Will pragmatism bring success to the Liberal Democrats?

Conservative party members showed little self-awareness this summer. Under their party’s rules they had the final say on who was to be their party leader, and, as they never tired of telling us, the next prime minister. The rest of the country was appalled that such a small, self-selected body of people was playing such a pivotal role in the country’s constitution. The leadership candidates then vied for members’ support by offering ever more crackpot ideas to appeal to their prejudices. And when the winner, Liz Truss, took over as prime minister, she treated her promises made to this small body of people as more important than the manifesto on which her parliamentary majority was based in December 2019. But amid all this self-indulgence another British political party has been rowing hard in the opposite direction by trying to make itself more relevant to the public at large. It is time to talk of the Liberal Democrats.

This follows the party’s own moment of self-indulgence in 2019. It’s then newly selected leader, Jo Swinson, decided to make the party’s raison d’être to act as a rallying point for the overturning of the 2016 referendum on Brexit. This was very popular with party members, encouraging Jo to take ever more radical positions on the subject. The party’s poll ratings climbed; it outpolled the other established political parties in elections to the European Parliament (but not, significantly, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party). It attracted defectors from both Conservative and Labour parties. At the 2019 election Jo delighted party members by suggesting that the party would win the election outright. But in the grim reality of a general election campaign, as voters confronted the awkward choices before them, this self-indulgence stuck in their throats. The party offered no reconciliation to the half of the country still determined to complete Brexit, and simply promised to keep stoking up a debate that was tearing the country apart. The party’s poll ratings sank, resources were deployed on an electoral strategy that was far too optimistic, and the end result was a dismal 11 MPs, a net loss of one on the poor 2017 result. Losses included Jo Swinson’s own seat in Scotland.

This disaster prompted much soul-searching. One of the party’s most successful politicians, Dorothy Thornhill (serially directly-elected mayor of Watford), was asked to head a review of the party. Disclosure: I am secretary of the party’s audit and scrutiny committee which sponsored this review, and which continues to monitor the party’s response to it – but the views expressed here are very much my personal ones. The review was unsparing int its criticism of many aspects of the party’s management. It’s leading recommendation was as follows:

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 party, under its new leader, Ed Davey, has taken this recommendation seriously, and especially that first phrase. Whether the party’s current vision is yet inspiring, over-arching and compelling is open to question. But that it is grounded on the lives of “ordinary” people is not in doubt. The policies that are promoted to the public reflect the concerns of general voters, and not those of activists: the energy crisis, the outflow of raw sewage in rivers and beaches, and many more specific, local concerns. To this Ed has now added the rising cost of mortgages, and the difficulty of seeing a doctor. It is, unfortunately, hard to meld such everyday concerns into something inspiring, over-arching and compelling, but the party is trying. This causes no little frustration to many of the party’s activists and members. They are dying to make a big fuss over the failures of Brexit, for example, and push radical proposals for political reform. But generally voters don’t want to reopen the wounds of Brexit, and have yet to translate their frustration with the political system into demands for reform. A further example of the party’s sensitivity to “ordinary” people was the cancellation of the party’s autumn conference, which had been scheduled for just before the Queen’s funeral. This infuriated many activists, who had booked hotel accommodation and were looking forward to the first in-person conference since covid-19. But it would not have been a good look to the public at large. The counter offered to this by some activists, that the public wouldn’t notice, was hardly an encouraging one.

This was the only party conference to be lost to the Queen’s death. Other parties, large and small, benefited from the traditional extra publicity that arises from such events (though in the case of the Conservatives “benefit” is a stretch). Last weekend the party attempted to make up for this with a set-piece leaders’ speech from Ed – which was dutifully covered by the BBC and the more respectable newspapers. The coverage mainly focused on his proposal of a fund to assist stretched families to manage higher mortgage costs. I didn’t find the speech especially uplifting, but that may be because I am on old cynic, and I was watching it on a Monday morning. But it was coherent and competent. Ed clearly focused the party’s political strategy on winning parliamentary seats from the Conservatives, implicitly part of a coalition to end their time in power. Ed only mentioned other political parties in the context of local elections – where he made an attack on the SNP, but he resisted the temptation to attack Labour. He did make time to advocate proportional representation, but that was the only political reform that got a look in. It did not beat raw sewage in its prominence. Since the Labour leadership isn’t even going that far with political reform, we’ll have to accept that.

Is the party’s new approach working? Membership has plummeted since the heady days of 2019 and the party’s prominence in the Brexit debate. Reduced means stretches the party’s infrastructure, both paid staff and volunteers. But the party is winning elections again, including three spectacular gains in parliamentary elections. It is slowly rebuilding a local government base – but it is very patchy. The party consistently polls around the 10% mark – better than it has been, but short of the party’s heyday in the years 1997 to 2010. This too was a time when local electoral pragmatism trumped ideological vision – only for the party to collapse once it tried to use its electoral mandate by joining a coalition government.

Political vision is a tricky thing, especially in a political system such as Britain’s. Too much and the electoral coalitions needed for success fragment; too little and the party loses its way at the grassroots, which is central to party’s electoral successes. Under Ed Davy the Liberal Democrats are attempting a balancing act. The party is basing its campaigns mainly on issues that resonate with voters, especially those in Conservative-held areas; at the same time it is trying to manage expectations about what it might do after the election (i.e. potentially support a Labour-led government). Meanwhile the party still holds to its core beliefs, on openness, on the environment, and on the need for political reform. This is a balancing act traditionally managed best by the Conservatives – until now.

2 thoughts on “Will pragmatism bring success to the Liberal Democrats?”

  1. “The party offered no reconciliation to the half of the country still determined to complete Brexit, and simply promised to keep stoking up a debate that was tearing the country apart”

    This was equally true of both the Lib Dems and the Labour Party. The latter’s call for a second referendum was effectively a revoke position too. The proposal was to negotiate a quasi-leave deal which no-one, neither remainers nor leavers, could possibly have supported and then put it to the electorate with the alternative of remaining.

    The leave side would have boycotted the referendum, thus completing the process of tearing the country apart.

    1. Yes Labour in remain stronghold of Wandsworth weren’t slow to press the case that a vote for Labour was the best hope of stopping Brexit. It resulted in the party’s only gain in 2019. Polling showed Lib Dems in the lead in two of the constituencies to start with, but Labour was able to turn this.

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