Over this past week, I have written a couple of articles about the direction I believe the Lib Dems need to take if they wish to become electorally relevant again in the near future. To summarise and simplify, I said the party needed to move to the right and become more pro-business in order to do this. I used the word “Orange Book”, which I realises triggers many Lib Dems, so I want to elaborate on what I meant. This is mostly based on responses to the articles that I have had, in the hundreds verging on thousands already, some of which seem to be based on misconceptions.
To start with the basics: when I said the Lib Dems should move to the right, I did not mean the party should ape the Tories. Nor did I say the party should help the Tories instead of Labour, whatever that would mean in practice. What I am proposing would hurt the Tories, possibly more than any other party could in the current climate. What I have suggested would take votes away from the Conservative party in seats they need to hang onto in reasonable numbers. In fact, taken to its nth degree, my plan would split the Conservative party, driving a wedge between the liberals and the nationalists in that party once and for all. So, again, I am not saying the Lib Dems need to be anything like the Tories or be looking to help the Conservatives achieve power at the expense of the Labour Party. Surely if you’re a Lib Dem, you want the Liberal Democrats to succeed as your aim and not prefer either of the two main parties? Wouldn’t you like the Lib Dems to become one of the two main parties? I’ll leave that with you.
No, what I am suggesting is that in some ways, the Lib Dems need to move to the right because the party as it stands is too left-wing for its target electorate. Many of you will disagree with me, but I’ll try and break this down as best I can. In terms of being pro-business, the 2019 manifesto had some good stuff in it. The plan to review IR35 rules was a great policy, as was the expansion of how the apprenticeship levy could be used (yet even here, there was some legitimate worry about how this could go wrong based on how vague the manifesto policy was in print). Yet those are little gems amongst a sea of policies that were not only not pro-business in any sense, a lot of them could have easily slid into a Corbyn-era Labour manifesto. The commitment to raising the corporation tax rate again to 20% was symbolically bad. Abolishing the capital gains tax-free allowance, also not a great look for a party trying to convince business it is their natural political home. Proposing a raft of new regulations for businesses of all sizes, again, bad. If the party wants to be the party of business, it will have to do a lot better than that.
When we get into other areas of policy, the Lib Dems either have nothing substantial or at least distinctive to say, or the party has policies that will set off alarm bells in Guildford and Esher for anyone who looks into the detail. For instance, current Lib Dem education policy is loony left on steroids. As a parent of three kids, the policies genuinely makes me wonder if voting Lib Dem is such a good idea and I’ve never voted for any other party at a general election other than the Liberal Democrats. In a nutshell: let’s get rid of SATs and actually most testing; let’s get rid of league tables for schools and replace them with “a broader set of indicators”. The bit I put in quotes there genuinely made me shiver. Let’s make schools more “teacher led” and less needing to conform to the demands of core ciriculum. It is like voter repellent to anyone not on the hard left who has children.
To summarise, I’m suggesting that the party has to move to the right on a lot of its policies because to do so would start to get the party into the centre again, as opposed to being very left-wing in certain areas (and just soft left in others) as it is now. I said that trying to out-left Labour, not to mention the Greens, is a fools’ errand. Some people asked me to “back up this assertion”. All right, I’ll flip this around on you: tell me how the party gets seats off of Labour by being more leftist and we’ll go from there.
Then we come to this argument: the Lib Dems’ job isn’t to be centrist, but to be liberal. Let’s dissect this idea. I believe what I am proposing is the most liberal thing the Lib Dems can do, yet perhaps this is my interpretation of liberalism. I see being a liberal as being both economically and socially liberal. I think there is a space for such a party in Britain right now. While I think public services can be seen through a liberal lens as helping the individual, and that’s why I support defence of public services where appropriate, I don’t think being liberal is synonymous with being a soggy socialist. And I strongly believe that defending funding state solutions over private ones, in all circumstances no matter what, makes you a socialist. I’m not throwing around names here – if you think the state can always do everything better than the private sector can, in all areas, why are you so afraid to label yourself a socialist? We’re now lost in semantics otherwise.
As for defending the Lib Dems time in the coalition as opposed to apologising for it constantly, I would only point to how badly the apologising has worked. Labour still managed to paint Jo Swinson as a cryptic Tory to its swing vote, to devastating effect. This is another perfect example of why appealing to the left is so difficult for the Lib Dems. Yet for a whole swathe of voters in Lib Dem target seats, the coalition was actually a good government – for some of them, the last decent government we’ve had. It doesn’t mean you have to defend every policy, either. The Lib Dems don’t have to keep talking about the bedroom tax if they don’t want to. Jo Swinson was constantly berated on her time in the coalition during the election, always to disastrous effect. For a counterexample of how to handle your political past effectively, look at how Boris Johnson deployed the “I’ve only been prime minister for 120 days” shtick on his way to a large majority. If the Tories can re-invent themselves while still in government, surely the Lib Dems can stop their own internal obsessing about the supposed wrongs of the coalition government, which ended almost five years ago.
Oh, but the coalition record hangs around the neck of the Lib Dems like an albatross! Tuition fees and bedroom tax keeps coming up and they were so unpopular! Yes, so electorally lethal that the senior partner in the government that enacted them just won a landslide majority and sit at almost 50% in the polls. Again, this stuff matters to a bunch of Labour voters who will never vote Lib Dem anyway, not to most of the voters the Lib Dems can realistically target. I’m saying become the party of business for real, while not becoming any less liberal along the way, and you have a genuine shot at getting these voters to go Lib Dem. Weirdly, doing this is the one thing that might make the Lab-Lib coalition of social liberals within the Lib Dems dreams become a reality, as the Lib Dems take seats off the Tories in the south and Labour in the north. But to look like that is the sole reason the Lib Dems exist means it never will happen, ever.
I end on what I’ve been saying in all of my articles: I know everything I’m saying here is very unlikely to be taken on board by the Liberal Democrats because most Lib Dem activists seem to be comfortable pursuing leftist policies because that’s what they believe in. Fine, I get that; just be honest about it. Don’t say Jo Swinson pursued a centre-right policy agenda and that’s why the Lib Dems did so badly in December; it just makes it look like you have absolutely no idea what centre-right really means. I get it, I really do – I’m just trying to point out what you are objectively doing and why I don’t believe it will ever work.
Simon Lewis says
Disagree regarding education, as a former teacher and lecturer who has been a party member since it’s inception, I regard our education policy as coherent and consistent with liberalism and one of our best policies. It allows teacher’s to do their job and places pupils and students at the heart of the system. Happy to go into more detail.
David Evans says
I’m not totally sure. I have seen good and bad teachers in a system that doesn’t discriminate unless the bad ones are catastrophic or the good ones make one bad error of judgement.
However I am always astonished by the expression “places pupils and students at the heart of the system.” To be at the heart of any system requires power to keep it beating and I don’t see anything that gives that power to pupils in our school system.
Can you explain what it means and how it is achieved?
Nic Wells says
I was amazed at your take on education Nick. I’m sure there’s no need to wheel out links to articles on international comparability to make the point that English and Welsh school students are massively over examined to no clear purpose or advantage. I’m less unambiguous on inspection but I don’t believe that a draconian regime is anything but counterproductive.
Iain Sharpe says
I may have misunderstood, but I think Nick’s point is that parents in general want some clear measure of the school’s attainment through exam results and inspections. Our policy gives the impression of wanting to deny parents information that they would like. The more so as we also want to abolish OFSTED too. As several members of my family are, or have been, schoolteachers, I have much sympathy with the idea that children are overexamined, schools overinspected and the national curriculum is over-prescriptive. But the cumulative effect of our policies and the noises we make when asked about education can give out the message that we don’t much care about exam performance and academic achievement, and want to prevent parents from being able to assess and scrutinise these things. Which is not likely to win many votes from parents with school age children.At the same time left-leaning teachers are likely to vote Labour rather than Lib Dem, following the coalition. So the people our policy is designed to please won’t vote for us and the people who might vote for us won’t be pleased by our policy.
John Bicknell says
Nick makes some good points, but at a Westminster level the Conservatives have purged their ‘Liberal’ wing, who are now outside politics, either having stood down voluntarily, or dumped by the electorate. The chance to ‘split the Conservative Party’ has thus now gone, though there might be a chance of picking up some soft Conservative votes if the Lib Dems can resist the temptation to stop chasing the Labour Party for its approval.
My constituency was a Con/Lab marginal, so we were mostly diverted to assist with more winnable seats. What we did do locally was target Conservative voters locally because 1) it would help the (pro-Remain) Labour candidate, 2) there were a lot of very disillusioned, pro-Remain Tory voters who wouldn’t dream of voting Labour and 3) it would help medium-term with our LD-Con marginal wards in the locals.
While we did increase our vote share by doing very little, we weren’t prepared for the amount of Labour voters who switched to the Cons. Brexit was a part of the issue, but Corbyn was definitely a big factor – disliked by both Labour and Con voters. And before anyone asks, no our vote increase didn’t gift the Tories a win. The Lab->Con drift did that far more effectively.
So yeah, I do mostly agree with Nick on this – even though I think the Left-Right axis is only part of the picture. With Corbyn out of the picture, those disillusioned “liberal conservatives” and “centrists” (whatever that means) are looking for a safe home. I also think education policy is a poor example for the argument.
Your comments on education are very wide of the mark. SATS and OFSTED have been around for more than a quarter of a century. It is difficult to specify what they were put in place to achieve. Whatever it was it has manifestly failed. Is education obviously better than it was in 1990? This cannot be shown, what can be shown is a massive burgeoning of bureaucracy as a creation of a very centralised approach. Whatever pluses might be suggested are more than outweighed by negatives. If OFSTED judged its performance over the time it has existed in the same way as it has assessed schools, the assessment would have to be unsatisfactory.
The concept of SATS was always wrong. It involves pupils sitting exams for which they have no direct benefit. GCSEs and A levels are clearly awards for students’ achievements and passports to further study or careers. This is how exams should be, not for an ulterior motive. You might be able to find a few who would do away with exams, but it is wrong to suggest that this is, or even might be, party policy.