I haven’t written anything about the Lib Dems since the week following the general election. This is because I haven’t been able to think of anything positive to say and no one wants to read about how the Liberal Democrats are completely screwed. However, having turned this over in my mind during the past few weeks, I feel I have the following to say.
The Lib Dems have several big problems. One is that they managed to completely misuse what may turn out to be a once in a century opportunity, namely that MPs from both of the big two parties defected and joined the third party’s ranks. But there is no point dwelling on this; it is in the past and nothing can be done about it. I could point to the Lib Dems being too much of a bubble, something which leads the party to constantly run campaigns that are not in touch with the electorate. The party is badly structured, which is another big issue. It has incredibly complex architecture where this is counterproductive (policy creation, for instance) and has no organisation whatsoever in places where it desperately needs it (holding together a wide coalition of support in the media, public affairs and other areas). Yet all of these are sub-problems that ultimately stem from the Lib Dems single, overriding problem: what is the party for and what is it seeking to achieve by existing?
Just being something that isn’t Labour or the Tories is not enough. Being anti-Brexit isn’t enough either, no matter how Brexit plays out. The Lib Dems have to be something concrete to a sizeable group of voters to be truly electorally relevant. The party is nowhere near that at present.
After the Coalition, there was an opportunity to try and hang onto centre-rightish voters who were liberal and might have been convinced to vote Lib Dem, particularly after the Brexit vote. Weirdly enough, a lot of Lib Dem members seem to think that this strategy has been tried. This only demonstrates the bubble that is Lib Dem membership, combined with how far to the left most Lib Dem members appear to be. They desperately want to be “forgiven” for the Coalition years by the left – something which will clearly never happen. The party likes to say things like it is the “natural party for business”, without having one truly pro-business policy. It keeps going back to its left-wing comfort zone, again and again.
I’m not saying the Lib Dems have to ape the Tories – otherwise, what’s the point? – but the party has struggled to have any headline policies that are to the right of a Labour Party in thrall to the far left over the past three years. But then we come back to the core problem: saying the Lib Dems should move to the right in several key areas is just shouting into the wind. It isn’t what the bulk of the party members seem to want to do and that’s what counts here. Layla Moran, the likely next leader of the party, has publicly said that the Lib Dems and Labour need to “bury the hatchet” and work with each other. Which begs the question: why bother to have a Lib Dem party at all? Why not fold and let Labour get on with it? If you want to work with Labour in a real, structured way and want to see an end to a Tory government under any and all circumstances, aren’t you being counterproductive to your own stated aim just by continuing to exist?
There is all this talk about “progressive coalitions” again post-election; tactical voting pleas which have not worked for the past decade whatsoever. Yet no one knows what else to do. The Lib Dems look likely to float along for the next little while, not daring to resolve its internal contradictions, hoping for the next miracle to come along which they would no doubt muck up. Or perhaps they could finally come to grips with their internal problems and become a genuine force in British politics? Please, no one hold their breath.
Geoffrey Payne says
The party tried very hard in the last general election to appeal to centre right voters. For example they gave Michael Heseltine a very high profile during the general election campaign.
Perhaps you should be more specific. What would you privatise? What spending cuts would you implement? What parts of the NHS would you privatise?
And then perhaps you can tell us how many votes that is likely to win?
matt f says
The lib dems should consider making an offer to the greens. Treat them like labour treats the co-op party– allow joint tickets in constituency elections, allow some policy influence , and allow motions at their conference. This would automatically increase the platform and profile for green ideas which would give the lib dems some clear definition. (The lib dem 2001 manifesto ‘green thread’ idea may serve as a starting example) Currently green political thinking is trapped in an overly ideologically left place, when the role of businesses, of 3rd sector organisations, isn’t really talked about sufficiently. A link up with more liberal thinking would help that. It’s win win as it would help libs and greens (or lib green coalition or whatever one wants to name it) have more parliamentary representation and that could be really valuable in getting change to actually occur.
Time for the both parties to get serious about making change actually happen. If both parties are being genuine when they say we don’t have much time then it is even more imperative that something like this happens isn’t it?
paul holmes says
If we were to follow your preference and move to the Centre Right (as Clegg tried with disastrous electoral results) then your same point would apply -what is the point, why not just join the Conservative Party?
We should not be trying to define ourselves as Labour or Conservative lite however much ‘commentators’ like yourself would prefer we did.
Paul Holmes: Is that what Nick Tyrone means? (If so you have a point)
Perhaps he means that there is a mismatch between a generally radical membership and the sections of the public more likely towards voting Lib Dem. Although it seems I often disagree with you, I would be with you in not being keen on centrism, particularly as a doctrine. Nonetheless, Nick Tyrone does have a point in that the party does have to find room for centrist voters from Conservatives and Labour. There are uneasy balances involved, which are made so much more acute by the consequences of FPTP.
I guess the call of the Liberal Democrats to recognise that society as a whole benefits when people can maximise their potential by being freed form social, economic and even political constraints is too cerebral for many, but it is politically distinctive. Nor does it help that the party does not fit easily into the old left-right axis. That said, given the present state of society, achieving Liberal objectives would necessitate a move to the left.
The phoenix says
It’s over the Liberal party died 2015
Job is to save a mass movement
The labour party
Nic Wells says
The organisational issues you refer to are concerning and strike a chord. Will Mark Pack initiate an internal review?
You assume that FPTP will endure for the foreseeable future and you may be right. But it’s hard to see how Labour recover from their current trough and I don’t think Starmer will be the answer, admirable as he is in some ways. If they don’t then the political future is indefinite Tory hegemony. If so I do think it’s inevitable that Labour will abandon FPTP one day.
Labour as it stands is inimical to any strand of LibDem political thinking. Who among us could seriously contemplate joining the Labour Party today? Jess Phillips is the only candidate who is remotely palatable and her chances look slim at best.
I think our problem is not that we don’t have good distinctive policies but that we don’t adopt them wholeheartedly.
What i would like is for the party to embrace employée ownership, drug reform and Georgism comprehensively and campaign accordingly.
I think our problem is not that we don’t have good distinctive policies but that we don’t adopt them wholeheartedly
Won the argument, did you?
John Hall says
In reply to Nicky Tyrone’s piece: we know what LibDems are fundamentally FOR. By existing, we use our inluence to create a free and fair and open society, including Fair Votes. Nationally, though weak in numbers of MPs, we use our influence towards the aims that matter to us and “the country”.
We need to consider why it is that we are more successful in some parts of the country than others, nationally, regionally and locally. Undoubtedly, our historical, first-past-the-post voring system dominated by two political parties for much of our history means that people still regard national elections as a two-horse race, (witness TV holding an initial, pre-election debate only between “the two parties”!
More important national elections, (which dictate much of what local government can do), seem to attract more voters who vote negatively, in what they perceive, (encouraged by the media), to be a two-horse race, (just as it traditionlly has been, with a favourite occasionally replaced. These “horses” may have a big influence on people’s lives. Because perceived faults and dangers are more easily communicated than time-consuming evaluation of promises and economic and other data, a significant number of people vote negatively against their most feared outcomes. It is particularly under first-past-the-post that relatively few of these negative votes can give the front-runner that nose advantage paticularly when the also-rans attract significant votes.
Less important to many, local elections would seem to attract a little less negative voting and many local races are not dominated by “the two parties”, giving others a fairer chance. So to Nicky Tyrone I would ask: Do we want to be like the unprincipled Labour Party, willing to do whatever they need to in order to attract those relatively few swing voters, (particularly in f-p-t-p national elections), or do we stick to our principles and fix the voting system? Without these, we may as well merge with one or the other – or both – of “the two parties”!
Nick, a good analysis as always. As you suggest in your last lines, before asking the question ‘what changes might be necessary to be relevant’ is another question ‘is a party with an entrenched bureaucracy that seems self-satisfied even in abject defeat, capable of any change whatsoever?’ I’m not holding my breath either.
The way Vince’s proposed reforms were either voted down or emasculated makes one despair.