Economic liberalism is, and has been for some time, a marmite issue within the Liberal Democrats. As someone very much in the ‘love it’ camp (economic liberalism, not marmite, can’t stand the stuff), last week I wrote a paper containing just a few ideas as to how economic liberals within the party can work to see more economically liberal positions taken by the Liberal Democrats in its policy. You can now see this paper by clicking the link below.
So another Lib Dem conference comes to an end, and as ever, it leaves the party with questions both answered and posed in equal measure.
Whilst the last 4 days in Bournemouth are unlikely to live long in the memory of many, it can at least be said that the lack of any real drama means that negative headlines have for the most part been avoided (other than those from the ever embarrassing Glee Club anyhow). Simply avoiding negative headlines however is not enough for a party still polling at less than 10%, and the lack of inspiring policy coming out of Conference this time around is a reason to be regretful. The exception to this was the employment in the 21st century policy, which offers liberal solutions to real problems and should stand the party in good stead in the future.
The lack of inpiring policy debate is no doubt in part due to the snap general election getting in the way of much of the work done by both FPC and in local parties, however, a glance at some of the rejected motions would suggest that FCC should also take its fair share of blame. Failures of both FPC and FCC were certainly to blame when the party came perilously close to adopting a Brexit policy that would fly in the face of a democratic vote, and only further alienate those of a liberal persuasion who voted leave on the 23rd of June last year. In the end it was heartening to see such an idea rejected, and Tim Farron in particular must take credit for his vital intervention, his passionate address securing hearts and minds on the conference hall floor.
Tim’s oratory skills, and in particular his ability to inspire his own activists, will be missed by the party, and it was interesting to note the vast difference in tone and delivery of new leader Vince Cable. Whilst Vince’s first speech as party leader may have been monotonous and lacking in comic timing compared to his predecessor, the content certainly felt like an improvement. In particular it was good to see a return to talking about being a party of government rather than opposition, as well as criticism of Jeremy Corbyn’s economic agenda along with his Brexit position; something that Tim Farron appeared uncomfortable doing. Long term a Liberal Democrat come-back cannot be built around Labour supporter’s tactical votes, and any attempt to appease this portion of the electorate is foolhardy.
Policy wise, the leader’s speech lacked much which has not already been revealed in previous interviews and op-eds, however it was pleasing that all of it was both moderate and achievable. There has been much talk of the Lib Dems needing to be more radical, however if there is one lesson the party should take from its time in coalition and the election result that followed, it is that undeliverable policy can very quickly lead to electoral oblivion. Jeremy Corbyn’s radical programme may serve him well in the opinion polls at the moment, but long term it can only lead to disappointment and disillusionment.
On a personal note, it was great to see and to talk to so many Lib Dem members from across the country over the course of the last four days, in particular those attending their first conference. I tried to attend as many fringe events as time would allow (commuting between Bournemouth and home meant having to miss out on anything late in the evening), and in particular I enjoyed those hosted by Liberal Reform, Bright Blue, Radix and Prospect’s interview with Nick Clegg. I’d certainly recommend attending any events put on by these organisations at future conferences, at which I hope to see many of you soon.
For months now the idea of a new “centre party” has been thrown around, and following the result of the general election, calls for such a thing are only likely to get louder. However, as nice as the idea sounds, I can’t see it ever getting off the ground for one simple reason, that in reality, a “centre party” means different things to different people.
Politics is more than just a straight line going from left to right; each part of the political spectrum contains its own nuances and strands of political thinking, and the centre is no different. A centre party in the U.K. could as easily be a party of tax and spend and I.D cards, as it could be a party of low tax and drug legalisation. For some a centre party would represent a combination of left-wing economics with a right-wing approach to social issues, for others it would represent the exact opposite.
There are even some who say they would like to see a new “centre party”, but in reality that doesn’t actually seem to be what they want at all. Often when asked “what’s wrong with the Lib Dems?”, advocates for a new party point to tuition fees, austerity and coalition government, seemingly forgetting that in both 2010 and 2015, some form of austerity and tuition fees is exactly what the centre ground represented. What these people actually seem to want is a new centre-left party, in the style of Ed Miliband, or perhaps even Jeremy Corbyn without the major flaws.
Could all these people come together to form one coherent, functioning party, that despite no infrastructure or local base sweeps to power at the next election? I think probably not. In reality too many people would be repulsed by the idea of sharing a party with George Osborne / Tony Blair / Nick Clegg, and the party would flop before it had even began.
Over the past few days I’ve felt a bit disallusioned by politics and politicians, here’s the reasons why:
1) Labour MPs and supporters, previously hostile to Jeremy Corbyn, are all of a sudden falling in behind him simply because he managed to avoid defeat on quite the scale that was expected. In my book the whole point of politics is to stand up for what you believe in; if you didn’t believe in a vision of mass state intervention coupled up with grand scale middle class subsidy a few months ago, why do so now? If you’re in politics for votes first and values second then you’re not for me, particularly when Corbyn failed to prove he’s any more electable than Ed Miliband or Gordon Brown.
2) The government’s refusal to acknowledge that the result of the election means that business as usual simply isn’t going to cut it, particularly concerning Brexit. The line “over 80% of people voted for a hard Brexit” whilst technically accurate simply shows a government with its head in the sand. They asked for a mandate for their Brexit vision and they failed to get it, go back to the drawing board and think again.
3) The Tory/DUP deal, or more to the point, the lack of a Tory/Lib Dem deal. I supported the call to reject any coalitions or deals during the campaign chiefly because I thought it’d end up being irrelevant, as I believed like so many others that the Tories would win by a landslide. However, now we are where we are, I can’t help but feel the party would be doing the country a better service by holding the Conservative’s feet to the fire over such issues as single market membership by using it as a bargaining chip in coalition negotiations, rather than by introducing amendments to the Queen’s speech that’ll in all likelihood be defeated.
4) Sticking with the Lib Dems, there seems to be very little debate within the party as to its future direction. I hoped the leadership election would bring this about, but so far the only candidate we’ve got seems to be standing on a platform of “fingers-in-ears, everything’s just fine”, which is hardly inspiring. The only alternative vision for the party has been presented by Norman Lamb, who felt that his entirely reasonable approach was so out of touch with party members that it was best not to stand, which was extremely disappointing. Every day I pray that Ed Davey not only stands but offers something different, I cannot even begin to tell you how depressing I’d find a Vince Cable coronation.
Like many others no doubt, I’ve spent the last few days reflecting on the general election campaign and its result, and what it means for the Lib Dems not only in terms of where it went right and wrong, but where the party goes from here.
Firstly, was the election result as success? Probably, is the answer I find myself giving to that question, but if it was, it was only the most moderate of successes. When so many predicted losses, to come out of the election with more MPs than the party had when going into it on the surface feels like a resounding victory, and indeed increasing the parliamentary party by 50% in the space of only 2 years definitely sounds like the sort of thing any reasonable person would describe as a success. However, could it have been better? To that, again, I find the answer to be probably. Many will point to the fact that the party was only a few hundred votes away from 4 more MPs, however to me, pointing to votes that you failed to get is an odd way of talking about success. Of course, in the long term those seats are well within the Lib Dem’s reach, and that’s great, but let’s be honest with ourselves, a better campaign would probably have seen the party over the line in all four of those seats, as well as possibly quite a few others. When the election was called, around 50 seats were said to be in play for the Lib Dems, in the end the party came away with 12. Is 12/50 a success? I’d find that hard to argue. As for vote share, the fact that it managed to fall from 2015, albeit not by a lot, is hard to sell as a success at all. The fact that more seats were gained on a smaller vote share is a success for targeting, not for the party itself.
Why was the party not more successful? It’s hard to put a finger on one particular thing, and indeed I’d argue that it was in fact a number of issues intertwined.
1) Almost the entirety of the campaign was based around the idea that there’d be a large drop off in support for Labour, something that seems to have been largely based on canvass and polling data coming out of the Manchester Gorton by-election. Was this a mistake? Almost definitely. Firstly the idea that you base a national campaign on what you’re finding in one small area of a much larger and diverse country seems absurd. Secondly, the dynamics of a by-election are almost completely different to a general election; as soon as voters were asked who they’d like to see form a government, as opposed to simply who they’d like to see represent their local area, Labour support shot right back up again, leaving the Lib Dems stranded. The Lib Dems sold themselves as the vehicle to send a message to Labour, however when the general election came around, Labour were able to sell themselves as the vehicle to send a message to the Tories, which unsurprisingly natural Labour leaning voters found more compelling.
2) The message failed to capture the enthusiasm of almost anybody outside the very small Lib Dem core vote. In many ways I don’t blame the Lib Dems for this, as by, in my opinion quite rightly, choosing to base the campaign and manifesto within the realms of reality, it was hard to compete with the pure fantasy offered up by Labour when it came to winning over hearts and minds (whether the party were actually trying to win over the hearts and minds of the right people I’ll come to later). When it came down to it, those who opposed the Labour fantasy went with Theresa May, not the Lib Dems.
3) The election took place at a time of peak Brexit apathy. For a party whose USP is being Pro-EU, the election couldn’t have come at a much worse time; it was sufficiently long enough after the referendum that much of the initial Remainer anger had died down, but not long enough that any real economic damage was being felt. This, alongside the fact that it was neither in the interests of Labour nor the Conservatives to discuss the details of Brexit any further than aiming to get a “good deal”, meant that the Lib Dems’ key message never resonated.
4) If the message didn’t resonate, neither did the messenger. Like it or not, it turns out that Tim Farron is far more popular within the Lib Dems than outside of the party. I like Tim, and I believe him to be an honest politician who genuinely cares, however, the fact of the matter is, he is exceptionally good at preaching to the converted, but not much beyond that. The gay sex stuff at the beginning of the campaign got him off to the most horrific of starts, and in truth he never really recovered.
So where does the party go from here? Well to me it appears we’re at a crossroads, where both paths come with a risk.
The first road is pretty much a continuation of where the party has been headed over the last couple of weeks and months, continuing to target gains in currently Conservative held seats based mainly upon the tactical votes of Labour and Green supporters, whilst hoping that a future Brexit related calamity brings about a miraculous nationwide recovery. The second road is a distinct change from this approach, involving a change of mindset, outlook and most importantly, a change in the type of voter the party looks to target.
Rather like in the mid 2000s, the Lib Dems have decided upon disillusioned Labour supporters as their key target. In the past it was based on opposition to the Iraq war, now it is based on opposition primarily to Brexit. However, the fundemental difference between now and then is that the Lib Dems have been in coalition with the Conservatives, and rightly or wrongly that makes the party a far less attractive proposition to Labour leaning voters. Like it or not, the decision to go into coalition was a turning point in the party’s history that it is very hard to turn back from. As the results of the general election show, no matter what it is that you offer up to them, Labour leaning voters are almost all but certain to vote one way, for Labour. Meanwhile, it turns out that actually, the party whose voters are willing to vote elsewhere in protest of their party’s direction is the Conservatives, and this is where the Lib Dems could and perhaps should have made more headway.
In 2015 the Conservatives offered up a moderate, internationalist, free market, liberally tinged vision, and were rewarded with a majority. Two years later and the same party offered up an insular, iliberal vision taking swipes at the free market as it did so, and quite rightly their majority was taken away. It is the voters that gave the Conservatives their majority in 2015, and then took it away again in 2017, that the Lib Dems could be targetting. These voters clearly sit within the boundaries of the Liberal Democrat broad-church, and unlike those who lean more to the left, do not see the Lib Dems as tainted by the coalition, indeed many of them in 2015 essentially voted for it.
This time around the Lib Dems clearly didn’t do enough to win these voters over, with more voting Labour (presumably with the assumption Labour wouldn’t win) than voting Lib Dem. For this I would blame the messaging used throughout the campaign, it was so Labour-lite in places, particularly during the TV debates, that it was hard for many voters to distinguish between the two party positions, other than Labour were offering even more money than the Lib Dems were. Perhaps through more luck than judgement, the Lib Dem manifesto was probably the most economically liberal of the three main parties, but was this mentioned during the campaign? Not once. Any sense that the Lib Dems might be to the right of the Conservatives on anything was hurriedly brushed under the carpet, so as to not to upset any of those targeted soft Labour voters. With the real differences between Labour and the Lib Dems never articulated, liberal minded Conservative leaning voters looking to protest at the Tories current trajectory gave their vote to the party who they felt would cause the Tories the more pain, they gave it to Labour.
To win over these voters, the Lib Dems must change. The change does not have to be much more than a change in message and tone (even a change in leader is not vital, although perhaps beneficial), and yet to many in the party that will be hard enough to stomach. Those who do believe that this change is necessary must rally round and unite, as the battle for the soul of the party will be not only heated but in places brutal, as opposition to the so called “Orange Bookers”, which runs through many of the party member’s veins, shows. This change must also take place reasonably quickly, due to the fact that if the Conservatives are at all sensible, they too will start heading back towards similar ground. If this strategy is to work then the Lib Dems must get there first.
Changing the party’s path is a risk, but so to is maintaining it’s current course. Firstly, the closer Labour get to power, the harder their vote will be to squeeze, and tactical voters returning to their natural party could well see the Lib Dems lose their seats to the Conservatives once again. Secondly, the real risk lies in the party losing any sense of an identity outside of being the Labour of the South and South West (and judging by some results, the Labour of the South and South West could soon enough become, erm, Labour). By following the current strategy, the Lib Dems are chained to Labour, they cannot go into coalition with the Conservatives, and they cannot mount any sort of national campaign that may see them regaining the likes of Sheffield Hallam and Leeds North-West, on the basis that it will require turning off Labour tactical voters elsewhere. By following a strategy based on turning around a few votes in a few target seats, whilst almost disregarding national vote share, the Lib Dems are playing with fire. All it takes is a few votes in the wrong places to go missing, and you’re looking at a party with very few MPs and very few votes to its name.
Lib Dem aficionado Mark Pack often talks of building a core vote, but there is no point building a core vote out of people who are represented elsewhere, by much bigger parties. At this election, it was the economically as well as socially liberal who were left with no representation, and that is where the gap in the market for the Lib Dems lies. Over the next couple of months, the party has to take a very close look at what it is it’s trying to be, or else risk not being anything at all.
A combination of finishing up my university degree and not wanting to make any predictions too early means that this is my first, and most likely last, blog post of the 2017 general election. As we head into the last few days of campaigning, I want to take a look into the question that will be plaguing the minds of many Lib Dem members and supporters; where exactly will the party be by Friday morning?
Before I start I feel it’s important to point out that I have very little insider knowledge, and that the views and opinions that follow are formed from a mixture of reading widely around the subject, spending an awful lot of time within the Lib Dem bubble, either on social media or on the campaign trail, and pure gut instinct (my gut got Brexit wrong but Trump right, if you want to judge how accurate my gut can be).
One of the most commonly held views amongst many commentators is that the Lib Dems will lose seats on June 8th. This view appears mostly to be based on national opinion polling figures, which would suggest that in particular the collapse of the UKIP vote, which appears to transfer mainly to the Conservatives, alongside little to no movement in favour of the Lib Dems, would be enough to see the Tories over the line in the remaining Lib Dem / Conservative marginals that were not already captured in 2015. The problem with this theory is that it is based almost entirely on the idea of a uniform national swing, something that in reality is unlikely to happen, and also takes little into account of the fact that the Lib Dems’ campaign has been so ruthlessly targeted, and that whilst national polling figures are poor, canvass data in target seats is more of an unknown. Whether it is a sheer determination to ignore reality or not I am not sure, but in many party circles the idea that the Lib Dems will lose seats on Thursday is treated as less credible, with a favourite line of many party activists being that if the SNP can win 50+ seats on a national vote share of ~4%, it’s still perfectly possible for the Lib Dems to go forward at this election as long as the right target seats have been picked.
It’s been interesting to note that even this late into the campaign, Tim Farron continues to spend the majority of his time in seats that the Lib Dems are looking to gain at this election, rather than defend, which does not play into the narrative that the Lib Dems are on the back foot and fighting for their very survival. For all the talk of a Labour surge, Jeremy Corbyn continues to spend the majority of his time in seats that Labour currently hold, and so both in the case of the Lib Dems and Labour it seems likely that the opinion polls are not telling the entire story. This is further backed up by where Lib Dem activists continue to be sent. I live in the south of England, and on Saturday evening received a phone call from HQ asking me to go and help in Portsmouth South, a target seat currently held by the Conservatives. If the Lib Dems were in as dire trouble as some make out, it does not seem inconceivable to me that I would have been asked to go to Carshalton & Wallington or Richmond Park, both currently held Lib Dem seats that are within a reasonable travel time of where I live.
Many, including myself, have been critical of the Lib Dems’ national campaign, I still maintain that the best way for the party to have increased its vote share at this election would have been to offer up a more centrist, economically liberal message that could well have become too irresistible for many Tory remainers to ignore. However, if you start to view the national campaign not as an attempt to build mass appeal across the country, but as a mere extension of the local campaigns being run in target seats, it begins to make far more sense. The vast majority of Lib Dem target seats at this election are Tory facing, meaning that many Labour and Green tactical votes will be required to see the Lib Dems over the line. By positioning the party as almost “Labour-lite” nationally, this only goes to reinforce the message to Labour and Green supporters in target seats that the Lib Dems are a safe vote this time around. Whilst this is not a strategy I would endorse long-term, as any future coalition with the Conservatives would likely cause a repeat of the 2015 result, I am willing to accept that for this snap election it may not be a bad tactic to employ.
It would be false however to therefore assume that the Lib Dems will sweep up all their Conservative facing target seats and return to parliament with 20+ new seats to their name. However well the campaigns in target seats may be going, they’re clearly not going well enough that activists are being told to move on to new targets, indeed the target seat list appears to be very much the same as it was when the election was called. To believe that the results in these target seats will be anything other than close is foolhardy, and this is why the last few days of the campaign are crucial, and much of the Lib Dems success or failure lies on just how much the Labour vote can be squeezed. If the Labour vote can be squeezed significantly, then reasonable gains are still on the cards, however if Labour voters are determined to stand by their man in Jeremy Corbyn, rather than risk a vote for the “untrustworthy” Lib Dems, then success will be much harder to come by.
Naturally, it will go better in some places than others, and if I was to estimate a total seat count by the end of play on Friday morning I’d probably go with the Lib Dems on anything between 10-15 seats, with a particularly poor night seeing the party on something more like 5-7, and an exceptionally good night looking like 18-20 seats, if I were a betting man, I’d put my money on 12. I do not see decimation on the cards, as the particularly poor campaign that the Conservatives have also run should be enough to see the Lib Dems keep hold of more than most of their Tory facing seats, whilst the fear of Jeremy Corbyn amongst Conservative supporters should see the Lib Dems over the line in their Labour facing seats. It’s not perhaps the return to the heady days of the mid to late 2000s that many will have dreamed of at the start of the campaign, but just two years on from the disaster of 2015, 10-15 seats should still be seen as reasonable progress.
Almost a year on from first joining the Liberal Democrats, this weekend I found myself in York attending my first conference. My thoughts on what was no doubt an overall wonderful experience follow below:
The Party Rally certainly served its purpose of firing up the members for the weekend ahead, with both Tim Farron and Nick Clegg in imperious form. Clegg in particular, in his only appearance on the auditorium stage all weekend, was both extremely articulate and highly amusing. It’s imperative that the party does it upmost to persuade him to stay on as an MP post-2020; he may well feel that the highpoint of his political career is already behind him, but I for one am sure that, particularly in light of his almost unique grasp of the Brexit problem, there is still plenty ahead of him to achieve.
I spent the majority of Saturday in the auditorium listening to and voting on the various policy motions. On the whole, I was pleased with the outcomes. Whilst I was not able to attend the motions on either “A Rational Approach to Harm Reduction” or “Tackling Overcrowding in the Prison System”, but I was none the less pleased to seem them pass, in particular due to my support for the decriminalisation of both sex work and drug possession. Similarly, I was delighted to be in the room as Liberal Democrat members passed the reintroduction of nursing bursaries into policy, as part of the “Crisis in Health & Social Care” motion. This for me is just simple economics, as when the demand for nurses is so much higher than the current supply, the last thing the government should be doing is scrapping the very incentives in place to try and combat the problem.
The emergency motion on “Britain and the EU” was a rather damp squib, as the almost unanimous agreement both amongst the speakers and on the conference floor meant that, whilst the policy itself is no doubt important, the hour spent discussing it felt less like a debate and more like an exercise in prolonged virtue signaling. This led me to question whether more could be done at future conferences to avoid spending so much precious time on policy motions that seem absolutely destined to pass weeks out from the actual event.
On the other hand, “Towards a World Free of Nuclear Weapons” was a particular conference highlight for any fan of high intensity, adrenaline-pumping democracy, and the conference staff and stewards must be praised for their handling of the whole process. Whilst I voted both against the amendment and the policy as a whole, believing it primarily to be a hard sell to voters, both in terms of its complexity and its relevance in the age of Putin and Trump, I was at least relieved to see the amendment defeated, believing that a unilateralist approach to nuclear disarmament to be not only harmful to the party, but to the country as a whole.
Due to family commitments, I was unable to attend much of what the fringe had to offer, however the one event I was able to attend was Radix’s “What Does 2017 Hold in Store for Liberalism?”, which consisted of a panel including Mark Pack, Caron Lindsay, Sarah Olney and Nick Tyrone. Sarah Olney in particular shone at this event, giving perhaps the most confident and assured performance I have seen from her yet. Whilst I’ve had my doubts in the past, this performance proved to me that Sarah has all the potential to be a real star of the parliamentary party in the future.
Working on the assumption that the emergency motion on child refugees would go much the same way as the motion on Britain and the EU, I arrived at conference just in time for the debate on the role of faith in state-funded schools. This was another highlight of conference for me, not least because Lib Dem members for once managed to look past the temptations of the half-baked, wishy-washy nothingness of a policy that was on offer, and opt instead for a hard hitting, short and to the point policy of ensuring that selection in admission on the basis of religion or belief to state-funded schools is phased out over the course of 6 years. Whilst the debate was strong from all sides, I feel confident that members came to the right conclusion.
Following another delve into the echo chamber that was the motion on “Associate Membership of the European Union”, (don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying these policies are not important, they are, I’m simply not sure whether spending an hour discussing what ends up being a formality is at all worth it), came Tim Farron’s closing speech. This, I thought, was superb. Within the first 15 minutes I heard from Tim things I’ve been desperate for him to say for a while, calling out to businesses, liberal-Tory voters and MPs, offering them a new home as Theresa May takes them for granted. As a member more or less aligned with the economic liberal wing of the party, the commitment to free market economics was always going to be good to hear too.
Tim’s speech made it feel as though the Liberal Democrats are a party that is going places, however as I left the conference hall I checked Twitter to notice that it didn’t seem to make anything like even a small blip on any major political commentator’s radar, and the only references to the speech on my timeline came either from within the Lib Dem Twittersphere, or from the same old Lib Dem friendly sources. This therefore is evidence of how much work is still to be done before it can be argued that the party has successfully fought back from the depths of 2015, and that whilst recent successes can be looked back on with pride, in reality the hard work is only just beginning.
Overall I shall look back on my first conference with great fondness, and indeed as I sit and write this I can already feel the onset of post-conference blues. I look forward to hopefully being able to attend Autumn Conference in Bournemouth later this year, and in particular welcoming fellow members to embrace the many wonders that the south coast has to offer, indeed I’m already considering investing in a yellow and orange bucket and spade.
See you all in September,