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.