Be bold and liberal – from the centre

25 May

ForkRoadIf I learned one lesson on Friday 8th May, it was never again write a blogpost 48 hours before polling day. My predictions of 30+ seats for the Lib Dems and a hung Parliament did not take long to look dated.

But my final observation in that post – that we might be fighting for the very survival of liberalism at Westminster by 2020 – looks to have been five years ahead of its time. And it is with some relief that we can get on with the Lib Dem #fightback now, rather than wait until after a second coalition had fully sapped all our support.

In the last couple of weeks, much good stuff has been written by Lib Dems about lessons from the election, and ideas for the rebuild. I want to reiterate a few fairly basic observations about where we are and where we should be going.

Our core vote is not big enough – Having recorded just 5-10% in a whole series of elections in the last few years, we need to recognise that the number of people who identify with the Liberal Democrats as ‘their’ party is not large enough. Even if we are very disciplined in our targeting, such a small base of support will never deliver many seats in first-past-the-post (FPTP) elections. Even worse, it doesn’t deliver many seats in proportional representation (PR) elections either (see the European elections in 2014). This is why we need to build support and loyalty to liberalism, our core values and key policies. It is clear that we rather neglected the vision thing in recent decades as we focused on winning elections at the local level. Now is the time to be bold in our liberalism, making the case for immigration and an open Europe, and in our opposition to English and Scottish nationalism. The amazing post-election surge in membership suggests there is a real appetite for this, and it provides the building block for extending our core vote. Fortunately, we have three PR elections next year – in Scotland, Wales and London. If we can increase our national vote share to 10%-15%, we can start to reap the rewards of more seats in 2016.

Our potential vote is a lot bigger – I’m confident that while not many people have been voting Lib Dem recently, lots of people might yet vote Lib Dem if we can get our message over. The numbers of people who always vote Labour or Conservative continues to fall, and our politics is all the better for that. Research suggests the UK is becoming more small ‘l’ liberal on social and economic issues, particularly among younger age groups. Our brand was tarnished by tuition fees, but the underlying product appeals to many people. If we talk about supporting small businesses and self-employment, improving mental health services and giving much greater priority to housing policy, I’m sure we can build our support from a larger core liberal base.

Be bold in a crowded market place – While many people might vote Lib Dem, there are many other options and a lot of noise. Already, we are getting squeezed as UKIP get the attention on electoral reform, while the SNP are attracting headlines for their opposition to Tory plans on the Human Rights Act. The next Lib Dem leader will need to have something distinctive to say, and will need to speak with authority. The template here is Paddy Ashdown’s efforts between the dark days of the 1988 merger and the Eastbourne by-election in October 1990, when he dragged us back from the brink. We should all re-read his diaries, but Paddy’s positions on foreign affairs (Gulf War 1, Hong Kong post-Tiananmen etc) were critical in building his profile and getting the party back on the airwaves. Pushing for the UK to take a lead in taking refugees from Syria might be one place to start in 2015. A much louder campaign for drugs law reform is another way to stake out some distinctive territory.

Target swing voters in Tory seats – We lost seats to Labour, SNP and the Tories. Realistically, the Tory facing ones are the most likely to come back our way next time. There will be exceptions (Cambridge, East Dunbartonshire perhaps) but trying to outflank Labour to the left looks like a dead end (particularly with competition from the Greens) while there has probably been an enduring electoral realignment in Scotland. So we need to focus on attracting people who voted Conservative in 2015, as the least bad option relative to Ed Miliband/SNP. There will be opportunities – the Tories face a huge internal divide in the run-up to the EU referendum and their £12bn welfare cuts will go too far for some who gave them the benefit of the doubt. We should target ‘liberal conservatives’ and people who are willing to vote for any of the main parties (there are more of these voters than most commentators think). So while we need a radical edge, we shouldn’t abandon our credibility on the economy/deficit, become hostile to business or producer-led on public services. Labour now need to learn these lessons all over again – I hope we will not make the mistakes that Ed Miliband made.

Community politics still matters – I’m all for reinvigorating the national and international dimension to our liberalism. However, that shouldn’t become an excuse for ignoring our local roots. This is partly about policy – while Nick Clegg had many strengths, an interest in protecting local government and promoting localism was not one of them. It is partly about pragmatism – if we want to win again at the parliamentary level, we need to do better in local elections again. But it’s about more than the powers of local councils and electing more councillors. I want us to reach out to the chair of the tenants’ association or the local community gardening club. People who care about their area and take responsibility for making their locality a better place to live should be liberals. They might not be that interested in the civil liberties debate, or avid users of social media, so we need to connect to them in other ways. This it is not just a means to an end – community activism is a liberal end in itself. We should proudly embrace it, and seek to rebuild and broaden our party from people living in their communities.

Conclusion

Much of the post-election debate in Lib Dem circles has focused on whether we should be positioned within the centre of British politics, or as a radical liberal alternative. I want the best of both worlds – bold liberal vision and ideas, while sticking to the centre ground on the economy. In addition, I want us to be a strong local community campaigning force again, in addition to sharpening our national offer. I haven’t yet decided how I will vote in the forthcoming leadership election, but at least writing this gives me a framework for making my choice.

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4 Responses to “Be bold and liberal – from the centre”

  1. John Bryant May 26, 2015 at 10:39 am #

    James I agree with much of what you say here, but you fall into the trap we collectively fell into in the run up to the General Election. We defined our party by positioning. Most people who made up their minds up in the last few days – the ones who determined the outcome – could not care about left right or centre. Only politicos like us talk about this, and given our unique position as a liberal party rather than authoritarian one (like Labour, the Tories, UKIP and to a lesser extent the Greens) we should abandon the language of positioning and just out our liberalism and define it in simple terms to widen our audience and electoral appeal.

  2. leebakerfreelance May 27, 2015 at 11:54 pm #

    Not sure it’s about positioning, no, but it *is* about better definition: who the hell are we? The great British public do not know, and members define us by certain policies (and ones not central in general election at that). People make emotional decisions when they vote, they do not pour over your manifestos and admire your policies.

    In the absence of our weak brand, all they’ve had to go on in the past is the representatives who build up their own ‘brand’ so to speak, something to put your trust in. But even the compelling brands of the likes of Vince Cable, Julian Huppert and Jo Swinson were far from enough to save them, sadly.So it goes back to who are we, what is the story we want to tell. We ended up ludicrously stoking the fears of instability that won it for the Tories, given the Tories were seen as the best route to continuity, despite that not being the case.

    I agree the focus needs to be on community politics but I’d say we need to do more than reach out to the already powerful within communities, but to community organise around issues that are important to people, and not only potholes and new flats reducing light, but things that are to do with social justice, things that are burning issues for people who don’t vote for us. For instance, there is local bureaucratic discretion on issues from benefit sanctions to stop-and-search.

    To bring people together to share stories and intelligence on issues such as this, and then to plan campaigns, would both earn us respect and more crucially, give us a compelling narrative: we stand with people against faceless powers, we believe in people and their powers, and don’t think they should be unfairly penalised or harassed in the street.

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