In the immediate wake of the general election in December, I wrote a long piece about what I thought had gone wrong for the Lib Dems in a campaign they entered with massive hopes, only to end up losing net one seat. Last week, I wrote three pieces detailing the only space I feel the Lib Dems can electorally occupy and be successful. The responses to the four articles have been extremely interesting and helped me develop my thoughts on all of this. It has led me to understand a deeper problem the Lib Dems have as a party that I have previously never been able to articulate.
I think the biggest issue facing the Lib Dems, one that I think feeds into all the others and was really why the general election campaign was so bad, is that the party has a culture that is way, way too insular. The Lib Dems, I believe, are a lot more of a bubble than the two major parties. Yes, the Tories and the Labour Party have insularity problems of their own, as evidenced by Corbyn becoming leader, losing the last election very badly and the subsequent inability for much of the party to come to terms with why that happened. Yet what might save the Labour Party in the end is that it remains a reasonably large tent, as does the Conservative party, which at least gives them a chance to evolve into something more suited to the current electoral climate and win again.
Then I think: hold on, the Lib Dems are a weirdly broad tent themselves. You have everyone from people who wouldn’t really be all that uncomfortable on the Corbyn left mixed in with proper right of centre libertarians. But the way this plays out within the party, it doesn’t work as a big tent should, or at least, does within the two main parties. Perhaps this is a size issue, but in the Lib Dems I notice that instead of there being a substance-led ideological war between the different parts of the party, all of whom believe in wildly different things most of which are mutually exclusive, the Lib Dems just unite around the stuff they agree on and that becomes what the party is about. So, Brexit being bad (but not why exactly), electoral reform, legalising cannabis. Where all of the bread and butter stuff should be is either nothing, something vague, or on occasion, something pretty bad because no one can bother to have a fight with the process.
Although there has always been an element of this within the Lib Dems, going back to the merger, I think it got massively worse post-2015 election. In some ways, I can understand why – the party tried to engage with wider British politics and ended up getting decimated as a direct result. Yet the culture this has created led to the party not being able to take advantage of the defections from both main parties when they happened, as well as the general election campaign being so poor.
I thought the defectors would change the culture of the Lib Dems enough for the party to evolve a bit out of its 2015 shell, but no; they sort of got absorbed into the blob. Instead of the 2019 general election campaign being a celebration of a new, electable Lib Dems it was just a relaunch of Farron-era stuff sans the gay sin material. It was this inability to see how others see the party – what they like about it, what they don’t like about it – that made the general election campaign and its result inevitable.
The problem with having this as the Lib Dems’ major problem is that by its very nature it is almost impossible to fix. If a sudden influx of outsiders couldn’t shift the culture even a millimetre, it’s hard to know what could. I can already hear the responses to this article from many Lib Dems: what insularity problem? I don’t see it! Yes, you don’t see the problem – which is the problem.