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.