The Lib Dems mission must be to pick up disillusioned Tory voters

Not so long ago the idea of a "progressive majority" was popular amongst leftish intellectuals. They noted that if you added together the poll ratings, and even general election votes, of Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens and (for some people) the Scots and Welsh Nationalists, there was a clear majority of the electorate, outnumbering the hated Conservatives and Ukip. This majority was regarded as a state of nature, and so, it was argued, proportional representation would lock it into the political system for good.

It was always optimistic. Both Labour and the Lib Dems drew voters who would happily support parties that were not "progressive". This word is left's own favoured description for itself. Since, in practice,  most "progressives" oppose any kind of reform to make the state or the economy more efficient, I really can't bear not to place it in quotation marks when it is used to represent the broad left, rather than those who genuinely favour ideas that stand for the positive progress of society..

The flaw in the progressive majority idea is now open for all to see. In the 2015 General Election the Conservatives and Ukip outpolled the "progressive" parties. And that is before any disqualification of the Lib Dems after they entered coalition with the Conservatives. And if that wasn't enough, the clear majority for Brexit, not supported by the "progressive" parties, confirmed it. Most parliamentary seats for "progressive" parties voted to leave the EU.

This is a fact that the far left (I almost used the word "radical", but once more the word would be seriously misplaced for a bunch that includes so many people nostalgic for the 1970s). Many are convinced that Labour did so badly in 2015 because it was not left wing enough, with its half-hearted embrace of austerity. Challenged, they suggest that there is an army of disillusioned non-voters who could be drawn into voting for a party of the true left. Certainly there are a number of under-30s that could fit that description, but not enough. In fact most people who explore the polling data suggest people who do not vote are often less-educated and supportive of populist right wing policies. The Brexit referendum was relatively successful in bringing these non-voters out, and they did not vote Remain.

And yet calls for a progressive alliance persist. The Labour left is sceptical, to be sure - to them Labour alone should be the progressive alliance. But many Greens and Lib Dems would contemplate ganging up with other parties in order to push forward progressive reforms. These include constitutional and electoral reform, sustainable economics, and stronger environmental protection. In principle I would support such an alliance, but only with a Labour Party genuinely committed to political pluralism - which rules out the current leadership.

And yet, even if Labour could be brought into the picture, the numbers don't add up, even if the SNP could be brought into it. An alliance would need to present a serious challenge to the Conservatives in English constituencies. Labour and Green support might help the Lib Dems recover some of their lost seats; the Greens might pick up one or two seats. But it is very hard to see how Green and Lib Dem support would give enough help to Labour. Instead it is more likely that the Tories would successfully exploit Labour muddle to destroy the whole alliance.

So, is it game over for progressive politics? Not quite. Brexit may have won the referendum, but Remain still managed 48% of the vote. But that 48% includes a lot of people who normally vote Conservative. If a way can be found to peel these voters away into a progressive alliance, then it could be back in business.

And it isn't hard to see what might do this. The Prime Minister Theresa May is enjoying a political honeymoon, but her party is at sixes and sevens over Brexit. It is not at all clear what shape a post Brexit Britain will take because her party is hopelessly divided on it. The moderates want to create a cosy relationship with the EU, in order to protect investment and the economy. But the Eurosceptics that make up so much of the party will not stomach the compromises that entails. Meanwhile, if the British economy goes into recession, as many fear, the pressure on government finances will drive further division. It is not beyond imagination that the only way out will involve a second referendum.

The Conservatives might split under the strain. That is unlikely. As Labour will find out as its MPs contemplate their position, the pressures for the large parties to stay in one unit under Britain's electoral system are huge. There are no safe seats for breakaway parties, and safe seats are most MPs have no real idea of how to fight a hard seat or the stomach to do it. But the splits will undermine the Tory credibility, giving the chance for other parties to take their votes.

And surely this is the historic mission for the recovering Liberal Democrats. Labour has lost interest in anybody that has contemplated voting Conservative (as both leadership contenders vie to prove how left-wing they are), and the Greens have never had it. There is nobody else to fill the vacant space. For once the coalition experience may prove a positive. That might then revive the idea of a progressive alliance, though the credibility of the Labour Party would be a major obstacle. It remains the best chance for progressive politics.

The Lib Dems are understandably focusing on their core vote, and not on scooping up flighty floating voters. But in order to achieve anything the party will have to return to appealing to these voters in due course. Disillusioned Labour voters will not be enough. The party will have to detach centre-right voters too. That should be food for thought for the party as it tries to redefine itself in British voters' minds.

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7 thoughts on “The Lib Dems mission must be to pick up disillusioned Tory voters”

  1. Of course, “learning the lessons of history” is always a precarious business, but it does seem to me that when Liberal parties in Britain get TOO close to Tory governments, it invariably ends in disaster for the ‘Junior Partners’ and, in time, full annexation/integration into the Tory Party (Joseph Chamberlain and the Liberal Unionists, Sir John Simon and his Liberal Nationals/National Liberals plus (“the argument in reverse”), the only real reason Clement Davies’ leadership is remembered is for his refusal to take up Churchill’s offer in 1951 to de facto merge what was left of the Liberal Party (in the words of Paul Daniels, “not a lot”) and keep the party going as a distinct entity until a charismatic Leader with real vision (Jo Grimond) took over and began to establish the party as a radical , distinct movement (very much on the Left of British politics). The factor we do not know, of course, is what would have become of the LDs if the vision which Clegg, Laws, virtually the whole of the Party’s “clever people” around Clegg, the pollsters, Cameron/Osborne etc. had had when the polls closed in May 2015 and a continuation of the Coalition had been the only option. I personally believe that, by that time, the LDs under Clegg’s leadership (however estimable he may be as an individual and however good a communicator), had become virtually indistinguishable from the Tories in the eyes of millions of voters and by 2020 the firm foundations for a de facto fusion/merger would have been lain. As it is, the LDs have been driven to the verge of extinction and, even though having all of two MPs more, find themselves in some ways in a worse position than in 1951. As least then, party believers could (rightly) have said, “Well, it cannot get worse than this”, whereas I do really believe that now, despite encouraging signs in local elections (but definitely NOT in by-elections held to date), there is a real chance (as many Tory strategists fully planned in the run-up to 2015) that the next General Election (this autumn or 2020, depending on which of May’s advisers wins out) could well see the party eradicated and consigned to the same fate as Owen’s rump SPD, the break-away Liberal Party which would not accept merger in the 1980s etc. etc.

    There is also the point that focusing purely on gaining disaffected Tory voters will condemn areas like mine (West Yorkshire, de-industrialised, Labour heartlands since the 1920s and with large areas which have never recovered from the Thatcherite economic butchery of the 1980s/90s) to being a playground for contesting between an ever more moribund Labour party aiming, as you say, to return to resurrecting the 1970s (a goal which only people who did not actually experience the 1970s (like the Young Corbunystas) or the never-say-die Trot brigade of Militant etc.) could even dream of wanting to aspire to!) or a UKIP which is already morphing from the ‘gentlemanly’ veneer it’s (ex-Tory) leaders like Farage, Evans, Carswell and James have attempted spray on it to the gutter/common denominator English PEGIDA or Front National it was always destined to become. What a prospect!

    As far as I am concerned, therefore, Centre Left for ever and if the LDs canNOT establish a non-statist, progressive, plausible alternative in the atmosphere of crisis which is engulfing the entire Western world, then in my view it is game over and the riots of five years ago in London will be seen as a warmup act for what was to come.

    1. I share many of your concerns Charles – and agree that the party’s positon remains very precarious. And fishing for centre-right voters is a dangerous business. But I suspect that being exclusively centre-left will not give the party critical mass. I want the party to have a clear set of values that most would recognise as centre-left. But we will need to persuade Tory voters to lend us their votes on the basis that our version of the centre-left is more palatable than an unchecked Tory party. Ideally we would then rope them into a coalition of the left. That, of course, would be just as perilous as our ill-fated coalition with the Tories, though we may have learned lessons from it. But if Labour stay in their bunker we may have to consider coalition with the Tories, and use it to advance key parts of our programme. All this reads like a pipe dream, of course, as there is no sign the party has any real traction with the public. But we must begin with the end in mind, or we will end up in another unholy muddle.

      And there is no question that the party can focus wholly on the centre-right. It must pick up disillusioned voters from Labour too. All a bit of a conjuring trick – but a genuinely progressive, forward looking policy agenda might capture imaginations enough for us to do that. If that isn’t in the mix then we are probably dead!

  2. “And if that wasn’t enough, the clear majority for Brexit, not supported by the “progressive” parties, confirmed it.”

    No it didn’t. Its quite possible to be on the left, be progressive, and anti-the EU.

    I’d refer anyone who might have trouble understanding that to the arguments of the late Tony Benn. There’s more than a few of us who have some trouble the other way around. That is understanding how anyone who is progressive, and on the left, can possibly support the EU in its current form.

    I’m not sure if I’ve totally forgiven David Owen for his role in splitting the Labour Party but it is good to see him argue that the present day EU, which he cannot support, is not at all the same thing as the EC/EEC/Common Market of previous times which he could.

    1. I don’t think there were many of you Peter! And probably outnumbered by non-progressives that voted Remain. However, for whatever reason there was impressive unity amongst the progressive party elites, even Caroline Lucas. And as for David Owen, there’s a very simply way of understanding his behaviour. If the Lib Dems are for something, he’s against it. I will never forgive his telling people to vote no to AV, because it wasn’t PR. And guess how the government responds to petitions for PR? We already settled that question for a generation with the AV referendum. Awful man.

      1. I think there were more than enough of us to make all the difference in the end. There were some 17 million ‘leave’ voters, of whom many were Labour voters who would never consider voting UKIP or Tory. UKIP had some 4 million votes last May .

        Sure, there was plenty of grumbling about immigration but some of this was from those of an ethnic minority background themselves. So we can’t just say that all Leave voters were racist.

        My view on the question is that free movement is a fine ideal, but for it to be socially acceptable, to the wider majority, it has to be a two way street. The Remain campaign failed to see this.

        So, we probably couldn’t have free movement between the Indian subcontinent and the UK. Or, between Africa and the UK. We could have it between the USA, Canada, Australia, NZ and the UK though. Or between Germany and the UK.

        We can only have free movement between the EU as a whole and the UK providing that economic circumstances are similar. The PTB have shot themselves in the foot, and sabotaged their ideal of creating an ever closer union by allowing rates of unemployment to become far too high. It’s not just the euro that is the problem. It is the so-called stability and growth pact which applies unrealistic and unnecessary constraints on the fiscal policy space allowable to all EU countries with the possible exception of the UK.

  3. Matthew as ever you are both clear and far sighted in this matter.

    Sadly the party is too timid or too dominated by the SLF in key areas to act.

    1. I think the jury is out on that Steve. A lot of the new members are not SLF types, and they are keen to get engaged in the policy making process. I’m hoping this will create some constructive tension.

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