To be a Liberal Democrat in Britain is to experience long spells in the political wilderness, interspersed with short intervals of relevance. After passing through most of 2019 in one of those intervals of relevance, the party is well and truly in the wilderness now. What should it do?
It is worth asking what is the party for. It provides a political home for those who want a party which has liberal values at its core, rather than a peripheral part of a wider coalition (as is the case for Conservatives and Labour, and indeed Scottish Nationalists or Greens). It then seeks to advance those values, either by winning elections and taking political office, or by forcing other parties to compete for liberal votes, and so making them more liberal in their exercise of power. What are those liberal values? It is about individuals taking control of their lives as far as possible, regardless ethnic or national origin, or sex or sexual orientation. That’s how liberals are classically defined, and it matters in the current world because many prefer a political narrative that elevates the nation-state into something close to sacred, rather than a mere means to an end, and there is a widespread belief that multiculturalism has failed. But modern liberals have attached other beliefs to this classical core. One is a strong belief on the need to intervene to protect the environment, and another is the need for the state to play a very active part in the management of the economy, through the welfare state, public services, redistribution of wealth and regulation of private business. There is a further belief that political power should be distributed amongst international bodies, national government and local government. That makes them in favour of such bodies as the United Nations and the European Union, as well as much stronger regional and local government. Liberals (or at least those that the Lib Dems seek to represent) think that too much power is concentrated in Westminster, where often it is captive to an out of touch elite, even if that elite is often liberal in its instincts.
But there are people who believe in all of this who are members of the Conservative and Labour parties. The problem is that in these parties liberal ideas have to compete with others. Among the Tories the nationalist narrative plays very strongly; they overlook the unbalanced distribution of wealth and power; and they are reluctant to take on corporate vested interests for environmental protection, amongst other things. Labour is less concerned with individual empowerment and have a tendency to see the answer to all problems as being concentrating more power in national government. This was taken to extreme lengths under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. But it is perhaps a measure of success for the Lib Dems that both major parties are making a pitch for the liberal vote, and that many voters struggle to see the need for another political party. Answering that question lis at the heart of any Lib Dem strategy.
Which is why it matters so much to Lib Dem strategy what the other parties are doing. There are some in the party who think that the party should ignore the other parties to go full on with the promotion of liberal values, and so build a loyal core vote. Alas this can only be one strand in a larger strategy, and not the most important. For now Lib Dems are much happier defining themselves against the Conservatives than Labour. The Tories are controlled by radical ideologues, more interested in wrecking things that they dislike than in governing competently.
Labour is the conundrum. Its new leader, Sir Keir Starmer, has resisted defining a clear ideological path, concentrating his fire on government incompetence. The ideological legacy of his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, is slowly being pushed into the background. This creates a blank canvass onto which voters, including liberal ones, can project their hopes. This is not unlike Sir Keir’s most successful predecessor, Tony Blair. How do the Lib Dems compete?
The answer I most often hear is to this is locally. To win the next election Labour must climb a huge mountain. That journey would be slightly easier if they decided to ignore the Lib Dems in a few critical geographical areas and let them challenge the Conservatives there. And if Labour thought that the Lib Dems were picking off Tory votes that they would be unable to reach, then this semi-cooperative strategy looks more attractive. But at the same time Labour does not want to leak votes to the Lib Dems, and would prefer the party not to exist. There are something like 30 seats where Lib Dems are first or second placed and able to mount a credible challenge (they are second-placed in about 60 more – but so far behind that this hardly matters). In their current state the Lib Dems would happily settle for that.
That is all very well, but the party needs a degree of national strength and purpose if it is to present a convincing local challenge anywhere. To do so it needs to champion causes that the Conservatives and Labour are ignoring, but which are both popular and highlight the party’s values. Two lines of advance are often advocated. The first is to continue the party’s strident pro-Europe stance by proposing to rejoin the EU as soon as practical. Labour are anxious to win back Brexit-supporting voters, and so are making their Brexit challenge about competence and not principle. The trouble is that most people are thoroughly fed up with the politics of Brexit, and accept that the Brexit side won. Meanwhile the Conservatives are anxious to promote a narrative that the country is being undermined by Remainers who have not accepted the democratic verdict of the people. So a pro-EU strategy risks either flopping because it is too out of touch with the national mood, or, if it gets traction, of supporting the Tory narrative and distracting attention from government incompetence.
The second possible line of attack is to attract leftists disillusioned by Sir Keir’s prevarications. The party is already adopting a mild version of this strategy, through adopting a robust environmental agenda and talking up such ideas as universal basic income. And yet the party’s most promising constituency is soft Tory voters who find left-wing radicalism suspect.
So the party is not doing much of anything. That will do for now. Tory-inclined liberals are throughly disgusted with Boris Johnson’s government. Many voters are thoroughly suspicious of Labour. Sir Keir will have to break cover on economic and environmental issues; when he does so opportunities will open up for the Lib Dems.
The key is to find issues that show how liberal values favour ordinary people. To discover what these might be the party needs to listen more, as its new leader Ed Davey is doing. There are some straws in the wind. The Black Lives matter movement has shown how disappointed and frustrated people from ethnic minorities are that so much prejudice remains. The government’s struggles with covid testing and tracing are showing how nationally centralised systems are often ineffective, and that local centres should be given more scope to find their own ways and mobilise local resources. Grand government schemes to soften the blow of lockdowns are all very well, but far too many people, especially self-employed, are falling through the cracks. Can a narrative of diverse local communities working together to overcome local challenges be developed, to compete with the Conservative and Labour ones focused on winning national power?
The wilderness period will continue for a while yet for the Lib Dems, but there is always hope.