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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One thought on “The Liberal Democrats need a new vision, not a new constitution”

  1. Noted thanks – that’s an interesting insight into the Party’s reaction to the 2019 election disaster; and one that rings a lot of bells.

    As the post says, the election review called for a strategic vision, without suggesting what that vision should be; indeed it could not do so, since the Lib Dems seem to me to be hopelessly split on the issue following the failure of the Nick Clegg vision. Support for ‘green’ issues is probably one common factor, which is being pushed hard at present in some circles.

    If I was to have a shot at a strategic approach, I would make a distinction between an autonomy-based liberalism, and a rights-based liberalism, and suggest that the Lib Dems explore the implications of giving rather more emphasis to the former that has been fashionable recently. This would be in line with the Liberal tradition – Mill famously put an emphasis on personal autonomy in ‘on Liberty’. As applied to the lower socio-economic classes, this approach would say that we need greater real equality in the community, because the exercise of autonomy needs an adequate range of opportunity available to the individual to give them a meaningful set of options to chose between. As applied to the EU, it would say that the whole organisation is overcentralised, with a tendency to generate uniform rules across the whole continent which violate the perceptions, and therefore the autonomy, of those in a region which a particular rule does not suit. So the EU needs to build on the constitutional structures in its second and third pillars. The first pillar type of centralisation should be kept to economic issues in which uniformity (eg in industrial standards) is genuinely needed and not of any great importance to the autonomy of the individual citizen in a member state. (Perhaps industrial standards are of concern to the person running an SME. But Mill said quite clearly that the business affairs of such a person is a social matter, not an individual matter; and it is therefore not part of the core liberty of the person which he was so concerned to protect).

    However, just a thought from me; for the moment, I fear the Lib Dems will have to make do with more particular and diverse items of common concern as this post suggests.

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