategy for the Liberal Democrats. Unlike the 20% Strategy, such ideas would be controversial. Good.