I have by chance spoken to a few Lib Dems over the past fortnight about the state of the party and what they see, if any, as the chances of recovery. The answer I got back, in slightly different forms, went something like this: the Lib Dem activists and most of the parliamentary party see themselves as closer to Labour than the Tories. Given this, the party needs to reconnect with “progressive” voters and win them back, particularly in Tory-Lib marginals.
I am usually then given examples of Tory-held seats in which if everyone who voted Labour in 2019 had voted Lib Dem, the Lib Dems would hold the seat. They then ask: how do we get these people to see that voting Lib Dem in these seats is the only way to stop the Tories winning the next general election?
There are numerous problems with this theory and I will begin with the basics. Imagine the Lib Dems manage to convince everyone that they are Labour’s little cousin again and that a vote for the LDs is a vote against a Tory majority. This will be tricky in and of itself, which I’ll come onto, but for now just imagine that they have managed this. What about all those people who vote Lib Dem in these places who don’t like the Labour party, yet also don’t like the Tories and see the Lib Dems as a genuinely centrist option? Or what about those who see the LDs as the none of the above pick? What I’m saying here is, whatever you gain from the Labour voters with this strategy, you might lose the other way – and possibly in bigger numbers. Also, Labour have a hardcore vote; people who still, even after Corbyn, would only ever vote Labour, no matter what. It is thus debatable how much of the Labour vote is actually available.
I would also point out that just because the Lib Dems are running in a Tory-Lib marginal, this does not mean that being more left-wing in these seats will help you win them. In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that in some of these seats at the very least, this is definitely not the case. Look at Taunton Deane. Now a very safe Tory seat, it was held by Jeremy Browne between 2005 (when it was the slightly different Taunton constituency) until 2015. Browne won and held the seat with what I would describe as a “nice kind of Tory” approach. He was Toryish both culturally (he fit in well at the rugby club) and on economic issues, but was socially liberal. This worked there. Or David Laws in Yeovil, another seat which is now becoming a safe Tory constituency (a 16,000 majority at the 2019 general election). In fact, in a lot of old Lib Dem seats in the southwest there is a very strong anti-Labour vibe. Being Labour’s friend will surely make the Lib Dems incur an electoral penalty of some significance in these seats? And they are the ones the Lib Dems came second in at the 2019 GE, so these are the target constituencies.
Yet even if convincing those who see themselves as on the centre-left to vote LD at the risk of alienating centre-right voters is in fact the right solution to the Lib Dems’ electoral woes, the next problem comes in trying to convince this cohort to plump for the Lib Dems at all. Many Liberal Democrat activists said they had huge problems on the doorstep because Jeremy Corbyn was so electorally toxic; many voters didn’t feel they could risk Corbyn becoming PM and so they voted Tory. Again, this suggests that going full-fat Labour-friend has electoral issues all on its own – if a lot of their potential electorate would vote Tory to avoid Corbyn, it surely suggests that being seen as too Tory with these voters isn’t the issue? – but let’s park that for now. The Lib Dems other major doorstep headache in the December election was that centre-left voters liked the party’s Brexit position, often much more than Labour’s, but couldn’t forgive the coalition years.
In order to get these voters to finally let go of coalition anger and see the Lib Dems as part of their centre-left tribe, I can see only one possible solution: have every Lib Dem spokesperson who gets a media slot for the next four years say over and over again that if there was another hung parliament, the Lib Dems would never, under any circumstances, go into government with the Tories and would only ever try and form a government with Labour. I think four years of that and it might get through in time for the next general election. I want to stress the word “might” here; it is possible that nothing would work. That’s at the very least what it would take though – relentless message discipline, every Lib Dems saying the Labour-friendly line until they want to puke. Again, I don’t think this is a good idea because I don’t think the strategy is sound. But I’m saying that if you wanted to pursue this strategy, that’s what it would take.
To give you my own, very personal view on the strategy: I have voted Lib Dem at every general election I have ever voted in. Usually out of dislike of the two main parties and all of the other minor parties more than anything else. Yet if the Lib Dems decided to paint themselves as “Labour-lite”, weirdly the thing it might do more than anything else is convince me to vote Labour. I don’t mind if Keir is boring, and if it comes down to a choice between the Tories and their Brexit bungling or the Lib Dems who have made themselves a sort of non-party, why not vote Labour?
I think I have a better idea. In a political climate where it looks like we might have a dull Labour party plagued with in-fighting and a Conservative party about to do something very stupid with Brexit, we could have a Lib Dem party that has its own voice and a new, bold policy prospectus. I think voters are crying out for choice and by deciding not to give it to them, I don’t understand why the Lib Dems should even continue to exist. If the LDs simply want to help create a Labour government, why not just melt into the Labour party completely? What is the point of the party if it exists only to serve a larger party that is already there and is only impeded by the existence of a third-party trying to snatch their voters? I’ll leave that with you.