This weekend the British Liberal Democrats go to their main annual conference, in Brighton. They expect little media coverage, but buoyant membership should ensure a lively event. These members face a troubling question: how to rebuild the party’s electoral base. To do this they will have overcome its ambiguous feelings about its recent past.
Notwithstanding increases in membership following the 2015 General Election and this year’s EU referendum, there can be no doubting the party’s dire straits. It lost the overwhelming majority of its elected representatives at all levels over the period 2010 to 2015, when it was in coalition with the Conservatives. It has just 8 MPs (down from 57). The party’s poll ratings bump along at about 8%, ahead of the Greens, but usually behind Ukip, and nowhere with sight of Labour, notwithstanding that party’s troubles, never mind the Tories. There have been gratifying local by election successes over the summer, but only where the party has sufficient ground strength to fight an intensive campaign; elsewhere the party’s vote is as like to shrink to 2-3% as to advance to the giddy heights of 10% or so. There is no sign of a substantive breakout.
To do this, as I have written before, the party is going to have to do two things, which are in tension. The first is to build up a loyal, core vote of people with open and liberal attitudes, that will stick with the party no matter what. The coalition years exposed the lack of such a core mercilessly. Even the 8% that party managed in 2015 can’t be classed as a core vote. And yet there are plenty of people out there who are potential core supporters, if the party can build trust. This is the pitch made by election expert Mark Pack and former Cambridge MP David Howarth. I broadly support this, but the second thing the party needs to do is win over floating voters at elections – people who don’t quite get the party’s core values, but who can be persuaded to support the party temporarily on, usually, quite narrow grounds.
This tension haunts all political parties, but Lib Dems need to understand it better. The problem is this: Mark and David have shown persuasively that potential core voters are left-leaning. But the most promising pool of floating voters are right-leaning. No other party is going after soft conservatives – and these could be decisive. The Lib Dems need to be a left-leaning party that can appeal to right-leaning voters.
There’s another dimension to the problem though. It is the general disengagement of the public from the ins and outs of politics. A friend, Douglas Oliver, made this point to me recently. He made the same point to columnist Matthew Parris in 2012. Mr Parris coined two laws; Oliver’s first law: “Memories dilute each other” and Oliver’s second law: “In the study of politics, close attention distorts judgement.” What Douglas is suggesting is that we who follow politics closely lose the wood for the trees. We are concerned with events and details that never receive the attention of the wider public. This has two consequences. The public will base their judgements on a much narrower range of facts and ideas than experts. And they have much longer political memories than experts, because events do not crowd out memories in the same way. It took over 20 years for Labour to exorcise the memories of their disastrous rule of the 1970s – and only then after their leader, Tony Blair, made that exorcism his prime focus – putting it ahead of party unity. Equally, Labour leader Ed Miliband’s failure to be clear about Mr Blair’s legacy fatally undermined the party at the 2015 election, leading to one of its worst results ever. The public weren’t impressed by lots of fancy new policies and warm words, and Miliband’s idea that the party should focus on the future, not the past. But the past is the main thing ordinary voters know about political parties.
That’s tough for the Lib Dems, because about the only thing the public really knows about the party is its record in coalition. All conversations by the party with ordinary voters will start with the coalition. The party might want to start somewhere else – Europe perhaps – but they are as unlikely to succeed as Mr Miliband was with energy prices, austerity or inequality. Which means that the party must decide what it thinks about its recent past.
There are two ways this can go. The first is to attempt what Tony Blair did with Labour. To exorcise the coalition years as a terrible mistake which the party will never repeat. This will need more than words. It will mean rebranding the party, perhaps even changing its name (though unfortunately there is another “Liberal Party” already registered – perhaps “the New Liberals”?), as well as relegating those closest to the coalition, such as former leader Nick Clegg, to the outer edges of darkness. If people leave the party, that only shows that it is serious. Confronting the past is more important than party unity, Tim Farron, the party’s leader, is sufficiently distant from the coalition to pull this off – though he would have to eat some words.
But it is risky. Because if you throw away the coalition, what are you left with? You have to build an alternative vision of what the party is about, and then then sell it to a public with a short attention-span. The vision needs to be different enough from the Green Party and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour for ordinary people to care – and abstract dissertations about the nature of “liberalism” won’t do; there must be concrete contrasts on topics that matter. I hear quite a bit of use of the word “radical” from people of this general inclination, but very little about what they want to be radical about – apart from opposing any attempt to reform public services that does not involve a lot of extra taxpayers’ money. Which the Labour left already do. I’m being unfair, perhaps, but politics is a brutal business – and that’s how it looks.
Which leaves us with the second route: embracing the coalition years and claiming that time has vindicated them. At first blush this is just as hopeless. After all, if the public agreed with that idea, they would not have deserted it in droves. And there are aspects of the coalition years, especially the breach of the pledge on student tuition fees, that have taken on a high symbolic importance. Do the Lib Dems acknowledge mistakes, diluting the message, or brazen it out?
But there are advantages to embracing the coalition. It is a good starting point for a conversation with centre-right floating voters. Look at what happened when the Tories governed without a coalition: Brexit, grammar schools, tax breaks for the rich, etc. It is more challenging for the left-inclined potential core voters – but at least it drives a hard line between the party and the Greens and Labour. It shows that the party stands beyond tribalism for a new sort of politics; when needs must the party will deal with the Tories, provided that certain red lines aren’t crossed. That’s a tough message, but a distinctive one.
I am not a fan of internal party “democracy” (self-selecting groups like political parties are fundamentally undemocratic), but this is something that is best decided by party members. The most interesting thing about Brighton will be to see how that group of more motivated party supporters thinks about the coalition years. I doubt that they are yet ready to confront the party’s past in the way they need to, but there should be signs of which way the wind is blowing.