With Ed Davey’s ascension to the leadership of the Liberal Democrats comes the question of what the party’s exact position on Brexit should be from here on out. Clearly, the Lib Dems are not in any danger of becoming some pro-Brexit outfit; yet there is still some doubt as to what the yellows should do with this subject. Everyone in and around the Lib Dems feels burned by the revoke policy and some wonder whether it’s time to just stop talking about Brexit altogether.
I think doing so would be a mistake. The Lib Dems need easy to understand points of differentiation with the two main parties that aren’t alien to most voters. Being “more green” isn’t going to cut it; going on about electoral reform will certainly not demonstrate that the Lib Dems are “listening”, as Davey put it in his acceptance speech. I think there are only two things the Lib Dems can do to make themselves stand out. One is their stance on Brexit – but to be clear, it has to be handled in a very different way than it has up until now, which I will elaborate on in a moment. The other is pro-business positioning. What’s great here is that those two things are easily combinable. Get the mixture right and the Lib Dems have a chance to be relevant again. Yet I need to stress here that it will be tough and require an ability to think outside of the box not seen in the party for several years.
I’ll start with being pro-business because it’s easier to talk about Brexit positioning once that’s out of the way. By being pro-business, I do not mean being against any forms of social democracy or thinking any and all regulation is bad or that corporation tax should be abolished. To think that being pro-business must entail these things just demonstrates that you don’t know anything about business. Since the end of the Coalition period, the Lib Dems keep saying they are the most pro-business party without having any actual policies to which businesses would respond positively. I won’t take the time to go into what pro-business policies would be good for the Liberal Democrats to adopt here – that would require a whole other, long article, one I will write someday soon – but they need to get the business community taking them seriously. Again, to stress, this will be very difficult and may not even be possible after the monumental screw ups of the last year or so. But if the party can’t pull this off, I don’t know where it has to go.
Being pro-business would allow the Lib Dems to adopt an angle on Brexit that might work for them much better than any of the other approaches on the topic to date. During the 2016-2019 period, anti-Brexit sentiment was almost always expressed in the most left-wing way possible, by pretty much all pro-European voices. It was about holding hands around the blue and gold flag, singing “Kumbaya” and hoping for a socialist wonderland to emerge from Euro federalism. I’m exaggerating here for effect, but it’s striking how little hyperbole I am having to utilise in that description. The Lib Dems talking instead about the effect of Brexit on both businesses and their employees (i.e. everyone who isn’t a child, a pensioner or unemployed in the country) as it unfolds in real time could be very effective. It’s about having something to say on Brexit that makes life difficult for the Tories; something that isolates them from some vital part of their base, such as the business community.
Business has mostly been abandoned by the Conservatives since the EU referendum came and went. The Tory attitude has been “We’re the only game in town, so who else are you going to support?” With a Corbynite Labour Party and a Liberal Democrat party trying unsuccessfully to pretend they were never in government with the Tories, this has worked. Unless a party comes along and threatens their business base, the Conservatives will be able to continue playing this game forever. Starmer’s Labour I suspect will try to win over the business community at some point in earnest; ironic given Lib Dem activists moan about the legacy of the Coalition all the time, here’s where the supposed baggage of that government becomes a plus for the Lib Dems, particularly over Labour.
Often when I’ve said the Lib Dems could stand to be a little more centre-right in some areas, I’ve got back that this supposedly means that I’m saying the Lib Dems should “become the Tories”. But I have never said anything of the kind. What I’m trying to communicate is that the Lib Dems should be trying to steal political geography that the Conservative Party has abandoned while remaining a liberal party. If the Tories have turned their backs on business, demonstrate that there is an alternative. A level-headed, Brexit-regretting, pro-business, pro-aspiration Lib Dem party could fill this void if its pitch was convincing enough, i.e. if it was clear the party really meant what it was saying.
I will conclude by saying I don’t really expect any of this to happen. Even with Ed getting the nod over Layla, I still worry the Lib Dems have still gone way too far down the “let’s pretend the last fifteen years didn’t happen (particularly the Coalition) and protest the Iraq War again” road to come back to sanity. But I’ll only say this to Lib Dem activists who want to kick the Tories out of office: whether that happens or not may come down to the Lib Dems being appealing enough to people who live in key seats and have voted Tory the last few elections opting to vote Lib Dem next time round. There are several ways what happens to the Lib Dems may not be that vital in the end – Labour could become so popular and poll so high that like 1997, they don’t need the Lib Dems. Yet if you’re in the Liberal Democrats and hoping the party gets to be part of some Keir Starmer led government, it fails me how you cannot see that being a carbon copy of Starmer’s Labour with some Green-esque quirks thrown in will not work. Unless the Lib Dems can gets votes from Tory-leaning voters, they will fail as badly at the next election as they have at the last three general elections.
I have a book out now called “Politics is Murder”. It follows the tale of a woman named Charlotte working at a failing think tank who has got ahead in her career in a novel way – she is a serial killer. One day, the police turn up at her door and tell her she is a suspect in a murder – only thing is, it is one she had nothing to do with. There is also a plot against the Foreign Secretary and some gangsters thrown into the mix while Charlotte tries to find out who is trying to frame her for a murder she didn’t commit.
Also: there is a subplot around the government trying to built a stupid bridge, which now seems a charming echo of a more innocent time!
The phoenix says
I think its all over for the liberal party
The coalition years and Davey can dance on a pin
Being pro business is the starmer way
Starmer has obliterated the Corbyn wing in 4 months making soft tories open to Labour not Nick Clegg s mate
Incompetence and homeless brexit will fuel labour to centre ground victory against the Boris tea Party jingo Titanic
Dave Chapman says
There’s a problem when politicians insist they’re going to ‘listen’ to the electorate in order to place their policy base. It fails when the first hurdle is encountered where the same electorate say something which is going to run directly counter to traditional party policy or intent.
For a good example, I’ll quote Nick Clegg from a little prior to the General Election of 2015.
….’even in the past when we were popular we’ve always struggled to sell our pro-EU message to a sceptical electorate’…
There’s a level of self-delusion in that comment behind which there was an unguarded Party flank. If the leader of a party prior to a General Election concedes a major policy is not accepted by the electorate, then that party cannot complain when that policy is rejected by the same electorate – in particular where clear evidence of potential failure was in possession of that leadership well in advance.
What the LibDems SHOULD have done back then is to first engage properly in some serious self-awareness lessons. The broadest majority of the electorate weren’t obsessed with Clegg’s stance over student fees, neither were they over making their own home heating bills more expensive by exponential degree in worship of green dogma. It seemed the LibDems believed all they had to do is find a different way of talking the same failed putative policies to the public who insisted on rejecting them in ever-greater number. Then blaming that guaranteed failure on the press and on FPTP. I would observe in my limited opinion that illustrates the LibDems in conduct from 2015 to date under all successive leaders.
Right now, both the Conservatives and Labour are in exceptionally weak positions – no matter the polls. Johnson is spent and is drifting to the rocks, the party behind him convinced he is a fine navigator. Starmer is the eponymous one-eyed man in the land of the blind where his party is concerned – little more than a Chimp’s Tea-Party of various loons of one kind or another.
Politics is a contact sport. Both parties would be happy to bury the LibDems and thus far those same LibDems have been happy to dig their grave for them. The fundamentals are covering your own exposed flanks and attacking the weak flanks of the enemy. It really is that simple. Go for EEA\EFTA membership, with a proficient and tightly-defined variant of what FoM will mean. (That will also mean the party has to get its hands dirty with a credible reaction to the levels currently seen of illegal immigration – in parallel the associated courage to concede that it’s ‘Illegal immigration’) Other single market members manage a far more strict interpretation than the UK ever bothered with.
That will bring business that need that consistency on-side, will cover your own weak area, expose the empty spaces Labour and Conservatives alike have vacated. The goalposts really are that wide apart at the moment. It only needs the fundamental willpower to put the ball between the posts right now.
Andy McGregor says
A couple of quick comments.
1. LibDems are a party with localism at our core. That should apply to any business policy. We should not only help large, or even multi-national business where it harms local ones.
2. Listening is vital but we must not shy away from telling some hard truths to the electorate. Basically you can’t have Scandinavian levels os social services and sense of community with USA levels of tax.
Just telling people what they want to hear to gain their votes is not Leadership, nor a sustainable long term strategy.
The phoenix says
Starmer has wiped out a 26 per cent tory lead since April
Tell me where the liberals are going on 6 per cent
Answers on a postcard anyone
Matt (Bristol) says
You’re doing a good job of persuading me to give up on the Lib Dems, join Labour, ignore the nonsense rhetoric of the left and Unions, and push within it for a pro-European policy, civil liberties, more devolution, cooperativism and electoral reform and less centralisation of the party. I don’t know how far that will set of ideas will travel, though.
“and push within it for a pro-European policy, civil liberties, more devolution, cooperativism and electoral reform and less centralisation”
– Good luck with that; I suppose you might get a little bit from one or two of those, but really no more than you once might have got from the Conservatives.
Nonetheless, you have a point. Almost incredibly, the Lib Dems stand in danger of Labour stealing a march on them on Brexit. It is as though the Lib Dem leadership (there was no difference between either candidate) is waiting for Starmer to take a lead.
Peter Fane says
Being pro-business includes protecting business from the worst effects of Brexit. The Tories used to support the single market and access to the European market for services too, no longer. Many who voted Conservative at the last election because they saw no credible or acceptable alternative, even those who voted to leave the EU, would recognise the benefits of remaining a member of the single market. After all, Margaret Thatcher was partly responsible for initiating it and it remains the crowning achievement of UK’s period in membership.
As we know from the Government Economics Service assessments for ministers, and from so many other studies, remaining in the EEA (still an option M Barnier will hold open to the end of transition) and therefore in the single market remains an option for GB.
In addition to benefitting the economy and protecting jobs, this restores freedom of movement rights to U.K. citizens in 30 European countries and protects the rights of EEA citizens in U.K. It is also a long-term transition back to full EU membership sometime in the next twenty years or so.
Hi Nick –
Just discovered your website and enjoying your takes on the future prospects of the LDs. I wanted to propose two ideas for future articles/posts, as I’d really welcome your analysis.
1. What do you think of the latest SLF report? Particularly the frank admission that “there is no such thing as a core LD vote at the present”; “the LDs continue to lack a clear definition of what they are” and the seeming paradox of the “social liberal” faction of the party urging the leadership to chase soft Tory votes and make patriotic/security noises.
[full disclosure no. 1: I work with, and highly respect, one of the report’s co-authors / full disclosure no. 2: I viscerally hate the Lib Dems]
2. Under which scenarios could the Lib Dems actually be destroyed? Would zero MPs at the next election be enough? Would they have to go broke? Abolition of district councils / general gerrymandering? Mass defection of members because of some controversy (a la Labour anti-semitism)? What would it take for the institutional inertia that keeps them going to finally dissipate? It feels like people have been predicting their imminent demise, and diagnosing their essential futility, for ages now – but what would be the path to them actually disappearing?