A few weeks ago, I read an article by Jonathan Calder, a prominent Lib Dem blogger, entitled “The mysterious Darren Grimes“. It was about how Darren Grimes, head of BeLeave, the now infamous organisation at the centre of the Vote Leave Electoral Commission investigation, was not all that long ago a declared Lib Dem. In fact, as Jonathan’s article points out, Grimes worked alongside Mark Gettleson and Christopher Wylie, both later to work on Vote Leave themselves, on Norman Lamb’s leadership campaign in 2015. Jonathan ends the article by declaring that “It’s all very mysterious.” Except, having thought about it a little, I don’t think it’s mysterious at all, but rather logical. It gets to the heart of why the Lib Dems cannot rebuild as they are at present.
One reason why Grimes, Wylie, etc might have drifted away from the Lib Dems over the past few years that needs to be got out of the way first is that the party has drifted to the left on a humorous scale since the 2015 general election. My twitter timeline is often taken up these days with Lib Dems asking why if Labour can be “forgiven” for Iraq, why can’t the Lib Dems be “forgiven” for things like the Health and Social Care Act. A lot of Lib Dems are seemingly so desperate for the Left to pardon them for their coalition “sins”, something I don’t think will ever happen. Anyhow, whether it will or it won’t, the point here is that if you were someone who liked the party because of the coalition, then the post-2015 Lib Dems are fairly unappealing. As the only unquestionably pro-European party they pick up a lot of points, but it still isn’t enough to overlook the policy stuff that even Corbyn would deem overly Trotskyist. Given all the names mentioned worked on Lamb’s campaign, which in retrospect was a fight for the future and soul of the Liberal Democrat party, I can imagine they would have been amongst the cohort put off by the “let’s be the pro-EU faction of the Corbyn revolution” direction of travel post-summer 2015.
However, there is something much more key to this, I believe. The Lib Dems as a party are, and have always been, in all my experience in and around the party, very, very, very bad at understanding that political parties need different categories of people in order to make them function effectively as political machines capable of gaining large numbers of votes. The Lib Dems tend to fetishise leaflet dropping and street-level activism way beyond anything else, and to ignore people who drift into the party who don’t have the same fetish. Now, don’t get me wrong, every party needs leaflet droppers, and one of the Lib Dems continued strengths has been how many committed activists it has on the ground. However, it is far from enough to make a party really work. You need people who are backroom strategy types; you need ideas people, those who can write about politics and those who can do real policy work; you need people who are desperately ambitious to make a difference in front line politics. The Lib Dems tend to, in my direct experience, allow these kinds of people to float out of the party as it just cannot recognise their importance. In the case of Darren Grimes and co, this had a direct impact on something the Lib Dems care about more than almost anything else, namely Britain’s membership of the European Union. The vote, as we all know, was pretty close, and the ex-Lib Dem contingent mentioned already surely made a difference, given their work on the Leave campaign. They might have made just enough difference, if you know what I mean. Imagine if they had managed to find a niche within the Liberal Democrats instead, how all of British politics might be different.
I can completely see how someone like Darren Grimes might have got sucked into the Tory orbit, having worked with many Conservatives myself in recent years. They can make you feel wanted, like you’re someone who has a skill they really need. The Tories are good at recognising talent, recruiting it into its ranks and then developing it. The Lib Dems, meanwhile, don’t even understand that this is a thing that political parties need to be good at.
I liken it to a kid who grew up near Upton Park whose dream since he was a small lad was to play for West Ham United. Turns out he’s very good at football, and he tries to get into the West Ham system. But at every crucial junction, he keeps being told that somehow he’s not quite right; that he doesn’t quite fit in with the West Ham way of doing things. But he keeps training and one day Chelsea start to take an interest. He enters the Chelsea system, making it into their B team and then even into their A team, the whole time still thinking and hoping that West Ham will notice and realise they missed a winner. But West Ham still aren’t interested. Chelsea make a huge salary offer and tell the lad they want him to be in the starting eleven next season. The kid gives up the West Ham dream, finally, and signs for the bigger club.
I’ve never met Darren Grimes and I’ve spoken to Christopher Wylie all of 20 seconds in my life (at 2012 Lib Dem spring conference, natch), but I reckon there’s probably something of the West Ham-Chelsea analogy in why they went from working on Norman Lamb’s leadership campaign to being central to a campaign to help Britain leave the European Union. If the Lib Dems want to understand why they can’t seem to get out of neutral, I think there are some lessons for the party to learn here. I take on board the fact that the Lib Dems have far less largesse to distribute than the Conservatives or even the Labour Party. The problem is, I get the feeling that even if someone came along and gave the Liberal Democrats £30 million, they’d spend it all on leaflets.
I fail to find enough coherence in this piece. It is one thing being ‘sucked in’ to the Conservative Party, but quite another to be pro Brexit. That is the part that does not work in your narrative.
It is possible that some ultra free market types with a liberal outlook on some social matters might have been drawn to Lib Dems. Amongst whom would be idealistic fantasists who dream of world wide free markets (in which nobody cheats). There will be few and far between: research studies show that Lib Dem members are overwhelmingly anti Brexit so Grimes has to be atypical.
You can exaggerate the leftward drift, more to the point are the Lib Dems who buy into the Labour activist portrayal of Liberal Democrats. They take the phoenix symbolism too literally and are intent on becoming the ashes.
Tom Papworth says
“research studies show that Lib Dem members are overwhelmingly anti Brexit”
That’s rather self-fulfiling though. IIRC somewhere between a quarter and a third of Lib Dem 2015 voters also voted for Brexit. If the Lib Dems are as good at deterring members as Nick suggests, that might explain the disparity between those two statistics.
Alex Macfie says
Sorry but how on earth can Lib Dems be “pro-EU faction of the Corbyn revolution”, even if such a thing were possible? Party spokespeople, from Vince downwards, are frequently critical of Labour and Jeremy Corbyn, who therefore accuse us of being too pro-Tory. This is, of course, utter nonsense, as we criticise the Tories far more (naturally, as the Tories are the party in government), but it is absurd to accuse Lib Dems of being overly friendly towards Labour at this time.
And if you liked the Lib Dems because of the Coalition, well I have news for you: the Coalition was a mainly Tory endeavour. The Lib Dems injected a shot of liberal ideas into what was essentially a Tory-led government. This is not a criticism; with the Tories having 5/6 of the seats in Parliament, and the Lib Dems 1/6, of course the Tories were going to call most of the shots: this is the inevitability of being a junior coalition partner. So what happened in the Coalition was, roughly, 5/6 Tory policy, and if it was generating the sort of government you actually liked, the logical step would be to support the Tories, to make sure that not too much of the left-wing stuff that the Lib Dems passed at their Party Conference got into the government programme. Unfortunately, the Lib Dem leadership at the time (Clegg & co) gave the impression that it was a partnership of equals, such that about what the Coalition government implemented was actually about 50% Lib Dem policy. Maybe this misled people like Darren Grimes into thinking they would fit into the Lib Dems. He went over to the Tories after he discovered that actually the Tories are the natural political home for someone with views such as his. As far as most Lib Dems are concerned, the Tories are welcome to him. Nothing to do with talent at all; I’m sure the Lib Dems are also happy to develop talent of people they find useful.
Tuition fees are nothing like as big an issue for the Lib Dems now as you seem to think they are. Those voters for whom it remains an issue are principally the ones I call “Iraq War Lib Dems”, left-wing voters who usually vote Labour but lent their votes to us because of our stance on the Iraq War — our reasoned opposition to that specific military campaign happening to fit in with their knee-jerk anti-militarism. They are not natural Lib Dem voters, and are certainly not going to vote for us while Labour is led by Corbyn and his poshboy revolutionaries. In that sense, they’re back to their traditional thinking, that “a Liberal (or Lib Dem) is a yellow Tory”. However, this year’s local election results in places like Haringey show that mainstream centre-left voters put off by Corbyn’s extreme left-wing politics are willing to vote Lib Dem once again, after the Coalition drove them to Labour.
Finally, the main reason we struggle in the national polls is that the mainstream media tend to ignore us, having decided that we’re back to two-party politics and Lib Dems no longer matter. We, the Lib Dems, focus (pun intended) on leaflets because local campaigning is the most effective way of getting our message heard, and in our FPTP system, achieving local success makes a lot more of a difference than getting a small rise in the national opinion polls, which is useless if this is going to be evenly distributed everywhere.
Mark Pack says
I think you miss the point Nick that Darren Grimes wasn’t a Lib Dem; he was (and is) a libertarian with many views deeply at odds with the Lib Dems. The question isn’t whether we should reget his departure. Rather it’s about why someone with so many views at odds with the party felt it was the right party to join in the first place – https://www.markpack.org.uk/155317/darren-grimes-libdem-member/
While I’m not going to die in a ditch arguing Grimes was or was not really a Lib Dem, I will only re-iterate my point that I don’t think the LDs are a broad enough church at present, and this why the poll ratings won’t budge. It strikes me that the party wants to inherit those who feel politically homeless due to Corbyn/Brexit; the fact that it isn’t doing so should be cause for serious reflection.
Alex Macfie says
Nick: Our national poll ratings largely reflect the fact that the media tends to ignore us, and therefore, voters in most parts of the country have forgotten we even exist. Our success in by-elections, and in regular local elections in areas where we are campaign, shows that where people are aware of us as an option they are willing to consider us.
Laurence Cox says
I’m not going to comment on your assessment of Grimes et al, not knowing them, but there is a valid point that you make that is ignored by the other commenters and that is that the Party does not make good use of all its volunteers. If you want to be an MP there is a whole structured training programme and ALDC provides support for councillors, but if you want to be an Agent or Organiser there is nothing apart from the Agent’s Manual (the Agents and Organisers SAO died some years ago because of lack of interest). Similarly, policy development is opaque; one can apply to be on a policy working group but there is no transparency about who has been chosen by HQ or about their deliberations until the policy paper appears in the Conference Agenda, at which time it is too late to make anything other than minor amendments.