The Lib Dems search for a new strategy

To be a Liberal Democrat in Britain is to experience long spells in the political wilderness, interspersed with short intervals of relevance. After passing through most of 2019 in one of those intervals of relevance, the party is well and truly in the wilderness now. What should it do?

It is worth asking what is the party for. It provides a political home for those who want a party which has liberal values at its core, rather than a peripheral part of a wider coalition (as is the case for Conservatives and Labour, and indeed Scottish Nationalists or Greens). It then seeks to advance those values, either by winning elections and taking political office, or by forcing other parties to compete for liberal votes, and so making them more liberal in their exercise of power. What are those liberal values? It is about individuals taking control of their lives as far as possible, regardless ethnic or national origin, or sex or sexual orientation. That’s how liberals are classically defined, and it matters in the current world because many prefer a political narrative that elevates the nation-state into something close to sacred, rather than a mere means to an end, and there is a widespread belief that multiculturalism has failed. But modern liberals have attached other beliefs to this classical core. One is a strong belief on the need to intervene to protect the environment, and another is the need for the state to play a very active part in the management of the economy, through the welfare state, public services, redistribution of wealth and regulation of private business. There is a further belief that political power should be distributed amongst international bodies, national government and local government. That makes them in favour of such bodies as the United Nations and the European Union, as well as much stronger regional and local government. Liberals (or at least those that the Lib Dems seek to represent) think that too much power is concentrated in Westminster, where often it is captive to an out of touch elite, even if that elite is often liberal in its instincts.

But there are people who believe in all of this who are members of the Conservative and Labour parties. The problem is that in these parties liberal ideas have to compete with others. Among the Tories the nationalist narrative plays very strongly; they overlook the unbalanced distribution of wealth and power; and they are reluctant to take on corporate vested interests for environmental protection, amongst other things. Labour is less concerned with individual empowerment and have a tendency to see the answer to all problems as being concentrating more power in national government. This was taken to extreme lengths under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. But it is perhaps a measure of success for the Lib Dems that both major parties are making a pitch for the liberal vote, and that many voters struggle to see the need for another political party. Answering that question lis at the heart of any Lib Dem strategy.

Which is why it matters so much to Lib Dem strategy what the other parties are doing. There are some in the party who think that the party should ignore the other parties to go full on with the promotion of liberal values, and so build a loyal core vote. Alas this can only be one strand in a larger strategy, and not the most important. For now Lib Dems are much happier defining themselves against the Conservatives than Labour. The Tories are controlled by radical ideologues, more interested in wrecking things that they dislike than in governing competently.

Labour is the conundrum. Its new leader, Sir Keir Starmer, has resisted defining a clear ideological path, concentrating his fire on government incompetence. The ideological legacy of his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, is slowly being pushed into the background. This creates a blank canvass onto which voters, including liberal ones, can project their hopes. This is not unlike Sir Keir’s most successful predecessor, Tony Blair. How do the Lib Dems compete?

The answer I most often hear is to this is locally. To win the next election Labour must climb a huge mountain. That journey would be slightly easier if they decided to ignore the Lib Dems in a few critical geographical areas and let them challenge the Conservatives there. And if Labour thought that the Lib Dems were picking off Tory votes that they would be unable to reach, then this semi-cooperative strategy looks more attractive. But at the same time Labour does not want to leak votes to the Lib Dems, and would prefer the party not to exist. There are something like 30 seats where Lib Dems are first or second placed and able to mount a credible challenge (they are second-placed in about 60 more – but so far behind that this hardly matters). In their current state the Lib Dems would happily settle for that.

That is all very well, but the party needs a degree of national strength and purpose if it is to present a convincing local challenge anywhere. To do so it needs to champion causes that the Conservatives and Labour are ignoring, but which are both popular and highlight the party’s values. Two lines of advance are often advocated. The first is to continue the party’s strident pro-Europe stance by proposing to rejoin the EU as soon as practical. Labour are anxious to win back Brexit-supporting voters, and so are making their Brexit challenge about competence and not principle. The trouble is that most people are thoroughly fed up with the politics of Brexit, and accept that the Brexit side won. Meanwhile the Conservatives are anxious to promote a narrative that the country is being undermined by Remainers who have not accepted the democratic verdict of the people. So a pro-EU strategy risks either flopping because it is too out of touch with the national mood, or, if it gets traction, of supporting the Tory narrative and distracting attention from government incompetence.

The second possible line of attack is to attract leftists disillusioned by Sir Keir’s prevarications. The party is already adopting a mild version of this strategy, through adopting a robust environmental agenda and talking up such ideas as universal basic income. And yet the party’s most promising constituency is soft Tory voters who find left-wing radicalism suspect.

So the party is not doing much of anything. That will do for now. Tory-inclined liberals are throughly disgusted with Boris Johnson’s government. Many voters are thoroughly suspicious of Labour. Sir Keir will have to break cover on economic and environmental issues; when he does so opportunities will open up for the Lib Dems.

The key is to find issues that show how liberal values favour ordinary people. To discover what these might be the party needs to listen more, as its new leader Ed Davey is doing. There are some straws in the wind. The Black Lives matter movement has shown how disappointed and frustrated people from ethnic minorities are that so much prejudice remains. The government’s struggles with covid testing and tracing are showing how nationally centralised systems are often ineffective, and that local centres should be given more scope to find their own ways and mobilise local resources. Grand government schemes to soften the blow of lockdowns are all very well, but far too many people, especially self-employed, are falling through the cracks. Can a narrative of diverse local communities working together to overcome local challenges be developed, to compete with the Conservative and Labour ones focused on winning national power?

The wilderness period will continue for a while yet for the Lib Dems, but there is always hope.

The Liberal Democrats need a new vision, not a new constitution

The British Liberal Democrats suffered a poor election result last December, and it will have to bear the consequences for up to four more years. The party has commissioned a review to ask what went wrong, and to help it set a new course, which was published recently. Now it needs to take on board the report’s recommendations, and the first one above all:

Based on the lives of ordinary people in the country today, create an inspiring, over-arching and compelling vision which can guide the entire Liberal Democrats organisation for the duration of a parliament, ideally longer

The review was chaired by Dorothy Thornhill, former mayor of Watford, and the party’s most successful and effective politician, now retired, alas. Her skills were much in evidence. It is a good read, and the complete report was sent to all members, rather than a select few, with an edited version released publicly much later, as has been the case before. It does not name names, neither does it try to second guess the decision to expedite the election in the first place, where the party played a critical role. And yet it doesn’t pull its punches, describing the election as a “high speed car crash”.

The biggest problem it identifies was a lack of coherence and realism about the party’s aims, and especially muddling whether the party was trying to stop Brexit or win the maximum number of seats. Instead of resolving this, the leadership became entranced by the idea that the party could massively increase its parliamentary representation, resulting in the severe wastage of effort and resources. This was because of some encouraging polling in the summer 2019, after its spectacular performance in elections to the European Parliament. In fact the party’s strategic position became very difficult as soon as Labour came down unequivocally for a Brexit referendum in the autumn. The review is clear that there were in fact only limited opportunities for the party to advance. Fifty or more seats was never on, but increasing representation to twenty seats from twelve maybe was; instead it ended up with just eleven.

Within the “car crash” a lot of organisational dysfunction was on display, of a type seen in the two previous elections in 2015 and 2017. Nobody was sure who was in charge and different parts of the party pushed in different directions, getting in the way of each other. This dysfunction is spelt out in quite a lot of detail in the second section of the report “Summary of Findings”, after initial “Review” section which sets out a clear narrative (the narrative style did upset some people, but it adds a lot to the report’s impact).

So what next? The review after the 2017 election said a lot of the same things, but was sidelined by organisational wrangles. This time it helps a lot that there is a new President (Mark Pack) and Chief Executive (Mike Dixon – an outsider to the party), while a new Leader will be elected with the review already published. The wrangles at the party’s Federal Board, its ruling council, do not seem to be being repeated this time.

Nevertheless there is a powerful temptation for the party use the organisational dysfunction as a jumping off point for a restructure, and in particular for changing the constitution. There have already been some calls for this. There are plenty of obvious targets: the absurd size of the Federal Board, the overlapping remits the various ruling committees, the Polyfilla construction that is the English Party, and so on. But Dorothy in person is very clear that it is the organisational culture that most needs changing, not the structure. People obsess with organisation structure as a displacement activity for dealing with harder problems; I know because I have made this mistake too often myself.

And the report gives pride of place to what that much harder problem is: developing the party’s vision so that it is grounded in the way non-political people live (I dislike the term “ordinary people”; there are no ordinary people in my book). The party talks to itself too much, and has used the idea of a “core vote” strategy to provide camouflage for this. The result has been that the party has limited appeal beyond well-off professionals, at a time when all the other significant parties (Conservatives, Labour and SNP) have succeeded in broadening their appeal across social class. Alongside a core vote strategy the party must develop a powerful appeal for more sceptical voters for on an election by election basis.

One prominent finding of the report is that the party failed to develop its appeal to ethnic minorities. This is true, but the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush makes a good point that the report oversimplifies this. There is no “BAME” community; there are many communities and the other parties have made progress by recognising this and developing appeals to particular minority communities. That is true, but in the case of the Lib Dems I think the BAME issue is part of a wider problem: its neglect of working class communities. Of course the persistent problems of unconscious bias mean that all parties must keep up scrutiny of their performance among BAME communities at all times – so it is right to give it prominence.

Vision is for the party leader to set, and I hope the candidates will duly focus on this, as it is not an easy problem to solve. It needs to combine a powerful appeal to members and core voters based on what the party stands for, and a more triangulated approach that will capitalise on gaps in the political market, which will involve compromises.

I don’t think the party is in too bad a shape on the first part of this. I can be hard to articulate it sometimes, but the common ground among the party’s core support is clear. The main challenge is to make it more inclusive. There is no reason that people from ethnic minorities or working classes shouldn’t feel welcome in this group: liberal values are transcendent. But what of the compromises required to broaden the party’s appeal beyond the core?

First we must talk about Europe. The party has bet so heavily on membership of the European Union that a U-turn would destroy it. It has to say that rejoining the union is an aspiration. But not now. People in the UK want to move on; so do people in the EU. The party needs to stand for a close trading relationship, even if it means compromising on “the level playing field”, though the party might want to take a tougher line on fisheries, with conservation in mind. The case for being closer to the EU needs to be based on the idea that the world is becoming an increasingly hostile place. The United States owes Britain no favours and will always extract a very high price for free trade; China is no less easy; both have developed a tendency to bully weaker powers. Elsewhere the opportunities for trading and political alliances are no less tricky.

Another tricky issue is law and order, human rights and privacy. The party has got up on its high horse about this in the past, but has often failed to make its case to “ordinary” people. The party needs to be more pragmatic, and focus on making sure that criminal justice institutions work effectively and fairly. “Fairness’ has a stronger appeal than “rights”. That leaves plenty of scope to critique the other parties.

But the party must also take risks. The Black Lives Matter campaign may be an example. While Labour under Keir Starmer triangulates fearing the white working class backlash, the Lib Dems can be a lot more robust. Ethnic minority working class people understand very well the need for multiculturalism, and are desperate for Britain’s institutions to be fairer; Lib Dems can be strong on both. I think the party needs to start a period of outreach to ethnic minority working class people; that will require financial incentives from the central party to local parties, who would otherwise gravitate to easier, more middle class places.

What of the conservative white working classes and rural middle classes? There is a big gap in political outlook, clearly, but the party must try avoid the gratuitous insults, which the anti-Brexit campaigning all too often led to.

Well these are some random thoughts. I haven’t offered anything coherent about what I think the new Lib Dem vision should be. Developing it will be hard, and I will keep coming back to the topic. But for now the key message for the party is that it must embrace the hard choices now, and avoid the temptation to spend too much energy on rearranging its internal affairs.

The Coalition at 10: keeping nationalism at bay

In hindsight the most important trend in politics over the last decade has been the rise of nationalism – and the backlash against internationalist liberals, inevitably styled an “elite”, as if all political movements were not led by elites. In Britain did the Coalition stood firmly against this trend.

In this third article of three reviewing the Coalition, I will look at its record on the business of politics itself. In the first article I looked at the record on the economy, in the second I looked at public service reform. In my choice of three topics I am leaving quite a lot out. On the environment and energy, the Coalition made a decisive move towards renewable energy, perhaps its biggest single achievement; on civil liberties it rolled back, slightly, the heavy-handed approach of its predecessor; a notable achievement was the implementation of gay marriage; in foreign affairs there was an intervention in Libya alongside the French which met its short-term aims but left a mess; apprenticeships were given a major lift, but further education colleges (i.e. not universities) suffered neglect. There was a rather pointless reform of policing, though whether this, and austerity measures, led, eventually, to a rise in crime is a moot point. I would rather blame the dismantling of so much civic infrastructure run by local authorities, which the Coalition started, but which its successor doubled down on. A rather mixed record then, but perhaps not too bad by the standards of five-year terms.

But what of political reform? How much were we aware in 2010 of the rising tide of populism and nationalism? In 2009 the political establishment was rocked by a scandal over MPs’ expenses. This distilled a growing disillusionment with the way politics was run, after the wave of enthusiasm that greeted the “New Labour” victory in 1997. Politics seemed to be run by an out-of-touch elite of professionals, whose competence was thrown into question by the global financial crisis, which struck Britain particularly hard, and whose rotten moral compass was now exposed.

But the new kids on the block thought they could get beyond that by deposing the old Labour regime and its nannying ways. Liberal Democrats were especially hopeful that the experience of coalition politics would demonstrate a new, more transparent politics, that would help build confidence. Politics was indeed more transparent, but nobody thanked them for it. Indeed the Lib Dems’ entry into government to most people showed the unaccountable elite at work; the Lib Dems seemed to be enjoying their time at the top table too much, feeding the narrative that they were putting their careers before the country. The ambiguities in the electoral coalition that brought the Lib Dems their substantial presence in parliament were exposed cruelly. The party’s popularity was in free fall before a spectacular U-turn on student tuition fees dealt the party a blow from which it still hasn’t recovered.

The weakness of the Lib Dems did for most of the constitutional reforms that the party had hoped to push through. A referendum on adopting the Alternative Vote for parliamentary elections was lost heavily as their Conservative coalition partners mobilised against it, doing long-term damage to the whole prospect of electoral reform. Reform of the House of Lords disappeared as the political establishment cold-shouldered it. The Lib Dems extracted limited revenge by stymying a Conservative project to equalise constituencies to their advantage. This left the Fixed Term Parliament Act, implemented mainly to stabilise the coalition, in which it was mainly successful. This legislation has few friends these days, but it is still there. It’s value was shown last year when it briefly empowered parliament against a mandate-less government.

More positively the Coalition progressed the development of City regions, taking on more devolved powers, and coordinating local councils. This project was led by Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, and Conservative minister Greg Clark. This was a process started by Labour – but the government limited council’s ability to raise revenue or borrow, which are the key tests for meaningful devolution.

In broader politics Labour started its long journey down the far-left anti-austerity rabbit hole, leaving the field clear for the two most important developments: the rise of Scottish nationalism, and theBrexit movement, led by Ukip. Both would dominate politics for the rest of the decade. The Coalition found itself on the defensive on both counts, but kept both at bay.

In Scotland the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) surged to victory in the Scottish elections of 2011. The Coalition accepted this as a mandate for a referendum on Scottish independence. Was this a mistake? It did not help to heal the rift between Scotland and England. I suspect Coalition leaders accepted the SNP government’s moral case; neither party had any appetite for a prolonged battle over whether such a referendum should take place, and in the event the main victim was in fact Labour. The referendum took place in 2014, and the unionists won. But the battle energised the SNP, whose dominance of Scottish politics continues to this day. Many see Scottish independence as an inevitability. I am not so sure, but coherent opposition to the SNP seems to be a long way off.

In due course the battles over Scottish independence would be dwarfed by the Brexit movement. This movement successfully channelled dissatisfaction with the Coalition and its liberal leadership in a way Labour could not, as the previous Labour government was seen as part of the problem. The battle was fought on two fronts. First was within the Conservative Party. While its leader, the prime minister David Cameron, had a strong grip on the parliamentary party (helped by the presence of Lib Dems in coalition), the Brexit movement gathered strength at grassroots level. Second was the rise of Nigel Farage’s Ukip. This quickly replaced the Lib Dems as Britain’s third party in opinion polls, and gnawed away at the Conservatives’ local base. The only way that Mr Cameron had found to keep the movement in check was the promise of an EU referendum, knowing that he could rely on the Lib Dems to veto it. At the same time his chief electoral strategy was to destroy the Lib Dems at the next election. The 2016 referendum was where this strategy ended up.

Looked at with hindsight the Coalition’s battles with nationalism look like a moderately successful rearguard action. They succeeded in delaying their enemies but without any ideas on how to stop them. What if Mr Cameron had narrowly won that referendum in 2016? It is hard to think that British politics would be anything other than very ugly.

Liberals have now developed a much better understanding of the problem: the pressures on small towns and the countryside, of economic growth that bypasses most people. But answers? We have made little progress since Coalition days, having preferred to rally around opposing Brexit. With the nationalist takeover of the Tory party now floundering, and with the old-fashioned leftism of Jeremy Corbyn defeated, this is surely the moment to do better than that. But new liberals will not look back on the Coalition government of 2010 to 2015 as a template.

Boris Johnson should be very worried by Keir Starmer

In the middle of a pandemic, Sir Keir Starmer’s start as leader of the British Labour Party has been inevitably muted. The news is dominated by the epidemic and the government’s response. There isn’t much time for any opposition party. But in these early days the portents look very good for Labour. Its members have made a very good choice.

Most of the attention has been drawn to Sir Keir’s performance at the weekly ritual of Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs). In the first two weeks the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was ill and could not attend. But instead of handing over to his deputy, as previous leaders have done, Sir Kier took it on himself. This was an interesting side-stepping of the usual parliamentary protocol games. And then when Mr Johnson did become available, he easily overwhelmed the prime minister. His style was quiet but focused. “Forensic” was the description universally used, referencing Sir Keir’s former job as QC and Director of Public Prosecutions. It is a style to which a bluffer like Mr Johnson partially ill-matched.

How much does PMQs matter in the great scheme of things? The public barely notices. But it damages the morale of Conservative backbenchers, and the pressure on an immature government team could lead to it to make silly errors. The idea floated by the government that all MPs should return to Westminster, so that the boisterous atmosphere of PMQs might be restored, and so make things look a bit less bad, looks to be just such a silly error.

A second portent comes from Sir Keir’s cleaning out of the front bench team. His predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, valued loyalty over competence and the front bench was full of weak performers. Sir Keir’s team looks much stronger, though the parliamentary Labour Party is not as strong as it once was, so choice is constrained. But Mr Johnson is also a loyalty over competence operator, and his own front bench looks particularly weak. Which for a “no-details” style of leadership is a big problem. Sir Keir’s aim is to challenge the government’s competence by contrasting it with his own.

A third, and highly significant portent comes from Sir Keir’s refusal to challenge the government on the Brexit transition. Many are saying that the transition period should be extended, not least because of the virus, as there is not enough time to negotiate a trade deal by the end of the year. It’s a fair line of attack, but Sir Keir’s failure to take it up shows that he is the first Labour leader since Tony Blair to have a clear sense of political strategy.

As opposition leader, Mr Blair was very careful to pick his fights with John Major’s Conservative government only on a very limited range of issues. His aim was to take the fight to the Conservatives and win over their former supporters. To that end he projected similar policies but superiority in style and competence. The next Labour opposition leaders were Ed Miliband and Mr Corbyn. Neither were prepared to take the challenge to the Tories. Instead they hoped to win by rounding up a “progressive majority” from Lib Dem and Green voters, and from people who had previously not voted. Anybody who supported the Tories was suspect, and the party did not want to make the compromises needed to win them over. Instead they challenged the government on a very broad front, portraying them as something close to evil. This motivated the activists. They succeeded in winning over many Lib Dems and Greens, and even (especially in 2017) bringing out previous non voters. But these were neutralised by people put off by their perceived extremism, who moved over to the Tories.

By showing restraint in his attacks on the Conservatives, on Brexit, and indeed on the Coronavirus crisis, Sir Keir shows that he has grasped this. The priority is to win power, and this can only be done by persuading former Conservative voters to come over. And it is particularly important not to put off people who support Brexit.

Let’s look ahead to see how this strategy might play out. The most likely scenario is that Mr Johnson’s government will muddle through the crisis, and intervene enough to limit the damage to the economy. In this event Sir Keir’s message will be “the same, only different”. He will pursue the government on issues of competence rather than policy. Mr Johnson looks very vulnerable here, and with a little luck his government could go into free fall like Mr Major’s, and never recover.

A second possibility is that the Conservatives will lurch to the right. After a hard Brexit, the government tries to roll back the extension to government seen as the crisis has developed, in the hope of creative destruction from which a leaner, healthier economy emerges in time for the next election. There are undoubtedly some Conservatives who want to go down this route. But it would be highly unpopular in the country at large. If this develops, then Sir Keir will broaden his attack to favour stronger public services as well as competence.

A third possibility is that the stress of the Coronavirus crisis causes the government to completely unravel, leading to a Conservative rebellion which results in a National Unity government involving Labour. This is after all what happened in both the world wars in the last century, when the prime minister (Asquith then Chamberlain) was perceived to be out of his depth. There is no Lloyd George or Churchill in the wings, though, so this does look rather unlikely. If this happens it will provide Sir Keir an opportunity to demonstrate fitness for government, while doubtless the Conservatives would tear themselves apart.

Should Labour leftists feel betrayal? Certainly they will see their wilder causes sidelined or squashed. Sir Keir has signalled a tough line on antisemitism; this covers those who criticise Israel obsessively while taking an indulgent approach to countries like Russia and Venezuela. But they should stay calm. Once in power it will be quite easy to tilt policy in a socialist direction in the aftermath of this crisis. Getting power is the main thing, and then consolidating it. Mr Blair and Gordon Brown showed the way. It is not widely appreciated on the left just how far Mr Brown in particular advanced the boundaries of the state and the cause of practical socialism.

How should Lib Dems react? it is commonplace to hear the thought that the party flourishes if Labour leadership is moderate, after the party failed to make much impression when Mr Corbyn was in charge. This is clutching at straws. If Sir Kei8r’s leadership develops as I expect, the Lib Dems’ only chance is if Sir Keir is indulgent towards the party because he thinks it could be useful. He might if he thinks that it could keep the Conservatives out of 20 or more seats that Labour would struggle to win themselves. He would certainly much rather deal with the party in a hung parliament than the Scottish Nationalists. The Lib Dems might get some political space around immigration, since Sir Keir will not want to open up too big a gap the Tories there. Brexit will be a more troublesome issue for the Lib Dems. Otherwise there will be little open space.

What you will not see is Sir Keir taking up electoral reform. He might duck and weave, as Mr Blair did, or he might rule it out. He will not want to distract attention from his core message that the Tories are not fit to govern.

Of course, in the early days of a new leader it is very easy to project your expectations onto him or her. Perhaps that is what I am doing here. But this is my working hypothesis, and Mr Johnson should be very afraid.

How do the achievements of the Coalition look ten years on?

Ten years ago, in May 2010, a new government was formed from a coalition of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. It lasted the full five year term, but it is usually regarded as a political failure, especially for its junior partner, who have been marginalised ever since. If coalitions don’t work for all parties than they are unlikely to be repeated. I don’t want to go over that well-trodden ground, though, but to ask whether the coalition served the country well. Its leaders thought that however unpopular they were at the time, they would be vindicated by history. How is that working out?

I had envisaged doing that in a single post, but on reflection I could not do the topic justice. I will attempt it in three. In this post I will look at the Coalition’s handling of the economy, and in particular the controversy around austerity. In the second I will look at the attempt to reform public services. And finally I will look at its record on the country’s governance, where the most important event was the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014.

The Coalition’s record on the economy usually gets a bad press, except from confirmed Conservative supporters. The government inherited the aftermath of the Great Financial Crisis, and in particular a budget deficit of an eye-watering 11% (though we may soon learn to regard this as being a bit tame). All parties in the 2010 election promised to eliminate this deficit to bring the national finances back to order. The trajectory offered by the Conservatives was the steepest, and this was the target adopted by the coalition. It involved some tax rises (especially raising VAT), but most of the strain was taken through expenditure cuts. The scale of such cuts was spectacular. Only the NHS and education were spared, and, with demand on the NHS rising through an ageing population, even the NHS budget amounted to a real-terms cut. The cuts were less spectacular in execution than planned, and the government’s targets for the deficit were missed repeatedly. The actual outturn was strikingly similar to that promised by both Labour and the Lib Dems in the election.

These cuts provoked a massive depth of anger from the left. “Austerity” has been turned into a totem of hate, alongside the nebulous idea of “neoliberalism”. For all this anger, or perhaps because of it, it is hard to take this seriously. Rational debate has become impossible. All cuts are always evil, in this way of looking at life. There is no such thing as wasted public spending (though some might debate spending on weaponry, trade union allies quickly close that thought down). In the country at large this is a minority view though. One of the critical truths grasped by Gordon Brown and Tony Blair before their victory of 1997 was that until Labour showed that it could embrace austerity if necessary, not enough people would ever believe that the party was fit for government. That is probably still true.

But the criticism of the Coalition’s austerity policies goes much wider than the angry left. Most neutral economists join in. In fact I don’t think I know of a respectable academic economist who has been prepared to defend it. The argument here is that as the country was in recession, there was massive spare capacity, and the country needed fiscal stimulus to put this capacity back into use, and reduce long-term damage. Instead government cuts prolonged the recession and stunted the subsequent recovery. Few defenders of austerity bother to respond to this criticism. Instead they suggest that national debt was out of control and it was vital to bring it down to calm financial markets so that the government could finance itself. This thought was clearly on the minds of coalition ministers in 2010. It was the time of the Greek debt crisis, and nerves were jangled. The Treasury undoubtedly played the risks up – fiscal conservatism is in their DNA. The academics respond that as the UK had its own currency, the government could always pay its debts; anyway interest rates on government debt did not suggest market panic.

This is an interesting line of debate. The complication in the case of the UK is that it has a large and persistent current account deficit, and so is dependent on foreign finance, unlike Japan, another major economy with a floating currency and big debts. There is strength on both sides of the argument here. Ten years on the academics look closer to the mark than the Treasury types. But there is some strong hindsight there.

I am much more interested in taking on the academics’ core case against austerity though, which is that there was a lot of spare capacity in the economy in 2010. This view arises from an idea that economies have a natural rate of growth, arising from steady productivity growth, in turn arising from improved technology and more sophisticated management methods. In the 2000s they thought this rate for developed economies was about 2% a year. If GDP fell below the level suggested by this “trend rate” than that suggested spare capacity. This meant not only that the gap was bigger than it first appeared in 2010, but that with the slow rate of growth once the economy started to recover, that gap was never closed.

That line of reasoning suggests that all was well with the British economy in 2008 when it was hit by the financial crash. But that was far from true. A closer inspection of the country’s productivity growth in the years before the crisis shows that it was entirely based on two sectors: finance and business services. The crash proved that in the case of finance this growth was a work of fiction – a product of stoking up risk and optimistic accounting. It was scarcely better in business services, which was riding the bubble. There are plenty of good reasons for thinking that the idea of a natural rate of growth is out of date – this is a favourite topic in this blog. The truth is that growth in the UK since 2000 was driven by the expansion of a financial bubble, the import of cheap products and services from Asia, and massive immigration from Central and Eastern Europe, all fuelled by fiscal and monetary policy that was surely too loose. By 2010 the financial bubble had burst, cheap Asian imports had run their course, and although immigration was continuing, it had slowed and the general view was that it was causing excessive social strains. It was not a question of quickly trying to recreate the pre-crash economy, but the much slower job of building a more sustainable replacement. Fiscal stimulus would simply have led to a flood of imports, not new and better jobs.

In fact “rebalancing” was widely spoken of as a necessary thing at the time, though most people fondly thought of this as a return of old-fashioned manufacturing. Looked at it a bit more closely, and much of the academic criticism of the coalition actually reflects this. They bemoan not the cuts to services and benefits that so angered the left, but the lack of public investment. There is some justice to this, but investing public money wisely is much harder than it looks. Usually the money ends up wasted in vanity projects. Some of the suggested ideas, such as the expansion of Heathrow airport don’t look so good in hindsight. Others: better interconnecting rail links between northern cities, look a better idea, and the coalition could have done much better there. A failure to support green energy projects was a constant complaint by some Lib Dem ministers.

As it happened, the economy did rebalance, and quite quickly. Unemployment was never as serious as the GDP figures suggested it should be, and the employment statistics became very healthy. The problem was that this rebalancing was towards a new and rather ugly economic model, with insecure gig workers at its base. Inequality did not get worse in the Coalition years, but it didn’t improve by much either. The generation gap, with younger people in insecure jobs and rented homes, their elders with nice pensions and property wealth, has got worse. The coalition did little for regional inequalities either. And yet none of these problems was easy to solve, and the government’s main priority was to dig its way out of the financial crisis.

Overall my verdict on the Coalition economic record is good, but not that good. Damning with faint praise, perhaps. But the country was in the grip of wider economic forces: catch up by China reducing the flow of cheap goods; the spread of the gig economy; the saturation of the “stuff” economy. The glib criticism of macroeconomists does not do justice to these forces.

Lib Dems will always argue that the worst aspects of austerity on public services came in the following Conservative majority government, which doubled down on the cuts. There is some justice to this, but we can’t let the party off that easily. The Coalition’s record on public services is about more than austerity, as I will discuss next time.

Strategy and tactics in British politics

In any longer term competitive activity it is useful to distinguish between strategy and tactics. This as true of politics as it is of anything else. It is surprising how few British political activists grasp the difference.

The current usage of the two words derives from the development of military theory in the 19th Century. Strategy focuses on long-term aims and how to achieve them. Tactics focuses on the here and now. Strategy guides your choice of which battles to fight; tactics help you win those battles. In politics strategy is mainly about identifying the coalition of voters you need to win and retain power. You then develop tactics to secure that coalition.

In British politics it is the Conservatives that grasp the usefulness of the distinction best. After 2005, its leader put into action a new strategy, which was to woo liberal-minded middle class voters to join the party’s existing base of conservative suburban and rural middle classes. This allowed it to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010, and then to win an outright majority by crushing that party in 2015, completely outmanoeuvring Labour. But to hold this shaky coalition together he had to promise a referendum on EU membership, which he lost, causing the collapse of his strategy. He sensibly bowed out. After Brexit the Conservatives, led by Theresa May, developed a new strategy. This was to bolster the rural and suburban core vote with Brexit-supporting lower middle-class and working class voters in the North, Midlands and Wales. The metropolitan middle classes would then be bullied into voting Tory by fear of Labour. This strategy seemed to be working in 2017, but Mrs May’s lousy tactical handling of the election in 2017 ended in failure. This election was a very good demonstration of the difference between strategy and tactics. Sound strategy was let down by bad tactics. When Boris Johnson took over from Mrs May last year, he retained her political strategy, but added much sharper tactical management to it. Aided by Labour’s strategic ineptitude, he was rewarded with a landslide last December.

Labour’s Tony Blair grasped the need for strategy very well. His strategy for Labour was to appeal to middle class voters while retaining its working class base. When he left the leadership in 2007, this strategy was getting stale, but his successor, Gordon Brown, had no clear alternative. Labour leaked metropolitan middle class votes both to the Tories and Lib Dems and lost. Since then Labour has shown little grasp of strategy and has preferred to focus on tactics instead. Ed Miliband’s strategy, inasmuch as there was one, seems to have been based on the idea of a “progressive majority”. The collapse of the Lib Dem vote, he reasoned, would be enough secure a winning coalition without the need to chase more conservative voters, as Mr Blair had. But the Lib Dem collapse favoured the Tories, not Labour, while in Scotland Labour was helpless facing the rise of the SNP. Under Jeremy Corbyn the party’s strategy was based more on hope than evidence; he assumed most voters were fed up with Tory austerity and angry about the way the rich seemed to be getting away with so much. There was also a hope that the party could bring in people who hadn’t voted before, especially younger voters. Alas for them they interpreted the relatively good result in 2017 as evidence of sound strategy. Labour instead strategised on what they would do if they won power – an area where Mr Blair was weak, as indeed have been most Conservative leaders. Political strategy and government strategy are different things.

Just how bad things are in Labour was illustrated by a remark of leadership candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey. In her defence of Mr Corbyn’s record she said that the loss of the 2019 election was due to poor strategy. That’s a bit like saying that the result was down to weak leadership, and not the leader. Actually it is clear she actually meant “tactics” rather than “strategy”. Party activists, even senior officials, muddle the two up. It doesn’t help that most advisers on political tactics call themselves “strategists”.

The Lib Dems are no better than Labour on this. Nick Clegg, its leader in the 2010 election did seem to have some sort of strategy, which was to appeal to liberal-minded voters, and use coalition government to establish the party’s credentials as a serious political force, and so expand its voter base. This strategy collapsed on contact with reality after 2010, though poor tactical handling of the early coalition government didn’t help. By the 2015 election, the Lib Dems were reduced to fighting 30 seats as if they were by elections, so empty was their strategic appeal. Since then the party has remained consumed by tactical rather than strategic thinking, in particular with its focus on Brexit. But as the third party in a winner-takes-all electoral system, the party starts from a point of strategic weakness, so perhaps this is understandable.

A wider point needs to be made. The way I write about it suggests that political strategy is a matter of clever choices by senior party leaders, allowing them to lead a willing “army” to victory, rather as military strategy is a lot of the time. But political strategy involves compromises and pain. It is about identifying disparate coalitions of voters – but what you promise one part of the coalition will displease other parts. Mr Blair’s strategy so annoyed core metropolitan Labour support that he remains regarded as a traitor within the party. Mr Cameron’s coalition required the EU referendum to satisfy its core supporters, which came at a huge political cost. Tension within the new Tory coalition is obvious, especially over such matters as immigration policy.

The problem for Labour is that it has been, and probably still is, unable to face up to the compromises required to secure a winning coalition. Nothing very clear is coming from the leadership candidates. Lisa Nandy is best at articulating the problems, but is less clear on the painful choices Labour will need to make. Ms Long-Bailey still seems to hope that all Labour needs is sharper tactics. Kier Starmer says as little as he can about what he would actually do.

And the Lib Dems? What they do in large measure depends on the choices that the new Labour leadership does or does not make. Such is the lot of a third party.

Why is the left losing the argument in the country at large?

Nothing illustrates Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s failings more than his assertion that, at the last general election, his party “won the argument”. The party’s vote went down by 2.6 million. Any sense in which the party won an argument is so abstract as to be worse than useless. But not enough people on the left realise just how much trouble they are in.

While some on the left show shocking complacency, others exhibit a level of despair similar to that in 1992, after the Conservatives won their fourth successive victory (and proper victories, unlike 2010 and 2017) when voters fled from Labour and the Lib Dems at the last minute. If the Tories could win then, in such an unpromising election for them, it seemed to presage them winning forever. The journalist Will Hutton caught the mood with a political bestseller The State We’re In. In it he suggested that the Tories had so deeply penetrated civil society that they were unbeatable. He also decried Tory (and American) economic policies, while praising those of Germany and Japan. Only a few years later Labour won their biggest ever election victory and the Tories were knocked so far away from power that people dared to think they would never regain it. Meanwhile Germany and Japan plunged into an economic crisis from which, seemingly, only Anglo-Saxon economic policies could lift them. It is surprising that Mr Hutton dared to show his face in public again, but newspaper comment by him still pops up quite regularly.

The Labour and Lib Dem revival was evident in the elections of 1997, 2001 and 2005. This led to complacency on the centre-left, and the idea of a “progressive majority” that was floated back in 1992. It was observed that if you added the Labour and Lib Dem votes (and perhaps the Greens too) there was a clear majority of the popular vote: 55-60%. This was advanced as a reason to embrace proportional representation, which would confine the Tories to a prison. But as politics poisoned after the MPs expenses scandals, and the financial crash, the weakness in this line of argument became plain. Ukip rose as a fourth, emphatically non-progressive force. The Tories revived in the 2010 election, and Labour and the Lib Dems were unable to form a parliamentary majority, though they had 52% of the vote between them. The Lib Dems entered coalition with the Conservatives instead.

The Lib Dem vote promptly collapsed, but the idea of a progressive majority persisted. Labour reckoned they could win on their own simply by picking up disillusioned Lib Dem voters, without trying to convert any Tories. This suited the Labour left, and its increasingly vocal socialist element, which had been marginalised in Labour’s government years, and which was energised by opposition to the coalition’s austerity policies. But, alas, this simply drove more Lib Dem supporters into the arms of the Conservatives, who formed an outright majority in 2015 (with a combined Labour and Lib Dem vote of just 38%), mainly by picking up Lib Dem seats. By now the “progressive majority” was shown to be a clear fiction: adding Ukip and Conservative vote share took you to more than 50%. Proportional representation would not have saved the “progressives”. And that is more or less where things have stuck since. In 2019 Labour and the Lib Dems mustered just 44% between them, down from 47% in 2017. That leaves the left with an uncomfortable truth: they will not win majority support unless they win over substantial numbers of Conservative voters: that they “win the argument”, in other words. And they haven’t done that since the great financial crisis of 2007/08, unless you count that narrow majority of votes in 2010.

Much has been written about this, but most of the thinking has been done by people on the right of politics. Their analysis focuses on values, and the way many voters crave a sense of belonging, undermined by a rootless liberal elite, or left-wingers impassioned by foreign causes. This is fine as far as it goes, but thinkers on the left have a long tradition (starting with Marx and Engels) of looking at economic interests, which they assume lie behind people’s values. This has often been taken too far, but right now there is not enough of it. The narrative of the left is that it is on the side of the “many”, often quantified as 95% or even 99% of the population, against an economy “rigged” by “the few”. This clearly isn’t working.

There are two things to observe about the strength of the right. First is that it is based on older people, as it wins over increasing numbers of the baby-boomer generation. The second, heavily overlapping, point is that they appeal to people who own property, or who have an inheritable interest in property. They are especially making progress in “left-behind” areas where property values are sinking, creating a sense of grievance.

For the most part Conservatives have been very sensitive to the needs of these groups. I remember seeing an analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies showing that austerity policies after 2010 largely bypassed older voters, whose lot improved overall. Old age pensions were improved and tax allowances raised. Interestingly these policies were driven forward enthusiastically by the Conservatives’ coalition partners, the Lib Dems, for whom the “triple lock” on state pensions was a cornerstone policy. A Lib Dem minister, Steve Webb, skilfully piloted pension reform that postponed pensions for many with minimal political damage. It is no accident that the left’s biggest moment of opportunity since 2010, the 2017 election which saw a surge in Labour support, came when the Conservatives dropped the ball on looking after older voters, with their proposals on social care. There was no chance of them repeating that mistake.

Property ownership, meanwhile, is becoming the critical economic dividing line in British society. Ownership is steadily sinking as housing becomes less affordable, but it still remains high, at over 60%. This does not fit the narrative of “the many” versus “the few”. By and large, property owners and older voters are not so exercised about austerity policies, and are less concerned about changing working practices, such as zero hours contracts. They are distrustful of the radicalism that the left trumpets so loudly. This may not be wholly rational. If austerity has caused economic growth to sag, then this affects the property market. But the left is more comfortable stoking up a sense of outrage amongst people who rent their homes, or have a dependency on the types of benefits that have been cut, than they are in making more nuanced claims for the benefit of Britain’s top three quintiles of income.

Won’t time shift these factors in the left’s favour? The older voters are dying, while more younger ones enter the electorate. We often heard that argument in the context of the Brexit referendum. But people’s political perspective changes as they age, and the left seems to be losing its grip on voters in the middle of the age range. The proportion of older voters is likely to go up, demographers tell us. Things are more promising from that perspective on property ownership, which has been falling steadily. But the change is slow and the Conservatives are acutely sensitive to this, doing what they can to make sure new homes are built, and that people can get themselves onto the property ladder.

So what should the left do? It can hardly ditch its core support among younger voters and those renting homes in order to win over Conservatives and Brexit Party supporters. Some of the policies needed to address the needs poorer and more disadvantaged voters will hurt property owners (e.g. more social housing undermining property prices) and older people (e.g. higher taxes on investments). In my previous post on Labour I suggested three things; radicalism (less of it), pluralism (more) and competence (also more).

The one party that has made some headway in attracting former Conservative voters is the Lib Dems. It has done this by being only marginally on the left (many Lib Dems, myself included, hesitate to call ourselves of the left at all). But it still signs up to many signature left wing priorities: better public services and stronger action on the environment in particular. The party is still vilified by many on the far left, who call them “Yellow Tories”. In the last election Labour sent its activists into seats like Carshalton, Wimbledon and Finchley because they preferred the Conservatives to win these than let the Lib Dems gain traction. But unless the Lib Dems are allowed to gather up Conservative votes, even as they gather Labour ones too, the left as a whole will not succeed.

There is another way forward, as suggested by the coalition of 2010. That is for parts of the left to team up with Conservatives in order to make headway on critical priorities. This has happened in Germany with its grand coalition, and now a Green-Christian Democrat alliance being mooted. The Greens and the conservatives have formed a coalition in Austria. The Lib Dems experience in the 2010 coalition was unhappy, in that its support collapsed, though it can point to achievements. The German SPD’s experience is hardly better. The Lib Dems will not be tempted to go down that route again. But if Labour continues on the road mapped out by Mr Corbyn, that may be the only option for the left to have a serious influence on government.

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.

What happened to the Liberal Democrats?

A week on from Britain’s General Election and I’m still struggling to absorb its implications. The scale of the Conservative victory still hasn’t sunk in: in terms of the stages of grief I haven’t got beyond denial. So I don’t have much useful to say on them yet. Besides, the most important thing in British politics will be that party’s internal tensions as it tries to live up to the expectations it has set, and it is far too early to get a clear sight of these. So far as the next most important thing in British politics, the future of the Labour Party, I’m still in the anger phase of grief. This is partly a reflection of the way that party behaved towards mine (the Liberal Democrats), but also a sort of displacement activity to divert me from thinking about the implications for the Lib Dems. I need to calm down a bit before offering my thoughts on Labour.

What I want to do first is comment on the predicament of the Lib Dems. For them I am through denial and anger, and in desperate negotiation before depression inevitably strikes. Let me share some of that negotiation.

The Lib Dems have dropped out of comment on mainstream media, after some rather superficial analysis on Jo Swinson’s lack of popularity and the Revoke policy. This is right; Labour’s troubles are much more entertaining and important to the general public. Within the party comment is largely of two types: anger at practically every decision the leadership took since the party’s conference in September, and apologetics from those close to the establishment, rehashing the data that was behind those decisions. Both lines are highly unsatisfactory.

Firstly, what happened? This is my personal impression and doubtless can be disputed or improved on. In September the party was on the crest of a wave. It was riding (relatively) high in the opinion polls, and succeeded in drawing in defectors from both Labour and the Conservatives. It was the probably the most popular party amongst Remain supporters, and local polls showed it doing well in Remain areas. Winning forty seats was at the conservative end of projections: 100 or more looked possible. The newly elected leader, Jo Swinson, decided to go for broke to capitalise on this fleeting moment.

There were reasons to hope that the party could maintain its momentum. It was attracting some big donors, and the other parties had used up a large part of their national spending limits. The party would go into a quick election without its usual relative disadvantage in financial firepower, at least when it came to the national campaign (sustaining that across enough constituencies was more of a problem). In Jo the party had fresh-looking front person, who, along with the highly presentable converts from other parties, such as Luciana Berger, Chuka Umuna and Sarah Wollaston, could present the party as something new. There was a lot of evidence to show that voters were fed up with the other main parties.

One step the party chose to take was to adopt the infamous Revoke policy: that the party would simply cancel Brexit in the unlikely event that it won a majority. At the time this looked very popular amongst Remain voters, and it seemed to show up Labour in particular as ditherers on the biggest political topic of the day. A further step was establishing a highly ambitious set of (about) 80 target seats. These included seats like mine (Battersea) where the party polled a mere 7% in 2017. Local polling, membership recruitment and doorstep campaigning showed the party to be popular in these seats, and they would have been winnable if the campaign could somehow be restricted to a few days. The leadership has been criticised for its apparently delusional ambition. But if the party is going to break into the British political big time it has to be ambitious and make the most of its opportunities.

But the party badly underestimated Labour. At first Labour’s conference seemed to underline its muddle and confusion over Brexit, but in the end it committed to a further referendum. This was good enough to shore up the party’s position amongst Remain voters. There was a nonsense in Labour’s Brexit policy, which was the promised renegotiation of Brexit terms, but in the end this proved easier to explain than the Lib Dems’ view that it supported both revoking Brexit straightaway and a further referendum. Remain voters wanted a referendum and didn’t care about the renegotiation. Labour’s campaigning machine then swung into action. They moved behind a “Stop Boris” meme amongst Remain supporters, and promoted “tactical voting” hard. This used the 2017 election result as its base, in preference to more recent polling, which meant that “vote tactically” overwhelmingly meant “vote Labour”, with a few token gestures to Lib Dems. The attack hit home, as we found with even members persistently asking why our candidate wasn’t standing down and promoting Labour, as the tactical sites recommended. National polls showed Labour’s vote rising at the Lib Dem expense.

And with that the whole Lib Dem campaign started to unravel, though whether it did Labour any good is a question for another day. A vicious circle was set in motion. The loss in poll ratings punctured the party’s momentum. It may well have been led in seats not targeted by the Lib Dems, but those targets needed national momentum to succeed, and in the end the squeeze took hold in most of these too. Meanwhile Labour’s rise, and the clamour for a Labour-led government within a hung parliament, raised Tory voters’ fears about voting for the Lib Dems. It wasn’t just that the Labour leadership was toxic to these voters, but they were not fans of a hung parliament either. Many Remainers voted Tory.

This sagging performance in turn put the Lib Dem leadership on the defensive. In the Question Time session Jo was put under constant pressure (not helped by the fact that, unlike the other three party leaders, the BBC did not pick a block of her party’s supporters to put in the audience), and this set the trend. The Revoke policy was painted as undemocratic, raising the passions of Leave supporters and the reservations of Remain ones. And that wasn’t all: the party’s role in the coalition government of 2020 came under scrutiny. Jo’s leadership ratings sagged, and it became fashionable to criticise her: she was too stiff and bossy, it was said (though quite why people didn’t prefer that to a lying cad or a bumbling do-gooder with scary friends these critics did not attempt to explain). It is very hard to disentangle cause and effect here: it is much easier to pick holes in a leader if their party appears to be sinking, than one whose party is doing well. Still a more skilled or experienced performer than Jo, together with a little luck, might have been able to limit the rot. It is not clear that her leadership rival Ed Davey would have fared better. He wouldn’t have been as stiff, and would have been better at handling questions, but he would not have presented as clear a break from the past, and he has his own weak spots. The media were never going to give a Lib Dem leader much space, and they didn’t. The lowlight for me was the BBC Today programme spending so much of its interview of her in the last week questioning her on transgender rights. Pressuring her on Brexit and Revoke, and on the party’s record on coalition was fair game, but trans rights had very little to do with how people were going to vote, and only served to deny airtime to a party that was already not getting very much. Still, all parties bitterly complained about their media treatment, and politicians complaining about media coverage is, as somebody put it, like sailors complaining about rough seas.

The party was forced into an undignified retreat. Battersea was abruptly dropped as a target as a relentless Labour machine pushed the Lib Dems back into their box. In London Labour, who had a good campaign, quickly switched to seats the Lib Dems might take off the Conservatives (such as Wimbledon and the Cities) in order to ensure that the Tories were safe there and that the Lib Dems did not gain a bridgehead (or, at any rate that’s what people in those seats say).

What to say about this sorry story? For all the clever types pointing to poll evidence, I continue to maintain that the Revoke policy was a serious error. The party wasn’t trying to attract Leave voters but it didn’t have to insult them; it took the pressure off Labour’s Brexit policy rather than adding to it; it made the party look arrogant, which then bounced off onto thinking its leader was arrogant. The evidence for this is all anecdotal, admittedly, but the rising dissatisfaction levels the party and its leader attracted from the public need to be explained.

I think this points to a wider strategic problem. Like Labour the Lib Dems focused on gathering up core supporters: Remainers in its case. Some wore unpopularity amongst Leave supporters as a badge of honour. The data analysis supporting the party’s decisions seems to take this as a given. And yet hostility, even amongst people who were never going to vote for the party, was not ultimately helpful, especially from a party that likes to present itself as one that bridges differences. It was a retreat into a middle class ghetto. All seven of the seats the party won in England were in the top quartile of affluence. This contrasts starkly with both the other main parties, who showed an ability to harvest votes from right across the social spectrum.

But for all the tactical mistakes, what the election demonstrated above all is just how difficult it is for the party to break out of the stranglehold the country’s electoral system. I will reflect more on that, and the future of the party, next time.

The morning after

Now that Britain’s general election is over I can resume my blog. I was too close to the heart of what could have been an important Lib Dem campaign to risk saying something that could be misused out of context, as well as not having the time. That isn’t a decision I regret, but I’m relieved that I can now be allowed to stand back from things a bit. So here are my first thoughts on the campaign and its result.

The Conservatives now have their biggest election victory since 1987. This gives them a clear mandate to complete Brexit as soon as they can, but there is plenty of trouble ahead. The party’s success derives from two things. First it took the battle to Labour’s heartlands in the Midlands, North England and Wales and won seats there in unthinkable numbers. These areas voted Leave in the 2016 referendum, and Labour’s support for a further referendum was the Tory battering ram. But I suspect they exploited a deeper disenchantment with Labour than Brexit, and demographic changes as old industries such as mining and manufacturing fade into memory. Second the Conservatives convinced most of their former supporters who voted Remain to stay with the party, in spite of its robust stance on Brexit and much else. Here they exploited a weariness with Brexit, and fear both of Labour and a hung parliament. Both of these successes were neatly encompassed by party’s slogan of “Get Brexit Done”.

Labour suffered its worst result since before the Second World War in seats won (1983 was worse for share of the vote). They had no answer to the Tory assault. The party mounted an effective ground operation, at least in London. Here they swept up a lot of Remain voters who had preferred the Lib Dems, skilfully exploiting the various tactical voting websites, and downplaying doubts about the party’s leader and manifesto (and doubtless helping to shore up the Tory vote as well). This ground game turned what might have been a catastrophe into a mere disaster. The far left are blaming the whole disaster on Brexit and on a vicious media campaign against its leader, Jeremy Corbyn. But the party’s problems go much deeper. It went to the country with radical manifesto and a narrative that the country was yearning for fundamental change. This was enough to fire up an army of activists, and to secure its support in many traditional working class areas, such as the ethnically diverse council estates in London, which remained solidly behind the party. But it left most people at best unimpressed. Many Labour policies were popular, such as nationalising the railways, but the whole was less than the sum of its parts. It sounded too much like presents for everybody and somebody else pays. For me the party’s policies and leadership deserved to be much more unpopular than they were. Labour succeeded in crushing rival opposition parties outside Scotland, so its radicals doubtless think they will have more luck when the Conservatives get bogged down, as they inevitably will, without having to rethink their policy platform and narrative. But the real problem is that the party insists on trying to win by persuading a minority of people to support it, while rejecting everybody else as beyond the pale. They have no idea how to take the fight to the enemy heartlands in the way that Boris Johnson’s Tories have, and the party used under Tony Blair. Labour’s tribalism is leading it up a blind alley.

For the Lib Dems the result is just as disastrous, and poses equally tough questions. They started the campaign with high hopes of winning more than 40 seats, but steadily lost support as the campaign progressed, so that they ended up with just eleven, and the humiliation of Jo Swinson, the leader, losing her Scottish seat. In understanding this it is hard to disentangle the judgemental mistakes from the hindsight. Jo did not go down well with sceptical voters, and was repeatedly put on the defensive in radio and television interviews. But surely some of this is a reflection of the party’s broader weakness: their opponents and the media will always find something to put the party leader down with. In 2017 it was gay rights; this year if it hadn’t been the party’s Revoke policy on Brexit, it would have been “austerity” in the coalition years, or as emerged later in the campaign, transgender rights. Nobody was going to let the party explain its ideas on child poverty, for example, where the independent Resolution Foundation found its manifesto better than Labour’s. Still, I think the Revoke policy was an unforced error; it put a large number of people off, and was an easy way of soaking up valuable airtime.

But the Lib Dem problem goes much deeper. There is a paradox: the more the other parties go to extremes, the more the appeal of the party rises, and yet the harder it is to turn this into electoral success, as the fear factor takes over. People simply ask: “Whose side are you on?”. The party tried to say neither, and that their objective was to lead the next government, and not prop one of the other parties up. But that sounded impossibly hubristic, and the party had to drop it. And that simply fed the Labour tactical vote onslaught, and the Tory appeal to stop a hung parliament. The party increased its share of the vote, and the number of second places it holds. This could be a platform to take over from one of the the other parties in the distant future, but it is hard to see how the party can avoid the long, hard squeeze in the next election, which could now be five years away.

I have almost nothing to say on the election’s other winners, the Scottish Nationalist Party, as I am simply too far away from that country to say anything useful for now. However with Labour down to a single seat in Scotland again, it shows how that party’s London bias is leading to a weak message north of the border. I am disappointed that the Lib Dems did not do better, given its Scottish leader, though it least it picked up a seat to compensate for losing Jo’s, and the party fared better than the other UK-wide ones. Apparently the fact that Jo spent much of her time away from her seat in UK business didn’t help.

I will have much more to say on the lessons and impact of the election, after I have had more time to absorb what has happened and reflect. On the one hand I am disgusted that such an unprincipled leader as Boris Johnson has won so big, and I am disappointed that so many very able Lib Dem candidates lost out. On the other hand I am relieved that we aren’t relying on Mr Corbyn to navigate the country through a hung parliament. Unlike many of my Lib Dem friends, this election to me was about a lot more than Brexit, and I am glad that Mr Corbyn and his hard-left clique have done so badly. I will explain why in future posts.