The most recent issue of Liberator, the anti-establishment Liberal magazine, has more than its usual quota of groans about how the Lib Dems have failed to define clearly what they stand for. There is particular venom reserved for the idea that the party should be of the political centre, which implies a sort of rootlessness, allowing itself to be defined by others.
Much of this comes from seasoned campaigners, and there is much wisdom in what they say. But I also sense a rather wilful failure to address how politics really works.
For example, in his article, the veteran Kingston campaigner Roger Hayes says this:”And why do they think people are turning to UKIP and the Greens? Because they seem stand for something and aren’t afraid to say so.” And yet earlier in the same article he says this: “For all their noise and bluster Ukip are likely to take less than a handful [of] seats if they are lucky. The Greens will probably see their national vote soar….but in terms of seats they won’t do better than see Caroline Lucas returned…”. Which leads to the question: if the Lib Dems articulated themselves more clearly, like Ukip and the Greens, would they end up in the same frustrated but powerless place?
Or take another perspective, from talking to a party worker in one the Lib Dem held seats: she explained carefully that they aren’t looking for votes from just liberals. They needed a broad spectrum of people to vote for them. And that is real politics. Talking to diverse groups of people and trying to forge common ground. To be fair on Mr Hayes, he knows all about this – the Kingston Lib Dems are brilliant at it. But it is easy to see how parliamentary campaigners, when trying to move into a winning position, find sharp, clear messages on where the party stands not entirely helpful. For example, the party has some rather clear views on immigration that many candidates would like to soft-pedal.
And this reflects a wider truth about politics that often seems to be overlooked by people who craft political messages. If you want to say something to persuade voters that you are sincere, you need to say something that hurts; which means saying something that will lose you votes. Otherwise you are just uttering cheap words. Voters used to respect the integrity of politicians like Tony Benn and Enoch Powell, and say things like “their voices should be heard.” But they were politically toxic. And under the British electoral system if you don’t appeal to a broad spectrum of voters, you are unlikely to win any sort of representation. Both Benn and Powell needed to tap tribal loyalties or rank populism (Powell’s disingenuous statements on immigration were intended to stoke up racism) in order to maintain their political platform – and even then they were frozen out of actual power.
Politicians can have a sharp ideological edge and be successful. Margaret Thatcher is the obvious example. But that requires both strong political skills and a thirst for change among the electorate. When for Mrs Thatcher both of these ran out in her third term, she was soon gone, replaced by the un-ideological John Major. Today there is much discontent amongst the electorate, but none of the sense of direction that might support change. The electoral system, for example, is clearly failing, but there no strong political movement to change it. And I don’t think our current crop of political leaders and their “strategist” advisers (including, but not restricted to, the Lib Dems) have the political skills to pull off a platform for radical change. And if there is a clear case for strong, liberal political reforms (and there is…) it is far to late to make these part of a winning platform for the next election.
So sharp political clarity is a quick route to electoral failure. There’s something else though. There is a political gap in Britain’s political centre at the moment. Both Britain’s main parties are tempted by their ideological extremes, and by populism. This partly reflects the rise of the Ukip and Green insurgents, who are eating into both parties’ bases (especially Ukip and the Conservatives). But it is also reflects their own memberships, which are becoming more ideological. Increasingly these two main parties are not fighting each other. Instead they are fending off the insurgents and trying to persuade disgruntled non-voters to come out in their support. They are also trying to secure the votes of the Lib Dem supporters, or rather, their former supporters, some 15% of the electorate.
But because both Labour and the Conservatives are being pulled away by their extremes, the appeal of a party without such extremists, that seems to stand for sensible, pragmatic government, is surely growing. The Conservative Party is no longer trying to shake off its image as the Nasty Party, opposed to diversity and environmentalism. The Labour Party isn’t so openly tempted by the extremes, but its policies don’t look as if they are thought through, or fully accepted by their MPs. So amongst their ideas for regenerating the economy they put forward devolving powers to the cities of England. But as soon as the government suggests devolving powers on the NHS to Greater Manchester (negotiated by local Labour politicians, even), their leading spokesman comes out with the usual anti-devolution tropes. Likewise their policy on cutting student fees looks like gesture politics that doesn’t even convince its own side. A sensible, pragmatic government in waiting Labour is not.
Filling this gap in the centre, however uninspiring, is surely the best idea for the Lb Dems right now. There may be an ideological liberal vote out there to tap, but frankly the party is not in a good place to win it right now. There is too much anger over the party’s role in the coalition. But if the party can prove its worth as a party of the pragmatic centre – and shows its skill in winning parliamentary representation even when times are tough – then this is a platform from which liberals may be wooed in future elections. I don’t have a better idea.