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.
Dave Chapman says
To me the LibDems seem like the propulsive force behind them is resident in Groundhog Day. The reasons for that are probably complex but I suspect as you do yourself the complexity horizons lies outside what the Party itself is prepared to acknowledge. I would say one thing is crystal clear. No ‘one last push’ will win that party the next General Election. Fighting in five years on a closely similar prospectus will be highly likely to return the same electoral result.
To me – as a non-LibDem voter – it often seems like a kind of circular showjumping circuit. A horse with a blinker on only one side which keeps refusing hurdles and passing to one side of them. Time and again, voting day after voting day I see the same self-justified excuses for losing. ‘It’s FPTP’, ‘it was compromises in Coalition’, ‘we didn’t get our message across (*), etc, etc, ad infinitum. That begins to look like a comfort zone. That as a party, it’s easier to refuse the hurdles than to do what it takes to clear them.
To take one of those excuses as an example * ‘We didn’t get our message across’; that seems to be a universal constant. Either as a party they’re uniquely incapable of communicating with the electorate or…
…would that party be prepared – even as an exercise in hypothetical consideration – to seriously consider the possibility that message, those messages, have been rejected? Is that a form of courage not yet in the Party remit?
The phoenix says
Have you noticed something truly awful for the liberal party which points to there being no way back
Coalition with the conservative party
Lloyd george lib con coalition led to destruction of the liberals for 100 years
Replaced by the labour party
Could the second historical mistake of 2010 to 15 be another 100 year death spiral
Nick clegg such a polite man
But has he killed the party
On ‘the defectors’, the problem is that they did not bring enough people with them. The other issue is whether they are staying with the Party. Although they are more social democrats than Liberals, I could see Chuka Umanna, Sam Gyimah, perhaps Sarah Wollaston having very influential roles. It is a very big problem for the Party is that it lacks ‘big hitters’.
Paddy Ashdown who in turn delighted and infuriated the membership was a self-made big hitter alongside whom it was useful to have Charlie Kennedy as a maverick; Ming Campbell a middle rank hitter, Vince Cable counted as a big hitter.
Ed Davey is the nearest to a hitter of any rank amongst LD MPs, yet too many strident voices want to discount him because of his status as a former minister. Is this your point Nick?
One problem is the tension between Liberals and social democrats. Both factions can easily agree on several issues, but not necessarily on the analysis that arrives at positions on these issues.
Nick Tyrone: I do not even know whether your analyses are fundamentally Liberal or social democrat. In terms of the future of the Party, there is an asymmetry in that whilst social democrat standpoints can potentially be (and in the past have been) subsumed into Labour and Conservative, the Liberal position stands apart: Liberals do not really have an alternative to carving out their own niche. None of this matters much when the Party aspires to a role in government, however, at the moment this aspiration is in question and it is not easily resolved, because it is self evident that a party that has a small core of support, that is heavily dependent on tactical and protest votes will massively lose support the moment it becomes involved with government.
Nic Wells says
The ex-labour and ex-Tory MPs who fought seats for the LibDems simply didn’t have time from the point of joining to exert any influence on policy before the election. I really hope they stick with us and bring new thinking to policy making going forward.