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.