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.

And into the general election

MPs here in Britain have just agreed a General Election on 12 December. I will be much more closely involved in this election than normal, as I am agent for the Liberal Democrats in Battersea, a seat that has become highly winnable for the party. Since I do not use this blog to spout party propaganda, it will be very hard for me to post much of interest on this blog in the meantime. So there will be a period of silence.

Is an election the right thing? The government does not have a majority and it is hard to see it getting significant legislation through. This is one way of trying to resolve that, though it may not. Each party has approached the election decision with their short term advantage primarily in mind (and all four main parties played a role). There are two main reasons not to, apart from the inconvenience of the time of year. On the government side many reckoned it was feasible to push through Brexit legislation, now that many Labour MPs are softening, and this would turn an election into a victory parade. On the opposition side there was a chance that this legislation might be changed to allow a further Brexit referendum, which many feel would be desirable before an election. Depending on which of these arguments you accept or reject, the election makes Brexit more or less likely to go through. I have no opinion on this.

All three main parties in England (Scottish politics is very different, and I am much less informed; Wales follows broadly similar trends to England) plan to put Brexit at the centre of their campaigns, alongside other arguments, depending on who they are talking to. The Conservatives will say “Get Brexit Done” to Brexit supporters and “Stop Corbyn” to others. Labour will say “Labour is the only Remain option” to Remain supporters, as our local Labour MP is telling us here in Battersea, and “reject Austerity” to others. The Lib Dems will also lay claim to Remain supporters, with its less equivocal stance, while presenting themselves as the only sensible party left now that Labour and the Conservatives have veered off to idealistic extremes.

How will it play out? Many voters are utterly disgusted with both Labour and Tory leaderships, and will be tempted vote Lib Dem. That is why the party is, astonishingly, in contention in places like Battersea, after generations in the desert. Will they be ground down by a relentless focus on “the two main parties” in the media, as happened at the last election, in 2017? The party starts in a much stronger position, in polling, money and organisational strength than in 2017, or 2015, come to that, so it should do better. But it seeks a radical lift-off in its performance. That is harder. There is evidence that Labour have been making some headway with their pro-Remain message since the party conferences, eating into Lib Dem support. That will come at a cost, though, as anti-Brexit parties eat into Labour support, for which there is also evidence.

The critical factor will be how the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his team goes down with the public. His supporters point to a spectacular performance in 2017 once he hit the campaign trail. But that was in a very different situation. There are problems with Labour’s stance on Brexit if you start to press it, especially around their idea of renegotiating the exit deal, and then recommending its rejection in a referendum. But since the Lib Dems adopted their revoke without referendum policy (albeit only if they are in majority), Labour can present their policy as more moderate and democratic. I actually find Labour spokesmen a bit clearer on the details of their Brexit policy than Lib Dem ones.

But the main question about Labour is over the rest of their policy. Their manifesto is sure to be radical, though how many of the party’s preferred policies (like taking over private schools) make it there is uncertain. Personally I think current Labour policy is horrific, full of the worst ideas from the left. Their plans to nationalise railways and other industries, and roll back public sector outsourcing look like a sop to unions that will get bogged down very quickly. The idea of a “National Education Service” is doubtless meant to evince the warm glow that the National Health Service supposedly does, but in me it evokes the worst aspects of the NHS, politicisation, leaden management and useless user interfaces, for example, and not the good bits. And on top of that Labour’s leadership looks inexperienced on not up to executing such a radical platform successfully. If there were no Lib Dem option it I would sooner support the Conservatives, notwithstanding Brexit. But I am a creature of my class and age (I remember the 1970s); others could react very differently.

And what of the Conservatives’ non-Brexit stance? This mainly seems to be based on scaring people about Labour policies, but they are also trying to reassure people that they will provide more funding for popular public services, such as the police, the NHS and education. Clearly things have moved on from the period of uber-austerity from 2015 to 2018, but it is hard to trust them. That may not matter too much as the much of the public distrusts liberal public spending, unless it benefits them personally, which it mostly doesn’t. Arguments about Keynesian economic stimulus benefiting all tend not to cut ice, rightly or wrongly.

How will The Brexit Party do? TBP was rampant in the European elections in May, and present a tempting proposition to angry Brexiteers, of whom there are many. The usual view is that they will spit the anti-Brexit vote and impede the Conservatives. But the new Tory leadership under Boris Johnson, has done much to contain that threat. The fact that Mr Johnson has not kept his promise to implement Brexit on 31 October “do or die” may not help TBP as much as many thought. I expect few people believed him in the first place, and there are ready scapegoats. TBP might prove just as much a problem for Labour, and their very public leaning towards opposing Brexit.

And the Greens? They may benefit from an electoral pact with the Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru, but it is hard to see them having a major impact. Labour has pretty much shot their fox. Environmental issues certainly have more traction than they used to, but politicians from all parties have noticed. Labour in particular are trying hard to scoop up the angry young environmentalists.

It is all very hard to predict. If Labour start to do well, Tory scare tactics will gain traction and the Lib Dems will suffer. If Labour get stuck, the reverse could happen. Most people think that the SNP will do well in Scotland at the expense of both Conservatives and Labour, though the Lib Dems could make some limited progress there. It will be interesting to see how well the Democratic Unionist Party will do in Northern Ireland, after their very prominent role in this parliament. The betting markets show a Conservative victory and a hung parliament as nearly equally probable at about 45%, with the former having an edge. I don’t disagree.

Jo Swinson channels Emmanuel Macron

The Liberal Democrats conference in Bournemouth was a heady affair. With a new leader, and new members flooding in, including six MPs from other parties, conference goers sensed they were on the verge of something thrilling. Jo Swinson, that new leader, got a standing ovation when she suggested that she was candidate for prime minister. What to make of it all?

The Times cartoonist showed the party bird emblem morphing into a flying pig. Scepticism is warranted, of course. I was particularly struck by this article from Financial Times political correspondent Robert Shrimsley, and in particular this comment:

If this moment does indeed offer a historic opportunity for the Lib Dems, they do not seem ready to grasp it. The strategy seems entirely short-termist, worrying about the rest once they’ve got a few more seats. Little suggests the birth of a credible new Macroniste third force.

It is easy to see now Mr Shrimsley came to this view. Brexit dominated the conference, and in particular the party’s promise to revoke the UK’s Article 50 notice to quit if it won a majority in a general election. Many commentators dismissed this as a gimmicky promise made because the party assumes it will never be in a position to implement it. A parallel was drawn with the party’s policy against university tuition fees in its 2010 manifesto, which it reversed in coalition, with disastrous consequences to the party’s standing. Indeed many members worry that this is the wrong way to overturn a referendum result; I myself voted to remove this from the relevant policy motion on Brexit, though it did not stop me from voting for the motion after this vote failed. When Ed Davey gave his Shadow Chancellor’s speech, he said a lot about stopping Brexit, but nothing about managing the country’s finances. He also spent time developing the Remainer trope that people voted for Brexit as a protest from left-behind places, and that public policy should therefore address their needs. The conclusion may be sound, but the premise is weak. The bulk of the Leave vote was from people who did not like Britain being part of the EU because they dislike the shared sovereignty it implies and because they are sceptical of the benefits of greater openness. And even the protest voters still want the result to be honoured as a mark of simple respect.

So a party that reduces everything to an argument over Brexit, and whose core Brexit policy is a promise that nobody thinks it will have to keep. I share some of these misgivings, but I disagree with Mr Shrimsley. There are three reasons: the leader, the members and the big idea.

First the leader. Jo should not be underestimated. She has brought a determination and focus to the role that many may not appreciate. She did not become Britain’s youngest MP in 2005 by accident, but through hard work, leadership and determination. Besides, busy working mothers don’t have time for shilly-shallying (if I can be permitted a sexist comment…). People who get in her way are pushed aside. Local parties are learning this as they select their candidates for the next general election – and the leadership manages the process to an unprecedented extent. She is not a Jeremy Corbyn, who became leader almost by accident. But she isn’t a Boris Johnson either; she is equally ambitious, but lacks his biddability of political beliefs. She has clear ideas about where she wants to take the country. In her closing speech, after the disposing of Brexit, she developed some of those ideas: tackling climate change, a focus on wellbeing rather than GDP (an area where I have helped her develop party policy), prioritising mental health, and tackling youth crime. She has thought through the Revoke policy and I am giving her the benefit of the doubt. It may upset political commentators but the party will not break out of its third party hell by conforming to the wishes and expectations of the chatterers. It has to play hard and that is what its leader is doing.

A further striking thing about the party is its membership. Overwhelmingly it has joined since the catastrophic general election of 2015, and especially since the referendum of 2016. These new members are replacing the old hands and shaping a fresher political party; many of its parliamentary candidates are now from this generation. Amongst the new members are, of course, three sitting MPs elected as Labour, and three elected as Conservative. Five of these six were prominent in Bournemouth. I saw three of them up close (the three ex-Labour ones, Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger and Angela Smith). All were very impressive, and a cut about the defectors that the party has seen before. They were met with a wall of love. Chuka in particular sounded fully integrated as he urged members to get out on to the doorsteps. He and Luciana were clearly ambitious politicians in mid-career, with no thought of retiring quietly. What all the new members shared was the sense that they have found a new home where they felt comfortable. This influx does feel like the beginnings of a Macroniste movement, especially in the way that it is drawing strength from left and right.

But what is the big idea that is bringing all these people together? Opposing Brexit obviously, but why? A commitment to being open, fair and tolerant. Surely all parties say they are that? But both Labour and the Conservatives have gone in a different direction. In members’ eyes the Brexit campaign was led by narrow and intolerant politicians who wanted to roll the clock back, for a variety of dark motives, and the Lib Dems present the antidote. This might strike outsiders as being stretch. The “Bollocks to Brexit” slogan was still much in evidence – a very short step from “Bollocks” to 17.4 million people who voted to leave. And the sixth MP who was not at the conference (or who kept a low profile), Philip Lee, would have had a much more difficult time, due to the interpretation that some of the things he has said and done were homophobic. Some prominent activists resigned when he was accepted into the party; others were in no mood to even give him a hearing. [See further discussion in comments below on this issue – I was probably not being quite fair on Philip – and the angry activists were probably a small minority] Lib Dems might claim to be open and tolerant, but they only manage it up to a point. But with both main parties riven by deselection issues, and treating bullying as politics as usual, the Lib Dems are clearly cutting through to a lot of people as representing a new style of politics. Interestingly, this is what Mr Corbyn tried to do when he took on the Labour leadership, but he has clearly failed. The Lib Dems might fail too, but for now the floor is theirs.

And so there are parallels between what the Liberal Democrats are trying to do and the rise of Emmanuel Macron’s political movement in France: a mix of firm leadership, centrist policies and a fresh style of politics. Sceptics should stay sceptical – but they should also keep an open mind. The party is about a lot more then Brexit.

Is the Lib Dem investment in coalition government paying off?

Signed up as a Lib Dem supporter and donated. I cast my vote at age 18 for Ted Heath and every general since I have been a Conservative, often canvassing. I am done

Thus an email I saw this morning. Also this morning Justine Greening, long-time Conservative MP for my neighbouring constituency of Putney, resigned the Conservative whip. I have been predicting for a long time that Britain’s political system is breaking up. It has happened much more slowly than I had expected. But it is happening.

The change is being brought about by two groups of iconoclasts, fed up with the established ways of British politics. Right now it is those that have taken over the Conservative Party that are making the running. They are led by Boris Johnson, Britain’s un-mandated prime minister, but many spy an evil genius behind him: Dominic Cummings. Mr Cummings came to public attention as special adviser to Education Secretary Michael Gove in the coalition government of 2010. He fast developed a reputation as a nasty piece of work, despising most other members of the human race. The signature policy of these years was turning English state schools into independently-run academies. The initial idea for these schools being run by local parents and community groups in a bubbling up of local initiative was swiftly crushed, to be replaced by politically well-connected academy chains, whose most distinctive policy was high levels of executive pay. The policy ended up by achieving little more than the looting of public funds. Mr Cummings then moved on to run the official Leave campaign in the EU referendum, where his particular genius shone through. While it is commonplace to blame the referendum result on a lacklustre Remain campaign, it is not so easy to see exactly what it could have done against the trap that Mr Cummings set for it.

We now have a complete change of culture in the Conservatives. There are some parallels with the previous regime of Theresa May before she was laid low by the 2017 General election, with Nicholas Timothy taking the evil genius role of Mr Cummings. But Mrs May’s regime was introverted and comfortable in the civil-service dominated world of Whitehall, even though it despised parliamentary accountability. It was not radical at heart. The new government is much more a movement of a like-minded elite, and it wants to turn the complacent British government upside down. And it is approaching the political challenges like a wargame where the taking of risks is celebrated. They are happy to play fast and loose with Britain’s constitutional conventions; but more importantly they want to turn their party into something more single-minded and ideological, from the pragmatic broad church it used to be. Liberals are not welcome. Mass sacking of Conservative MPs are in prospect.

The other group of iconoclasts have taken over the Labour Party, with the accession to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn in 2016. There are striking similarities with the new Tory regime. One of the more bizarre features of the current debate is the way this Labour group have suddenly decided that constitutional propriety and parliamentary sovereignty are sacred principles. They are seeking to hijack the outrage at the government’s latest manoeuvres with the slogan “stop the coup”. We should not take this change of heart any more seriously than the silly slogan.

Both groups’ main asset is each other. The Conservatives hope to bring back reluctant liberals and pragmatists with a fear of letting in Jeremy Corbyn. Some polls suggest that their fear of Mr Corbyn trumps even their loathing of Brexit. Labour activists hope for a repeat of the 2017 election, where they succeeded in polarising the debate as being a choice between themselves and the Tories, marginalising the Liberal Democrats, Ukip, and the Greens. They hope to harvest anger at “austerity” and how society is unfairly “rigged”, and combine it with a vague pro-Remain stance which is enough to haul in Remainers on the basis of its contrast with Tory extremism.

Such calculations dominate the threats of a general election on 14th October, before the Brexit Day of 31 October. This election will require the consent of both main parties. But polling suggests that both would start the campaign in a weak position. The Conservatives are polling in the low to mid 30s; Labour in the low to mid 20s. Who is taking the remaining 40% of the vote, and can they be squeezed?

In Scotland, the position of both parties looks hopeless. Mr Johnson’s accession has left Scotland’s Tories in total disarray, and its leader has resigned. The gains the party made there in 2017 look likely to be reversed. Labour too have failed to gain traction. The main beneficiary is the SNP, who look likely to regain their dominance. There may be consolation prizes for the Lib Dems too, who have chosen a Scottish MP, Jo Swinson, as their leader.

In England and Wales the running is mainly being made by Nigel Farage’s The Brexit Party, and by the Lib Dems, with the Greens showing strongly too. Conservatives and Labour have more reason to hope here. The Greens are challenging very few parliamentary seats, and their ground-level campaigning is weak. They usually get squeezed in general elections, and this looks likely again, with the Labour message designed to appeal to their voters. Mr Johnson is hoping that his line on Brexit will have shot TBP’s fox. That party is campaigning all-out for No-Deal, which is popular in quite large sections of the country. It is well-organised, but probably weak at constituency level. Labour’s mild Remain stance, backing a further referendum, may offer it an opportunity to block Labour’s recovery, but Tory Brexiteers are surely likely to rally back to the flag.

Which leaves the Lib Dems. This party’s activists (of whom I am one) like to see themselves as radicals who want to shake up the system. But now they find themselves cast as the party of pragmatism, tolerance, common sense and respect for constitutional convention, though that comes alongside a strong pro-Remain position. The party has a much stronger grassroots campaigning campaigning capability than the Greens or TBP. It comes close to matching that of the ageing Conservatives (though these may be energised by Mr Johnson), but is still way behind Labour’s. The Conservatives, on the other hand, look much better funded.

Can the Lib Dems capture the zeitgeist and hold their own alongside the two “main” parties? It is an opportunity, but not more than that. The years of coalition with the Conservatives from 2010 to 2015 nearly killed the party, but it now starts to look like an asset. Its leader has more government experience than Labour’s (and has been a minister for longer than even Mr Johnson, though not at cabinet level), and it shows the party to be pragmatic and politically moderate, even if that’s a description that many activists would shun. Perhaps now they will get the last laugh on the erstwhile coalition colleagues. And if their poll share (now a bit below 20%) holds up, it will be harder for Labour to get traction too.

In fact Labour are unlikely to go for a pre-Brexit election, though Mr Corbyn seems to want one. It complicates their message too much. But who knows where on earth the steady corrosion of British party politcs will take us?

The Lib Dems face the fight of their lives

It’s been a good few months to be a Lib Dem. In May success in local elections was followed by triumph in the European Parliament elections, when it beat both Labour and the Conservatives. The party’s support in the polls has surged. Other successes followed, including attracting two high-quality defectors from other parties in parliament and a by election win. And yet this success is fragile. A lot hangs on the next few months.

The party’s current poll share of about 20% is not normally mould-breaking territory. But both Labour and the Conservatives are polling relatively poorly and it is the gap that counts. Two things have created this situation. The first is the rise of Nigel Farage’s new vehicle: The Brexit Party, which has drawn votes from both big parties as well as helping to define the Lib Dems as their polar opposite, with the party’s unequivocal opposition to Brexit. The second is the abandonment of what might be called the “liberal centre” of politics by both parties. Labour were the first to do this under Jeremy Corbyn. The party has attacked “austerity”, meaning cuts to public spending, and promoted anti-capitalist policies, such as extensive nationalisation. Under Boris Johnson the Conservatives have abandoned the liberal centre too. Not only are they going full out for a hard Brexit, dismissing the dangers of No-Deal, but they are spraying spending promises everywhere and tearing up constitutional conventions. They are also banging the populist drum on immigration and crime and punishment. They look more like followers of Donald Trump than sensible conservatives.

So this leaves the Lib Dems with two political gaps that they can fill: being unequivocally anti-Brexit, and taking the liberal centre. Their first task has been to crush rival claims to this ground. This is what they succeeded in doing in May, as the nascent Independent Group collapsed. The Greens remain uncrushed, and are still important rivals in some places, but they are uninterested in the liberal centre. The next thing the party did was to select a new leader, Jo Swinson. She gives the party a fresh face, and looks more like the voters the party needs to attract. But the challenge now facing Jo is daunting. I think there are three main things she needs to do: navigating the Brexit end-game; establishing a post-Brexit profile; and consolidating the liberal centre. If the party fails in these tasks, the two party narrative of British politics will be re-established and the party will be squeezed out.

Firstly, and most immediately, is the Brexit end-game. The party’s clear resistance to Brexit has been its most important defining feature. It owes it to its supporters to fight as hard as it can to fend Brexit off. But this is looking decidedly tricky. Just how tricky was illustrated last week, when Labour launched its plan for a “caretaker” government under Mr Corbyn to postpone Brexit and the fight a general election. This wrong-footed Jo, who called it out as a cynical ploy too quickly, rather than being non-committal and voicing doubts (a position she has tried to adopt since). This allowed Labour followers to suggest that the party’s top priority was political advantage, not stopping Brexit by any means possible. Fortunately the damage not severe, as potential Tory rebels, essential to the exercise, took up the running. Indeed the move has ricocheted back onto Mr Corbyn, who is having to explain why he is a better choice to lead an interim government than a more neutral figure. It has also allowed Jo to garner extra publicity: many may not have noticed the party had a new leader. But this episode is an indication of the treacherous ground ahead.

The enterprise of stopping Brexit, or even the lesser goal of stopping a no-deal, is almost certainly doomed, however. Mr Johnson’s government views it as an existential crisis for their party, and is willing to play fast and loose with the conventions on which the country’s political processes depends. Mr Corbyn, as I discussed in my previous post, wants the same outcome, albeit without any of his fingerprints. So what happens to the Lib Dems after Brexit? Once out most people, in Britain and the EU, will surely want to move on. Getting back into the Union will be a generational project.

But after Brexit Europe will not drop off the political agenda, and especially after a no-deal. Smooth relations with the EU will be essential for many aspects of British life, including the economy, Northern Ireland and freedom to work and travel in EU countries. Such issues will dominate the British political agenda, forcing both sides back to negotiating a deal of some sort. The Lib Dems will have to move quickly from their “Stop Brexit” position to something new, that keeps the party in touch with the key issues, and which keeps the pressure up on the Conservatives and Labour to define their positions more clearly, and so expose their own divisions. Jo will have to do this on the hoof, as there will be no time to use the the party conference to forge it. The obvious choice would be to advocate a Norway plus plus position. This means being part of the Single Market, including freedom of movement, and a customs union. Fisheries would be excluded but some kind of deal will be needed on agriculture. Rural voters are not so important to the Lib Dems these days, but the party needs to keep up pressure on the Conservatives in rural areas. The idea should be to reopen EU markets for British agricultural produce, and to fend off imports from America and elsewhere. And if people say that all this would mean being a rule-taker, the party can simply say that Britain should rejoin as a full member in due course.

This is necessary, but not sufficient. Labour may end up by saying something similar. Many ex-Tory voters will be sceptical. Which is why occupying the liberal centre will be so important. What is it? Liberal for a start. That means embracing diversity, multiculturalism and tolerance. It also means courting younger voters, which in turn means embracing environmentalism, up to and including radical action to stop and even reverse climate change. All that is easy for Lib Dems, but does not particularly help define them against Labour or the Greens, or even more enlightened Tories, of whom there are more than many suppose.

So the “centre” element of the liberal centre is important. And that means a middle of the road economic policy. That in turn means taking fewer risks with public spending and borrowing, and being moderate with tax increases. That means being careful with spending promises for public services. There is a very interesting discussion to be had about whether this is in fact sensible public policy: many argue that this is in fact a good time to take risks with public spending, and that the burden of tax needs to be radically shifted. But that discussion misses the point. British voters have over the generations drawn the conclusion that governments need to be careful with finances, and they have reason to suspect that Labour will not be. Under Boris Johnson they may even be losing trust with the Tories. Somebody needs to make the case for a more cautious approach, and it makes sense for this to be the Lib Dems.

Moderate economics will not sit so easily with many Lib Dem activists, however. They are rightly wary of the party being branded as being centrist and so defined by what the other parties are up to. Many are wounded by Labour’s persistent demonisation of “austerity”, in which the Lib Dems are said to be complicit under the coalition years with the Conservatives. But while the anti-austerity rhetoric evinces passion in many people, I don’t think it is a popular in the country at large as many Labour people suppose. The Lib Dems built up a degree of credibility on economics with moderate Conservative voters during the coalition – and this group will be critical.

What is clear is that Lib Dems cannot rest on their laurels. The accession of Mr Johnson has given a lift to the Conservatives, and this threatens to restore the two-party dynamic that is the natural state of British politics. The Brexit Party is in retreat. The 2017 general election pattern, where the two main parties moved to over 40% each, can happen again. But the public has deep doubts about both parties, and both leaderships are adopting very risky political strategies. This could be the Lib Dem moment. The party has the fight of its life ahead of it.

Ed or Jo? The Lib Dem leadership race

While the race to become leader of the Conservative Party dominates the news, another leadership contest is running in parallel: that of the Liberal Democrats. Both parties are polling about 20% currently, but there are good reasons why the Lib Dem contest is not receiving anything like the same level of coverage. The new Tory leader is guaranteed to become Prime Minister, even if only for a few days; for the new Lib Dem leader to be Prime Minister it will take an unprecedented political upset at a general election that may not take place until 2022. But it isn’t just that: the Lib Dem contest is as dull as ditchwater. But it is important.

That is for two reasons. Firstly the government does not have a majority, and a number Conservative MPs are being driven to rebellion. A chaotic phase of parliamentary proceedings is about to start, and the Lib Dems 12 MPs could be decisive. And secondly the Lib Dems are on the up, and could do well in the next general election, which may well produce a hung parliament in which the party plays a decisive role.

The contenders are Jo Swinson and Ed Davey. There is little to choose between them on what they are saying to party members. Both want to make the party the natural home for liberal-minded voters; both want to raise the profile of environmental policy; and both want to rebalance the economy in favour of the left-behind. Jo is supposed to be more sympathetic to working with other parties to achieve liberal aims, but what difference this actually makes in the real hard world of politics is very hard to tell from what they have said. That leaves us with judgements on personal qualities.

Unlike previous Lib Dem leadership contests I have worked directly with both candidates. I know Ed the better. I first saw him in action in the mid-1980s when, alongside Chris Huhne, he led a seminar for the SDP on economic policy. He stood out as one of a small number of people in the party that were economically literate, amid the lawyers, teachers and social workers. He then moved into my constituency, Putney, when I was a party officer (alternating Chair and Treasurer). I remember arranging to meet him for a drink at the party’s Harrogate conference in 1992, but having to cancel because it was Black Wednesday, and he was advising the then leader Paddy Ashdown on economic matters. We both stood as paper candidates in Southfields ward in 1994 (when I was agent); I actually outpolled him in spite of the slight alphabetic disadvantage, as the surname “Green” seemed to confer a slight advantage, perhaps from people supporting the Green party. Not long afterwards I was called on the give a Chair’s reference as part of his approval process for becoming a parliamentary candidate. He was shortly adopted by Kingston and Surbiton, which he won by 56 votes in 1997, in spite of it not being one of the party’s primary targets (though I did deliver a few leaflets for him). Much later, after he lost his seat in 2015 I worked with him on the London Assembly campaign for 2016, where he was lead fundraiser (his wife Emily was second on the party list for assembly seats) and I was London Treasurer.

What stands out from all this is that I have found that his views very closely matched mine. He joined the SDP, but with the merger embraced the new party’s Liberal traditions. Nowadays I consider myself more Liberal than Social Democrat. He is interested in economics, and is a passionate pro-European. He loves politics and politicking, embracing doorstep politics as well as international deal-making. But he is also open and transparent: what you see is what you get. His biggest political achievement was a Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in the Coalition, when he successfully pushed forward the country’s drive into renewable energy. There is plenty of controversy about his record here, and some hard Greens regard him as a disastrous sell-out. In particular he was prepared to embrace nuclear energy at a high cost. This hasn’t attracted any comment that I have seen in the leadership contest, though. To me it shows his pragmatic side, and how he prioritised getting results over taking the moral high ground.

I know Jo much less well. Though we have met a number of times, I don’t get any more than a “I know that face from somewhere” look from her. I first met her shortly after she was first elected in 2005 as Britain’s youngest MP, and she (along with another newly-elected Scottish MP Danny Alexander) was a guest speaker at a Burns Night dinner, and I sat opposite her. She was part of the policy working group in 2011-2012 on wellbeing, on which I served. I also applied for a job as her parliamentary researcher not long afterwards, and was interviewed by her. I didn’t get the job, but I don’t hold that against her: my memory is that I did a lacklustre job of selling myself. I find her more reserved than Ed, and more likely to lapse into formulaic answers to questions (something which shows in some of her interviews). But she has a strong record in grassroots campaigning (like Ed, but unlike too many Lib Dem leaders), and is a believer in wellbeing economics, as I am (Ed is less clear on this). She was a junior minister in the Coalition, when her main achievement was in developing parental leave. While she is unsurprisingly keen on developing women’s rights, she has the imagination to see this from the male perspective, and has been careful to promote male rights too (in parental leave, in particular). Ed, incidentally, was an early “New Man” and has been a model in promoting and encouraging diversity in his local party.

Jo has three things going for her. First she is female. For all the party’s embrace of feminism, its record in taking women through to senior positions is weak. It would also be good to leave Labour as the only major political party (or even minor one, come to that) not to have had a female leader, not counting the brand-new The Brexit Party. Second is her relative youth: she is 39 to Ed’s 53. She symbolises a fresh start for the party, and its embrace of younger voters. Thirdly she is Scottish, representing a Scottish seat. English politicians are in perpetual danger of underestimating the Scottish dimension to British politics, and its importance is growing. Also in the last two elections Labour and Conservatives have targeted the Lib Dem leader’s seat, causing resources to be diverted and other seats to be lost. This tactic will be much harder if the party leader has a Scottish seat.

For all that I will be voting for Ed. I feel he is kindred spirit somehow, and I like his grasp of detail, where Jo tends to drop into generalities. But there really isn’t much in it.