Why the Lib Dems must keep going

As a Liberal Democrat I started the General Election full of optimism. Labour looked down and out; people would surely want another alternative to an uncompromising Tory leadership? Those hopes soon vanished, as the party failed to spark, and ended up with even fewer votes overall than in 2015. Existential questions arise. If two party politics is here to stay, is there any point to the party?

There was a silver lining to the gloom. The party has increased its number of MPs from 8 (or 9 counting the by-election win in Richmond Park) to 12. And not just that; the new parliamentary team looks a lot stronger. Three former ministers (including two at cabinet level) return, for the loss of Nick Clegg, who, for all his virtues, does have a bit of baggage. One third of the MPs are now female (none were in 2015), redressing a long imbalance. And I took an extraordinary amount of vicarious pleasure in the election of Layla Moran in Oxford West and Abington. She first stood for parliament here in Battersea in 2010, when I was her agent. That brings to two the number of MPs that know who I am (the other is Ed Davey, whom I’ve known, though not well, since 1990). From a motley collection of surviving old hands in 2015, we now have something much more diverse and dynamic.

But three of the gains resulted from the peculiar shifting of multi-party politics in Scotland. In most of England and Wales, the party failed, losing five out of its eight seats, even if they regained another five. In particular, the party was unable to handle the rise of Labour amongst younger voters, except in Bath and Oxford. There is bitter disappointment. The party had been showing momentum in local elections, and even in an ongoing by election in Manchester, until the election was called. Its membership has grown massively, and it could call on a much larger army of enthusiastic activists than the demoralised bunch in 2015.

What went wrong? Some commentators have blamed the party’s policy of a second referendum on Europe, once the exit terms are known. Most electors weren’t interested in this, but it was critical to the party keeping faith with its core vote, especially those new members, who mainly came from a Brexit rebound. The Lib Dems have done enough betraying of its core support in coalition. And I don’t think the policy actually put many potential voters off – nobody expected the party to be able to actually implement its policies, after all. The problem was that the party had little else to say. It claimed to be the only opposition to the Tories and hard Brexit. As Labour surged, that proved nonsense – Labour had no difficulty in winning votes from people supporting a soft Brexit or even no Brexit at all. The Lib Dem manifesto was quite a decent stab at a programme for government – but it looked like an undistinctive split-the-difference programme when compared to the others. Labour went uncompromisingly for the protest vote, in a way the Lib Dems used to, and found that it worked – perhaps because nobody expected them to win either.

On one issue in particular did Labour manage to skewer the Lib Dems: student finance. By promising free university education, Labour picked up a policy that was popular with younger voters, and which had been a Lib Dem flagship until 2010. The Lib Dem reversal on this in coalition continues to haunt the party, and Labour’s policy was the most dramatic possible demonstration of this. That this policy presents major headaches for any government trying to implement it (Labour’s manifesto is comically vague on this) is beside the point when nobody expects you to win. Digging their way out of that hole will be a major headache for the Lib Dems.

The party’s leader, Tim Farron, did not help. He lacked gravitas – he was prone to overblown rhetoric and did not look like a cabinet minister in waiting – even compared to the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Labour campaigners successfully employed distraction tactics over his religious beliefs, and how these might or might not affect his views on gays and abortion. Tim has now resigned as leader – based on the issues around his faith. It was the right decision for the wrong reason – and I will come back to the issue of liberals and religion in a future post. Tim had a solid grasp of the party’s long term strategic priorities (core votes, more women and ethnic minority MPs, community campaigning and so on) but he had too many other weaknesses.

A further problem was weak organisation. There are honorable exceptions, but there were many horror stories from the campaign trail about disorganisation and opportunities lost. For example in more than one seat inexperienced campaign managers exhausted themselves organising the Royal Mail free delivery at the start of the campaign, while neglecting the advance organisation required for polling day, which they then became too tired to do properly. It is likely that organisational errors like this, and gaps in communication between local and national campaigning, cost the party as many as four seats (including seats in Wales and Cornwall, which would have given the party a better geographical spread). This is particularly disappointing given that the party had a head start on candidate selection. This points to serious organisational weakness in the party that successive leaders have failed to address. It has is an out-of-touch national management, chaotic local management and weak middle management, all reinforcing each other’s ineffectiveness. I exaggerate – there are  islands of brilliance – but strong organisational leadership needs to be a priority.

But is it worth it? Does the party contribute value to British political life? I still think it does because the party has two historic functions that the election has not changed.

The first is as a beacon for liberalism and democracy. Both major parties are taking these for granted. They are fragmented coalitions only interested in seizing a parliamentary majority by whatever means, and then using it to impose a divisive policy agenda. The Conservatives have taken pragmatism past the point of bankruptcy. They continue to peddle failed ideas because they know no better. Labour have collapsed completely into a party of protest, pretending that hard choices do not have to be made.

The second historic function of the Liberal Democrats is to bridge the tribal divide between the two main camps, and attract support from both. It looks as if neither of the major parties can establish a decent governing majority – they are just cancelling each other out. The deadlock can only be broken by a third party. This is what happened in 2010 with the coalition government. Disastrous as that was for the Lib Dems, rebuilding a new coalition is probably the only way that Britain will achieve a government that is “strong and stable” in the language of the Conservative election campaign. That poses a major strategic problem for the Lib Dems – but that is surely the party’s destiny. By the time the party is next given the chance – perhaps after Labour attempts a minority administration – public attitudes may have moved on.

There is a further possibility – that the party becomes part of a new movement that governs without Labour or the Conservatives – in the manner of Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche movement. That was my hope when I joined the predecessor party, the SDP, in 1981. It failed then, but who knows?

Meanwhile the party needs to pick itself up and move on. It must continue to fly the banner for Remain, and tap the growing anger over Brexit – even if the end game is unclear. But the party also badly needs to move on to explain what it is for beyond Brexit. With problems for Britain piling up in all directions, the voters surely need to be offered liberal solutions.

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6 thoughts on “Why the Lib Dems must keep going”

  1. Surely the number of people who voted tactically to avoid a Tory landslide should factor in your analysis? A lot of people who would have voted for the libdems voted labour for this reason and many of those voters are pro-remain. Tactical voting worked and we ended up with a hung parliament. Given Jeremy Corbyn’s attitude to the EU, i have no doubt that the remain voters will return to their obvious home (the libdems) for the next election. If nothing else materially changes and the next election is in the next 18 months or sooner, I expect we will end up with a hung parliament again but with the libdems taking a greater share of the centre ground. This is what the libdems need to work towards ands is why their message needs to be unequivocally anti-Brexit.

    1. Tactical voting may have been an important factor in a number of seats where Labour were the main challenger to the Tories. But in quite a few seats where the Lib Dems were challengers there were large Labour votes (such as Richmond Park), which could have made the difference. And where the Lib Dems were challenging Labour, the party got buried by a Labour tsunami. The big picture is of Lib Dem failure to compete with Labour. Still, I think you are right that a lot of people who voted Labour this time can be persuaded tot vote Lib Dem next time, not least on the issue of Brexit.

  2. “With problems for Britain piling up in all directions, the voters surely need to be offered liberal solutions.”

    But what are they? The problems in the UK at the moment are mainly tied up with the EU. Their problems that have become our problems. The country’s chosen solution is to leave. There’s no acknowledgement of this in LibDem circles. There’s been no constructive criticism of the EU from anyone in the UK with a view to changing the EU. Everyone is either against the EUand criticises. Or they are favour and say nothing when the EU behaves appallingly badly as they did with Greece.

    Yanis Varoufakis claims, and I , for one believe him, that Greece was crushed as a warning against others stepping out of line, and as part of the power play between France and Germany for control of the EU. The PTB in the EU were well aware that the measures being imposed weren’t designed to bring about any economic recovery there.

    There’s no-one offering an alternative version of what the EU could be and which could easily attract majority support. I know its a tall order but Lib Dems need to set a long term ideal. My guess is that the gloss will have well and truly worn off Emmanuel Macron by the time of the next election. Simply trying to emulate his En Marche movement probably won’t do it. You’ll need a totally new angle for the next election when the UK will probably have completed the Brexit process.

    1. An insightful critique as ever, Peter. I am still searching for those liberal solutions – it is what I consider to be the main mission of this blog. So far these amount to a rebalancing political power between national, regional and local levels, and the advance of the public sector as an overall share of the economy, and promotion of investments in a low-carbon future. I will be the first to admit that these don’t add up to enough – and that it is the missing elements that will be the most telling. I do not agree that the UK’s problems are mainly tied up with the EU – or at least, I think that is an unhelpful way of constructing it. EU institutions may well be a block to achieving those liberal reforms (I can’t help thinking of Switzerland here) – but the more important task is to identify a programme of political and economic reform – and then see how this does or does not fit with the EU (and even out of it, Britain could well find that the EU is an obstacle).

      And as for the Lib Dems, it is very hard for the party to present a nuanced position on the EU (or anything else for that matter). Tim Farron did try (“I am a bit of a Eurosceptic”) and that was widely regarded as a mistake. There are quite a few people (especially younger professionals) who feel a European identity, and feel that this is not the time to criticise the EU when Britain’s membership is a stake. For the Lib Dems these people will be a vital part of its coalition, and spending political capital p***ing them off for no obvious benefit on the other side looks a bit unwise.

      And yet you are right – we do need to start developing a trenchant critique of EU institutions and strategies. I was planning a blog post on that very matter!

  3. The economies of the Eurozone countries have been plagued by numerous crises, which have cast major doubts over its future. As heterodox economists have argued, the entire policy framework of the Eurozone, and for EMU generally has been fundamentally flawed from its inception. These ‘design faults’ have magnified the effects of the 2008 GFC and made an effective response to the crash almost impossible for individual Governments in the EU. They are locked into self-defeating austerity unless they stick to the centrally imposed rules. There must be some scope for Lib Dems to see the contradiction with their own views on decentralisation here.

    There needs to be an alternative agenda for reviving the EU’s economic prosperity and saving the Euro, centred on a Federal fiscal policy, a reform of the rules of the Stability and Growth Pact and fundamental reform of the E.C.B. A move to a one country EU essentially.

    But how can the huge ideological and political obstacles be overcome? The Germans and the Dutch are just as Eurosceptic as us Brits if it means putting their hands into their pockets! Europe faces a dismal economic future, crippled by low growth, high unemployment and social division if things carry on as they have been. It’s really not realistic to pin all hopes on Emmanuel Macron. He has some good ideas but they’ll be nothing more than ideas if the German Govt doesn’t allow them to be tested. My guess is that they won’t.

    So, as I see it, the choice is for Lib Dems, and other pro remainers is to campaign to rejoin a successful EU at some time in the future or make the best of Brexit. It’s too late to argue that we stay in and campaign for reform. Even if we stayed in they wouldn’t listen. But if we make a success of life outside of the EU, they just might. Some new alliance then may well be formed. The EU are always going to be our closest neighbours. We can’t just ignore the reality of that.

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