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.
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.
It’s of no doubt that parliament getting a vote on Article 50 is a good thing, however, despite publicly welcoming this news, it now leaves Liberal Democrat MPs with a tricky decision to make.
Ever since June 23rd, the Lib Dems have been walking the tightrope between standing up for the 48% and appearing “undemocratic”, now there is (most likely) to be a vote on the beginning of the Brexit process, they must finally choose which side of the line they wish to fall on.
After much thought, I have come to the conclusion that the Lib Dems have only one choice, they must vote against the triggering of Article 50. Although their inclination as democrats may be to reluctantly vote for it, it seems more and more likely that this may be their only chance to put their anti-Brexit feelings on the record.
In many ways, I may have been felt more uneasy about this decision if it were likely to have an affect on the outcome, however, with a majority of both Conservative and Labour MPs surely likely to vote in favour, any Article 50 legislation is almost certain to pass. Regardless, those that still firmly believe the UK’s future is best served by remaining in the EU will be watching closely, and with the likes of Anna Soubry, Kenneth Clarke and Owen Smith all likely to vote against, many will wonder why the Lib Dems too could not be so bold if they choose to vote in favour. If the Lib Dems want to be the voice of the 48%, they must not only talk the talk but also walk the walk.
The only reason I can conclude it would ever be worth voting for Article 50 would be if the government were to concede to having a referendum on the terms of Brexit. However, as currently only the policy of the Lib Dems and the Greens, totalling a whole 9 parliamentary seats, the government is unlikely to be listening. Incidentally, I can’t help but feel this would have been a better policy on the Article 50 vote for Labour to adopt, as opposed to their demand for “access” to the single market* (*correct at the time of writing, it’s very hard to keep up with Labour’s policy on this / anything). With “access” being fairly meaningless (as anyone will tell you, North Korea has “access”), it’s a shame that Labour have decided that this is the best “opposition” they can come up with, although of course meaningless virtue-signalling is something of a speciality for the current Labour leadership.
Finally, although less significant nationally but none the less important for the party, it seems likely that voting in favour of Article 50 would see the thousands of new members who’ve joined the party post-referendum massively disheartened. With a crucial by-election in Richmond Park coming up, it’s vital that all party members are at best content, so as to keep the momentum gathered from Witney and council by-elections going, rather than falling into Labour-style infighting. As a party already with an unfortunate reputation for going back on past promises amongst large swathes of the electorate, now is definitely the time for the Lib Dems to stick to their guns.
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In the past few weeks, much has already been made of the importance of the Witney by-election to the Liberal Democrats. A strong performance here would surely be a signal to the rest of the country that the “Lib Dem Fightback” is well and truly on, and may finally cause the party to reappear in the public / media’s conciousness.
But Witney is more than that, it is a test of the whole direction the party has set itself on ever since the disaster of May last year. Anything less than a strong second place will be seen as a major disappointment, and should be setting off alarm bells at party HQ.
As a constituency that voted to remain a member of the EU, and as a traditionally Conservative seat seemingly unlikely to be the first to fall to Jeremy Corbyn’s quest for a socialist utopia, the question will be asked that if the Lib Dems cannot do well here, where can they? Whilst I am a supporter of the party’s current position on Brexit, a poor result here should be taken as a warning sign that perhaps the message of a second referendum on the terms of any Brexit deal does not resonate with as many voters as we perhaps would like, and a new approach may be required. Meanwhile finishing behind a Labour party in absolute disarray, in the firm grip of the left, will pose major questions of its own, and do nothing but embolden those within the party who already call for the end of Tim Farron’s reign and a return to the helm for Nick Clegg (who in my opinion, despite his media cut through, comes with plenty of obvious heavy baggage of his own).
The last thing the party needs right now is to join the others on a search for its own soul. Whilst Labour and the Conservatives peer inwards, the Lib Dems need to continue to look outwards towards the many disillusioned voters in this country, and this as much as anything else is why a strong result in Witney is crucial. All the signs suggest that we are on course, but if the last year and a half has taught us anything, it’s that nothing should be taken for granted.
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“They’re all the same” – a response heard time and time again when asking British people their views on U.K political parties. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from this party conference season, “they’re all the same” is certainly no longer the case.
Whereas in the past we’ve been used to seeing the major political parties fight tooth and nail over the centre ground (by which I do not mean Theresa May’s warped definition) in order to try and win an all important parliamentary majority, we’re now in a position where the space between the two main political parties is as wide as it’s ever been, leaving the centre ground strangely uncontested.
The one party that has to refused to shun its centre ground roots is the Liberal Democrats, for whom the new political climate should be seen as a massive opportunity. For the first time in what seems like an age, it is down to the Liberal Democrats alone to represent all streams of liberal thinking; in the past, economic liberals may well have felt just as comfortable voting for David Cameron as they would have done voting for Nick Clegg, whilst social liberals (and indeed social democrats) would have felt at ease voting for Tony Blair or potentially even Ed Milliband. Now all of a sudden liberal representation within the two main parties has been all but banished, and liberal leaning voters from both sides will be looking for a new home. Tim Farron’s closing speech at this month’s party conference was a great pitch to these voters, and he’d do well to continue down this line.
And so when the next election comes the choice has never been so clear, if Democratic (potentially Revolutionary, we’ll wait and see) Socialism is your thing, the Labour Party is the one for you, if you’re more into your Christian Democracy (perhaps with a bit of Facism thrown in for good measure), then you’ve got the Conservatives on your side, and if you’re a liberal, well, the clue’s in the name, you can call the Liberal Democrats your home. British electorate, you’ve never had it so good.
In a political period where so little is certain, the one thing we can seemingly be sure of is that new Prime Minister Theresa May is desperately keen to distance herself ideologically from her predecessor David Cameron. Whilst many would argue that there is nothing that can be considered “compassionate” about a government that leaves thousands relying on food banks, if you thought the Cameron administration was bad then, in the immortal words of Bachman-Turner Overdrive, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
It is of no doubt that throughout his premiership David Cameron could often be accused of pandering to the right of his party, highlighted in particular by the disasterous EU Referendum, but, whilst Cameron pandered, May appears to have let them take (back) control. In the past weeks we have seen EU citizens living within the UK be treated as bargaining chips, talk of drastic cuts to the overseas aid budget, and most recently the introduction of an education policy described by Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron as causing the majority of young people to be “relegated to the second division at the age of 11“. For someone who rose to fame amongst Conservatives for urging the party to lose its “Nasty Party” image, Theresa May seems to be doing a pretty good job of making sure it sticks (although the current Labour shambles is running them close).
Despite the many glaring faults of the Cameron era, I look back at what good was achieved and wonder whether any of it would have been possible in this May-lead, post-Brexit world. Gay marriage is of course the first thing that springs to mind, followed by prison reform, year on year increases in overseas aid etc.. Even a strong economy, at the heart of Cameron’s brand of Compassionate Conservatism, seems no longer the focus of the Tories under May, as it appears increasingly likely that vital access to the EU’s single market will be dumped in favour of an even tighter grip on immigration. Following May’s first speech as Prime Minister on the steps of 10 Downing Street, there was talk in some circles of her returning the Conservatives to a less divisive, pre-Thatcher style of government, what I imagine they did not expect was for May instead to take her inspiration from the time of Enoch Powell. For all Cameron’s faults, it could at least be argued that his government’s mindset was firmly in the 21st century; an education policy of academisation may have been divisive, but at least it wasn’t straight out of the 1950s.
I ceased my support of the Conservatives earlier in the year when they refused to do more for refugees, but at least a few months ago it was on the agenda. Now it seems that our new Prime Minister has no interest in the respect / votes of the “liberal mainstream”, and would instead focus her attention on the Britain first brigade. Therefore it is with a not so heavy heart that I say R.I.P. Compassionate Conservatism (2005-2016), taken from us at least four years too soon.