GuestBlog: ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold’: Where next for the Liberal Democrats?

GuestBlog: ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold’: Where next for the Liberal Democrats?

Jack Nicholls was once very nearly a political academic, but is now another thing. He considers himself an egalitarian liberal and Euro-pragmatist. He’s gotten used to the wilderness now.

All views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the host of this blog.

I have a leaflet in my house, somewhere, with the words ‘Project 320’ on it. It is amber and white, it was delivered in I think mid-November, perhaps earlier. It is a Liberal Democrat internal communication to members, which I was at the time, asking for funds and support to secure what at the time still seemed marginally possible, a Liberal Democrat government. I stopped being a party member a few days before the election1 having supported them and largely voted for them for 15 years. We know what happened next – an unseated leader, a net loss of one seat, and the outright defeat of the party’s central election punt. Where they go, or should go, next is not clear. At my host’s very kind invitation, I offer a personal view.

A little contextualisation so you, dear reader, may correct for bias. I decided I was a Lib Dem during early-middle Blair, when they were seen, correctly or otherwise, as on New Labour’s left. Except for social matters, I was probably a very small-l liberal then; much more a paternalist social democrat, more against things than for them.

The next two people who developed and shored up my liberalism were not Lib Dems at all – they were David Davis and Ed Miliband. The former did so with his stance on civil liberties, the latter by sacrificing Labour’s own long commitment to Lords reform on the altar of Cleggbashing2. I stayed through the coalition, despite some serious misgivings. I stayed, speaking as an LGBT+ person, through the Farron leadership. I left because, Remainer though I am, I could not accept the revoke policy, and because the party had, in my view, become not only a one-issue movement, but one with a one-issue litmus test for membership or defection.

While any election is really 650 by-elections, with individual factors in all seats, the victories and defeats of the Lib Dems in 2019 all correlate with their constitutional stance. Where they gained – St Albans, Richmond Park and North-East Fife – and where they closed the gap – Winchester, Esher, Guildford – they were on the locally popular side of Brexit (or Indyref2). Where they lost – North Norfolk, Carshalton and Eastbourne3 – the same equation stands, inverted.

I would argue that if the party wishes to grow and win seats in and above the 40s and 50s again, it desperately needs to stake out new ground in policy, philosophy and image. That may not be easy, and one of the larger obstacles may just be the reignition of the latterly dormant battle between the social democrat/social liberal wing (Kennedy era) and the free-market/power decentraliser element (Clegg era). It’s a legitimate debate to have, but as with Labour post-2015, and the Conservatives post-1997, it’s one that can prove a barrier to electoral gain.

Some will disagree, but I would argue that advertising themselves as centrists is a strategy with very limited benefit in a first-past-the-post system. Tim Farron put it brilliantly during a leadership debate with Normal Lamb – he said that presenting oneself as a centrist gives the electorate a great reason to put you down as a second preference in an AV system. That battle, for now, has been lost.

Centrism, in and of itself, is not a vote winner, or a convincing platform. Centrist tendencies are only usually appealing when they are attached to something with a harder, clearer edge as well. People of no fixed political abode could feel able to vote for Cameron or Blair even if they had concerns about John Redwood or Tony Benn. People who liked Redwood or Benn were reassured that their purism would go onto the government benches along with, perhaps via, the mainstream appeal of their leaders. That doesn’t work if your whole party is seen as centrist.

A centrist projection also most definitely doesn’t work if the other plank of your appeal is located at one extreme of the spectrum of the dominant issue of the day. Love or loathe the party’s revoke policy, most can agree that one thing it wasn’t was the stance of a moderate. it’s the party’s greatest supporters in the recent election were those who wanted to overturn a democratic decision, and its greatest opponents included those who refused to countenance dissent. At the moment, the Liberal Democrat core vote is, anecdotally, two groups – one is contextual and situational (hardcore Remainers) the other is tactical and transient (anti-Conservative, anti-Boris, and a fringe of amber unionism in Scotland). The centrists of the last election were not economic moderates, they were a quiet coalition of result-respecting Remainers and anti-no-deal Leavers. For now, the Lib Dems have, if not lost, certainly misplaced the moderate vote.

It also doesn’t work for modern British liberalism. Politics is not a game of logic, or indeed, ideologic. Liberalism has a genuine claim to radicalism in both its more left and right leaning iterations. It also has a claim to centrist moderation. Both are honourable traditions, but there is considerable difficulty in selling a message of radicalism and moderation at the same time – they play to different crowds, different people like them and are comforted by them. Radical liberalism is for freedom, emancipation rebellion or revolt. It is bold colours. It is poetry. Centrism is for safety. It is pastel. It is prose.

To grow from where it is now, the party needs to be and sound liberal more than it needs to be centrist, and it needs to restate and define its liberalism boldly, through policy, rhetoric and the right leader. Herewith, some humble suggestions for both.

  • Become the champions of meaningful freedom. Become the party, the force, that champions the idea that the job of government it to help people live the lives they want to, sometime by action, sometimes by staying out of the way. Talk about the welfare safety net, the NHS, government-backed pensions, better public transport and a safer, linked-up union and continent as things that are economic liberators, not least when change or difficulty loom. Point out that the right to buy a house or to a fair trial are meaningless with insufficient funds for a deposit or a lawyer. It’s a rhetorical position, and a philosophical stance that points the party’s libertarians and the social democrats in the same direction, and it puts the case for good government resources at the level of the individual, rather than the class, group or region. One of the recent manifesto’s better policies was the skills wallet – a pot of money for every citizen that they could draw on for training at more or less any point in their lives. Meaningful freedom can be the philosophical underpinning for a issues like drug law reform, properly tackling the social care shortfall, and treating mental ill health as a social as much as a medical problem, as well as much else.
  • Develop really strong, practical, easily understood green policies. At the next election, the Green party will either be an ally or an opponent. Both situations are made problematic if the party does not have a good, clear, fresh message on green issues. ‘Decarbonising capitalism’ was Ed Davey’s best line of his leadership campaign. As someone who has gone from being a green liberal to being a liberal green, I hope for further co-operation, not least because the Green Party do not routinely punish their members and candidates for encouraging tactical voting. This time however, cooperation needs to be on substantive shared ground rather than the Remain Alliance. The Australian centre-right coalition arrangement offers a possible model, mechanistically if not politically.
  • Stand for personal liberty and the harm principle, even if it’s a leftish interpretation of harm. Boris Johnson likes to be seen as a liberal conservative, especially on personal liberty. On some fronts this is deserved, on others less so. He can be kept under pressure on personal freedom, not least given some of the authoritarians in his cabinet.
  • Make the most enormous noise about the need for electoral and Lords reform, to the point of ‘strong and stable’-level ennui so that such a discourse is lodged ready in the public mind for when others join the cause. They need to be prepared for these others to include Nigel Farage’s mooted Reform party.
  • Become the clarion horn and clanging bell for maximum devolution within the union. Scotland needs a choice other than blue and yellow, not least the very many Scots who are both centre-left and unionist.
  • Learn from the increasingly successful Alliance Party of Northern Ireland. They are clearly doing something right.
  • Stop the bar chart leaflets except where the party is genuinely and emphatically ahead of the third-place options. It’s a fair claim in St Ives, it isn’t in Gravesham. Also, silly as it sounds, change the Lib Dem font. Something softer would be good.

For all we say we don’t want presidential politics, having the right leader is important. For me, the best option is without doubt Layla Moran. She’s on the left of the party in a Tory-facing seat. She’s excellent on TV, good on policy detail, and does not feed the trolls. She’s robust without being defensive, she can debate with the best but also work cross-party. Of the other potential candidates, Daisy Cooper is an excellent campaigner, but needs more Commons and national media experience. Christine Jardine is a superb MP and spokesperson, but recent experience has shown the ability of the SNP to target prominent MPs, so though it pains me to say it, a Scottish seated MP is not the best bet. I think she should be Moran’s chief whip.

That leaves us with Ed Davey. Sir Ed is an estimable and courageous man. The failure to take any Labour seat last year, however, arguably evidences the anger that remains among many Labour voters about the coalition. Mathematically, the Lib Dems should have taken Cambridge and Sheffield Hallam, perhaps Cardiff Central. They gained none of these. The Lib Dems need a post-coalition leader, not least so that when that leader makes the fresh apology for/disavowal of the bedroom tax, universal credit and the legal aid cuts that must come before the next election, it has a chance of being believed.

I will watch the progress of the Liberal Democrats with eyes of a convert looking at the temple of their former faith, or of one who has departed their hometown but who still has family there. I want them to thrive, not least because I want British politics to be a fight between parties with competing concepts of freedom, not of authority. Opposition is a chance for renewal that few parties ever take upon their first defeat. Let’s hope that pattern breaks, for the betterment of our democracy.

Footnotes

  1. There is a Lib Dem admin person somewhere who will be very confused about the fact that my resignation email was followed by a £3 donation. Our rabbit irreparably nibbled a party poster given out to members by my local candidate. I would have returned it, but it was rather savaged. Compensation felt honourable.
  2. For the record, there are many things I really admire about Ed Milliband, and he’s a transparently nice man. This was one of a few occasions in the latter half of parliament where he played politics excessively.
  3. In all three cases with recent or present Lib Dem incumbents who were very well thought of locally and across parties, and who survived or nearly survived the 2015 wipeout.

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