At the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton last weekend, I spoke at an event about Lib Dem campaigning. Now, the Lib Dems are an optimistic (some meaner people might use the word delusional) bunch when it comes to the future of their party, so I think I ruffled some feathers with what I had to say. Which was essentially the following.
The Lib Dems problem isn’t really tuition fees or the fact that they were in government with the Tories – those things don’t help, but they aren’t the root problem for the party’s inability to capitalise in the polls despite Brexit and Labour’s meltdown. It has more to do with this: no one, including Lib Dems themselves, really know what the party stands for.
To add to this problem, there are two directions the party could go in, and they are often treated as being the same thing within the Lib Dems despite being very, very different.
They could become a properly liberal party, trying to pick off swing voters and Tories who are annoyed about Brexit, grammar schools, what might generally be called “Philip Davies style Conservatism”. So you’re basically trying a centre-right approach. Socially liberal (to an extreme even), trying to sell itself as the true pro-business party by taking advantage of the fact that large business was anti-Brexit, low taxation, actually being vocally proud of some of the thing the Coalition achieved that were not necessarily Lib Dem originated, like free schools. If the Lib Dems could be this convincingly, there would be a space for them in British politics. The party sort of tries to be this a bit (there was a line in Farron’s speech about the Tories and their pro-business credentials being hit by Brexit), but then it all comes unstuck as everything else sounds too soggy left to make this an effective pitch to the target crowd.
The other path is centrism. Now, many Lib Dems think of liberalism and centrism as the same thing when they are patently not. Allow me to demonstrate. Several things that serve as a bridge between the Tory left and the Labour right are a love of large scale infrastructure projects, like HS2; an interventionist foreign policy; a desire to emphasise security over privacy when it comes to things like the “Snoopers charter”. On all of these, the Lib Dems are on the opposite side to the centrist stream of thinking.
So basically, the Lib Dems don’t sound liberal enough for the small “l” liberals who might be persuaded to back the party due to being upset by where May is taking the Tories, but also not centrist enough to attract moderate Labour voters who want to escape the sinking Corbyn ship.
Now, there might be a way to do both effectively and attract both sets of voters. But the Lib Dems would have to come way out of their comfort zone to achieve that. From what I saw in Brighton, that looks unlikely any time soon.
I suspect Labour will just grin and bear Corbyn until his supporters get bored, the Lib Dems will be unable to break through under FPTP and eventually we’ll get back to the point where the Conservatives collapse under their own weight around the same time Labour reluctantly lets a centrist lead it again. If there was a UK equivalent of the Democratic Party, it would do very well, but I’m not sure the Lib Dems could be it.
Do you have polling data to back up your assertion more voters want a centre-right liberalism? David Howarth has done a lot of work with the BES data to show that the natural and historic centre/centre-left social liberal position of the party is more viable electorally.
Interesting ideas, Nick.
Yes, “liberal” to me doesn’t ,mean large infrastructure projects and centralised security to me. “Liberal” to me means less interference in people’s lives, which might lead it to support things like same-sex marriage, legalising narcotics and low taxation. Indeed that’s more aligned to what I might read on the Adam Smith Institute website than on LibDem Voice.
I guess the key difference is the “democrat” part, which as I understand it gives a role to state projects like big infrastructure, NHS and education including the scope for higher taxation. The reason being that if that’s what people want, that’s what they get, regardless of what a “liberal” minority might prefer.
In which case I’m trying to reconcile “liberal” and “democrat” together. When I think of what axes these might place the LibDems oat one end of is: entrepreneurism versus corporatism; market economy versus nationalised economy and; opportunity versus inequality. (The latter recognising that some people really don’t want to help themselves). All these things I can support.
That leaves the EU. I can see no reason why the LibDems need to be tied to the EU. I voted Remain but am now at the stage where I think Brexit is inevitable and I want my politicians to do the best job they can to look after our interests regarding relations with our neighbours. On this and other related issues, I think the LibDems would do better to take a pragmatic line and accept that liberalism means giving people a choice. I would say the same about Scottish Independence, federalism, plurality in health and education and certainly not to get hijacked by the green lobby or any other special interest group. If it becomes the Remain equivalent of UKIP, it loses its appeal regarding other issues that Labour and Conservatives tear themselves apart over.
Here’s one of the studies I mentioned above:
“On the basis of answers to several such questions, together with counting voters who strongly object to immigration as not-so-tolerant-and-open regardless of their other answers, we can estimate the tolerant and open section of the electorate at about 38%.”
“If we look at the 38% of the electorate that looks tolerant and open and consider their economic views, about a fifth put themselves right of centre on whether the government should redistribute incomes, about a fifth are centrists and three fifths are left of centre, of whom one in three are very strongly in favour of redistribution and two out of three somewhat in favour. Similarly on questions about privatisation, nationalisation and tax and spend, the median tolerant and open voter is on the centre-left.”
Ultimately if there is to be a liberal revival, it will be built around a core vote on the centre-left.
Paul Holmes says
The so called ‘proper Liberal’ approach was tried and was an absolute disaster in 2011,2012,2013,2014 and 2015.
‘Proper Liberal’ Parties such as the FDP in Germany can get some politicians elected and live in semi permanent coalition on 5-10% of the vote because countries like Germany use PR for their elections. I would never have been over the last 33 years/would be in the future, a member of such a ‘proper Liberal’ Party.
I seem to recall that during the Coalition years the LD leadership were deemed to be chasing a right of centre electorate,which in the eyes of many seasoned Party campaigners didn’t exist.Difficult not to conclude that the campaigners were proved right.
I’m surprised at Adam’s view on the LD ‘s EU stance I see nothing in it which precludes striving for the best deal possible,they’re merely suggesting that such a deal ought to be put to the electorate when it’s been determined or giving people a choice if you prefer.
Finally Tim Farron made a fine speech at conference,some of it,(eg on refugees), would have made remarkable TV.The main news on BBC1 devoted precisely 30 seconds to the conference and failed to show any details from the speech.Frankly unless you search for media coverage of the LD’s by and large you wont see very much, and often when you do it’s asking why the LD’s can’t break through.So maybe the answer you’re looking for lies a little closer to home?
Matt (Bristol) says
I don’t want to contradict your points, but you seem to leave completely off the table the further-complicating option of becoming a socially liberal, devolutionist, centre-left party.
Labour isn’t offering this, and Blair’s centrism when he tried it drew him to more authoritarian modes. The Greens aren’t managing it either. There is (unless some kind of David-Milibandist neo-SDP movement really does get going and rejects authoritarianism) a gap in the market for this, too.
I know this is tribalist to an extent but I’m also not overly chuffed about your labelling the centre-right option as ‘properly liberal’. It is AN authentic liberal option, arguably, but THE only ‘properly liberal’ option? Nah.
Geoffrey Payne says
Surely the Tory interest in Grammer schools shows that the policy of Free Schools and Academies was really nothing special and thats why now the Tories want to move on to something else? At the end of the Coalition I really wondered what the Lib Dems could actually do in a second term of a Coalition. The only thing left for them to do was to stop the Tories going mad. At least they would have done that, but as in the first term the electorate will not notice. What is it today that the Lib Dems could hope to get from a Coalition with the Tories compared to that of Labour?
The Lib Dems have already moved to a left of centre position without the membership particularly noticing. There is no where else for it to go.