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.