Last August, I wrote a piece entitled “Layla Moran will kill off the Lib Dems. But I still want her to win” in which I described how I thought that if Layla became leader of the Lib Dems, they would ooze into a progressive alliance sort of space and be killed off fairly quickly – whereas I had greater questions about what would happen under Ed’s guidance. I said, “Ed isn’t good enough to make the Lib Dems nationally relevant again. I’m sorry to say this, but it’s true.” I believe that Chesham and Amersham might have proven me wrong – although time will tell – not just because the Lib Dems won by such a large margin, but because I can now see the whole of his strategy at play.
I’m calling the strategy the “Lib Dem sandwich” – it has meat in the middle that the whole thing would be nothing without, and yet the two pieces of bread that hold it together are just as vital because it would all fall apart without them. The meat is opposition to planning, house building and any infrastructure that enough locals don’t like – NIMBYism, essentially. The Lib Dems could run on this across the South East of England and there are around 30ish seats that this might work in. This would put the Lib Dems back in 1997 territory, meaning some level of national relevance again that has been missing since the aftermath of the 2015 general election.
The first slice of bread in the sandwich has been the slight distancing from anti-Brexit rhetoric. The party decided not to become the party of re-join after Ed took over, citing only that the Lib Dem aim to have the “closest possible relationship with the EU”. Back when they did this, I was confused – say what you will about Brexit being done, the Lib Dems had worked hard to establish themselves as the “Bollocks to Brexit” party and at least that was a portion of the electorate the party might have hoped to hang onto. I thought at the time, “Why are the Lib Dems throwing away their USP?” But after Chesham and Amersham, I get it.
A lot of the NIMBY crowd the Lib Dem strategy is seeking out could be described as “soft Remainers”. They voted Remain in 2016, would do so again if there was another referendum – but after five years of it all, are sick to the back teeth of the subject. They don’t want to vote for a party that is going to go on and on about Brexit. Ed has positioned the party perfectly on the subject – they retain the anti-Brexit brand but it’s firmly in the background now.
The second slice of bread that holds this strategy together is the rejection of the progressive alliance – or better put, the keeping of this concept at arms length that Ed is doing. In the wake of the by-election victory last week, Davey was asked repeatedly about two things: was this just a victory for NIMBYism? Or was this the progressive alliance at play? What Ed said about the progressive alliance deserves to be quoted in full:
“We don’t need stitch-ups and deals. I’m very sceptical about all that.”
“You can’t say all our voters prefer the Labour party to the Tory party. You can’t play around with people like that. I think it’s a really misguided analysis that some people are trying to push. I don’t buy it.”
This is absolutely vital to the Lib Dem strategy. The one weapon that will be the most deadly against the Lib Dems in seats like Chesham and Amersham come the next general election will be the Tories being able to paint a vote for the party as not just for the Lib Dems themselves, but for a progressive “stitch-up”, a collective that has a view to changing the voting system so that Labour can rule the country forever. Ed putting himself at a distance from this idea is absolutely necessary.
Now, I don’t personally like the strategy. I am looking to back a party that is dedicated to many things, two of which are rejoining the single market and building houses – and the Lib Dems are not for either at present. At least, not in any outward facing, genuine sense. And I really don’t like NIMBYism, particularly of the SE English variety. I see it in London all the time – homeowners who don’t want any new houses on their doorstep thinking up bullshit, progressive sounding excuses for why they are protesting any development. A mixed housing development can be criticised for “not having enough affordable housing”. If this excuse doesn’t hold, say “We need more space for businesses – where are people going to work?”. If it’s a new housing estate, you can even block that on progressive-flavoured terms. “This will lead to housing estates that exist being torn down. This will disrupt communities.”
I hate this stuff, I really do, and the fact that the Lib Dems seem to be setting themselves up to be the party dedicated to going after this slice of the vote makes me feel even more distant from them than I already was.
However, the political strategy nerd in me can’t deny its brilliance. It works perfectly under First Past the Post, with the NIMBY vote they are going after concentrated in seats currently held by the Tories where the Lib Dems came second last time round. Continuing to be the anti-Brexit party might possibly see them riding higher in the national polls – but to no avail as this vote would spread much more evenly around the country, except for London where everyone votes Labour anyhow. In terms of just trying to get the Lib Dems some seats, it is almost certainly the best strategy the party could have possibly adopted. I’d go as far as to say there is a hint of genius in it all.
Having said that, there are pitfalls that await the party, even under their best possible strategy. If the polls are close between Labour and the Tories at the next election, the Lib Dems might feel their traditional squeeze. Yet if it looks like Labour are going to be crushed, with the choice a Tory supermajority or just a thinner majority, people in the seats the Lib Dems are targeting might feel they are being given a free hit and plump for a Lib Dem MP.
Of course, I can sit here and ask what the point is in the end. The whole strategy seems to be predicated on the idea of “survival by any and all means”. The Liberal Democrats can fool themselves into thinking they are helping kick the Tories out by taking seats off them but they must know they won’t take enough to make that really possible. I guess they can blame that on the Labour party and have at least half a point.
I have no idea if the Lib Dem sandwich will work. But I didn’t see it coming at all, it makes sense of a lot of stuff that seemed random pre-Chesham and Amersham and has at least some shot at success.
Of course, there is another problem the Lib Dems might not have considered yet – could planning reform become a tuition fees-like problem for the Lib Dems if they formed a government with Labour? What if that government started house building across the Home Counties, leaving those who voted Lib Dem feeling betrayed? Who knows – and time may tell.
While I’m here, I’ve got a new book coming out in the autumn entitled The Patient. It’s about a woman who goes into the hospital to give birth to her child, being two weeks overdue….and ends up staying in the hospital for a year, still pregnant the whole time. If you want to find out more, here’s where you can have a better look.
There I was hoping that the Lib Dems might now do quite well – but given your record for predictions… :)!
BTW Remin/Rejoin/Closer to the EU – is *not* evenly distributed over the country. And it is the policy that the Lib Dems reaffirmed at their last party conference, I believe.
(PS – you need to tell people in Twickenham, Kingston, Richmond etc. that everyone votes Labour in London – not *wholly* accurate I fear let alone in Surrey or in many places in the Home Counties that are increasingly demographically like SW London and similar seats such as Winchester and they are not just in the Home Counties but dotted around the country – Cheadle and Hazel Grove in Greater Manchester for example – and there is a heavy leaning towards a pro-EU stance in this seats)
It is not NIMBYISM to want appropriate development. There is an interlocking set of policies and rules that run from the national rules and framework down through regional plans, to the district and local plans and that has been supported by the Tories in the past – and indeed across the parties. The system is already heavily stacked in favour of developers as they can appeal to the national planning inspectorate if a local decision goes against them whereas objectors can’t.
Developers want easier development – not what is in the national interests and it seems now that the Tories are pandering to this vested interest.
Richard Gadsden says
The first thing I’d say is that the Liberal party surviving the 1950s was driven by exactly this impulse of just not giving up and doing what they needed to do to survive until they could find a leader or an issue that would revive them.
Secondly, rejoining the Single Market (which would not require rejoining the EU) is something better done than talked about. If Labour can leave open the possibility of renegotiating the trade agreement with the EU at the next election, then a renegotiation that ends up rejoining the EEA is entirely within that, and wouldn’t need a referendum. Rejoining the EU proper is always going to be a hard lift, because no politician wants to have another referendum, and it clearly can’t be done without one.
Thirdly, the Lib Dem party policy on development – which can be summarised as changing the balance in planning permission more to the planning side and less of the permission – might seem like a betrayal to NIMBYs when things actually get built. But there is at least a theoretical distinction between NIMBYism “build nothing” and the Lib Dem position that there should be local control over what is built. The problem is when that local control says “build nothing”, but interestingly, the bigger the “local” area you cast the vote over, the more positive people are about building. That is, there are a lot more NIMBYs than BANANAs, and if you say “we could build a new housing estate in any of these five areas, or nowhere, vote between the six options”, you’ll generally get a solid majority for one of the five options. Much harder for people to complain about the results of a town-wide or county-wide referendum.
I’m inclined, like you, to just smash NIMBYs aside, but we do live in a democracy and there are a lot of them. So tactics like getting NIMBYs to oppose each other (a good example there being HS1, where there were three routes and the result was people on each route campaigned for it to go along the others, rather than all campaigning together against building it at all) are key to maintaining democratic consent for building anything at all.
if you say “we could build a new housing estate in any of these five areas, or nowhere, vote between the six options”, you’ll generally get a solid majority for one of the five options.
Would that be using a first-past-the-post voting system?
John Dean says
One of your basic premises is wrong. Lib Dem canvassing returns show that the issue of planning was one of only many raised on the doorsteps by Chesham & Amersham voters during the campaign – ‘NIMBY-ism’ was a relatively insignificant factor in the election, whatever the Conservatives and many journalists might claim.
Alex Macfie says
You admit you were wrong about Ed Davey, but you would have been wrong about Layla Moran as well. Layla has always been clear that standing aside for Labour is a non-starter, and cites Canterbury in the last GE as an example of how Lib Dems fielding a candidate helped the Labour candidate win by siphoning off soft Tory votes. Layla has no truck either with the bitter, sectarian hard left with which you seem hell-bent on linking her and other radical social liberals. Actually the radical wing of the Lib Dems has a major asset in that it can appeal to progressive-minded voters without the toxic ideological baggage of the Labour left, as it did under Charles Kennedy.
A Lib Dem merger with the Greens is also off the cards. Although there is a lot of common ground between the radical wing of the Lib Dems and the sensible wing of th Greens, the two parties have different centres of gravity and it would lead to splinter groups from both parties. And the two parties are able to work together in some regions, in others they are at loggerheads. In Richmond and Twickenham, they had a pact for the Council and the last 2 Parliamentary elections, but in neighbouring Kingston this would not be possible due to personality differences.
Layla didn’t become leader, so there is no way of knowing what would might have been, but I suspect you would be here admitting you were wrong, as Layla basked in the by-election victory at Chesham & Amersham while seeing off the Greens, and did a video knocking down a blue wall, while supporting the Lib Dem candidate in Batley & Spen in taking the soft Tory vote that would never go to Labour.
Geoffrey Payne says
The number one thing you are getting wrong here is that you have not been there. You have not been knocking on the doors, you do not know what people were saying. That is why your prediction of Lib Dem defeat in the Spectator was so spectacularly wrong.
No one has the perfect solution when it comes to building new homes. Liberal Democrats have always believed in decentralising power to local government and it is entirely consistent for them to oppose the Tory planning laws. It is also true that one important side effect of that is that it empowers Nimbies, so it will not be easy for them to meet their ambitious housebuilding targets. On the other hand the Tories in taking away powers from local government then have to deal with their own contradictions in policy objectives. Does the Gentleman in Whitehall know best. Or if you give developers free reign, they will end up building luxury homes that take up huge amounts of land, not really a good way to solve the housing problem.
As for HS2, is it not likely that any local party will select candidates opposed to HS2 because that is what public opinion in that constituency supports. The Tory party also has MPs in the Chilterns who oppose HS2, no party is a monolith.
In my experience – coming back to my first point – there were a number of reasons that Tory supporters rebelled, nothing to do with the reasons you give. A YouGov poll recently shows that Johnson is very popular amongst non-graduates, and very unpopular amongst graduates. In seats like Chesham and Amersham with a high graduate population, the Tory vote is vulnerable. People there simply do not like Johnson in the same way they do in Hartlepool.
Iain Sharpe says
As per other posters I don’t see why the Liberal Democrats, as a party that has championed localism, should be obliged to support the Conservative planning reforms, which have the opposite tendency. Helping in Chesham and Amersham I didn’t get the impression of Lib Dem leaflets pandering to NIMBY sentiment beyond a commitment to protect the Chilterns that all candidates appeared to espouse. Although undoubtedly we ended up as the recipient of votes against development. I also don’t see why we should carry the can for the Conservatives’ contradictory stances on development. Here in Watford we are set targets of nearly 2,000 more homes per square mile by 2036 in an already built-up area. Then Conservative ministers tell us off and reduce our planning powers for development not happening fast enough, while local Conservative activists and the town’s MP flood the constituency with leaflets attacking the Lib Dem council for allowing too much of it. While I realise the perils of Whataboutery, the Conservatives shouldn’t be allowed to have it both ways.