Rethinking long term Lib Dem political strategy: Towards returning the Lib Dems to the largest party in the UK

“The dark does not destroy the light, it defines it” (Brene Brown) in the same way that the political right does not destroy the political left (or vice versa), they define each other. The Tories and Labour are inextricably linked to each other through a symbiotic relationship. Some people vote Labour not because they like Labour but because the hate the Tories. The problem for the Lib Dems is that we were defined not by left and right but by not being Labour or Tory. Now we are in Coalition with the Tories we are no longer defined by not being Tory and hence we have lost a significant part of our definition. While we are in Coalition with the Tories the risk is that the lack of definition erodes the party identity to a critical point.

There is an assumption that the centre ground of British politics is where parties need to be to pick up the majority of votes and win elections. In terms of the left and right spectrum the current assumption would look like this:

But in actual fact the reality is that such a chart would look more like this:

When the results are generalised/averaged it looks like the majority of voters are in the centre because of the 2 peaks but the reality is that people are more divided than the generalisations appear. So Labour occupying the Left collect the majority on the extreme left, left and some in the centre while the Tories collect the majority on the extreme right, right and some in the centre. Historically, without the battle for centrist voters elections would be a dead heat. Tony Blair was very good at fighting for the centrist votes and paid little attention to his leftwing voters who ended up being very upset with him. David Cameron has emulated this approach and we see him in all kinds of trouble with his rightwing voters. Now we have the rise of other parties we see how the SNP has out flanked Labour to the left and UKIP out flanked the Tories to the right.

The Lib Dems were very upset that the General Election 2010 result was only 23% of the votes when the campaign had gone better than expected. If you assume most voters are centrist, such as in the first chart, then you will think there are more votes to be had in the centre but it may be that 23%ish is as high as the centrist voting block goes? Labour and the Tories can fight in the centre because they have the leftwing and rightwing parts of the party to anchor them. The Lib Dems have leftwing and rightwing factions and have the potential to not see eye to eye more than the factions in Labour and the Tories. This is because in the Lib Dems the factions span the left/right spectrum whereas the Labour and Tory factions span the left/extreme left or right/extreme right so still share a common framework of understanding.

Clegg has made it his mission to place the Lib Dems in the centre ground of British politics whereas Ming Campbell openly stated the party was a centre-left party while policy under Charles Kennedy placed the party as centre-left. Tony Blair has recently advised the Labour party on the fact that the Lib Dems have vacated the leftwing positions they took up in 2001 and 2005 to seek to collect these votes for Labour today. We can see the move Clegg has made in his comments that the Lib Dems are not a dumping ground for disaffected leftwing Labour voters, which makes some sense in the fact that we define ourselves as not being Labour (left) or Tory (right) but limits our electoral success in the fact that there are fewer people to target and the centre ground is a much harder place to fight in.

You could argue that the Alliance rode high in the polls in the early ’80s by sticking to the centre ground and indeed we were the highest polling party at one point. The context was that Labour had moved leftwards under Michael Foot and the Tories had moved rightwards under Margaret Thatcher leaving the centre ground unoccupied. However, many people who started saying they were going to vote for the Alliance were part of the left and right block of voters rather than the centre – the illusion was that they were all centrist voters. The result was Labour and the Tories moving towards the centre who regained their left and right voters.

John Bercow has recently said “It’s that people feel partly that the parties are still quite similar, and that perhaps there isn’t a huge choice, and partly they feel, well I said what I wanted and I voted accordingly but I haven’t got what I wanted or what I voted for two years ago” blaming low voter turnout on the fact that all 3 parties are fighting in the centre and so there is little definition of the parties. What many people wanted when they voted Lib Dem in 2010 was neither Labour nor Tory so the only way to have achieved that would have been to create a supply and demand agreement rather than go into a Coalition. Going in to the Coalition shocked many members and supporters because we were defined by not being Tory (or Labour) and the effect is still current.

Additionally, what has defined the Lib Dems in recent years in addition to not being Tory or Labour has been our Liberal stance which was well defined when Labour were displaying their authoritarian ideology. Now Labour are not in power, and we are governing with another party who wants to be perceived as liberal, there is less authoritarianism to define our Liberalism. So we have been hit with the double whammy of a lack of definition on the liberal front and the left/right spectrum leaving people to ask the question on the doorstep – what do you stand for? If we want to start winning back voters we need some definition. We need some darkness; some authoritarianism to demonstrate our liberalism.

We have never squared the circle of the Lib Dems being left/right economically. Our end game is the introduction of proportional representation and the creation of coalition governments as standard practice. This means we don’t necessarily need to define our left/right status and can work with either party in this new regime. As this is our end game (until we get it upon which things change) PR should be necessary in all Coalition negotiations/agreements. However, the chance of gaining PR has eluded the party for 100 years and while I hope we will get it in the next 100 years it might still be a long shot. A different strategy could be the one Labour performed on the Liberal party at the beginning of the 1900s and take over from Labour as a main party.

Vote share by party from 1820 – 2010:

Labour wrestled the voters away from the Liberal Party who were disillusioned with the party, who many felt had were not representing them. The Lib Dems today need to do the same – wrestle the disillusioned voters away from Labour and/or the Tories. The problem is that in the centre there is plenty of choice (or many would say no choice as all parties say the same thing) and even if you gain all the centrist voters this is not enough for the Lib Dems to win an election. We need to start wrestling the left and/or right voters away from their traditional bases.

To unseat the Liberal Party as a main party Labour placed themselves firmly to the left, created a firm voting base to work from, and moved from the left to the centre squeezing the Liberals into a small 3rd party. We have struggled in the centre ground ever since. In more recent days the Lib Dems made good progress placing themselves to the left of Labour and gained control of councils all over the UK, particularly at the expense of Labour in the North. We pushed Labour into 3rd place a couple of times in local elections because we were to their left not because we were in the centre. Now we are in the centre we are losing the councils back to Labour. These are not centrist voters; these are leftwing voters choosing a leftwing party.

Labour did serious damage to themselves in the 13 years of being in government with many traditional voters deserting the party. We seem to believe that if we prove to people we are a better alternative than what is already there then people will vote for us, but this is only half the equation, people have to be disillusioned with their current party to want to change. There was, and still is, appetite for a party that is not Labour on the left, but we no longer occupy this space and so we are no longer a viable alternative for these voters – they have turned either back to Labour or ‘Others’ such as Respect. While Labour fight on the centre they leave their left flank vulnerable, just as the Tories are vulnerable to UKIP on the right. It took Labour less than 50 years to overtake the Liberals and there are many in Labour who are openly saying that the Lib Dems would be cleaning up in elections right now if they weren’t in Coalition.

A mistake we have made, or certainly the leadership has made, is that we think we are playing the same game as Labour or the Tories. We are a much smaller party and people treat us differently. The rules for us are different. If we stand in the middle we can hope to get perhaps 25%. If they stand in the middle they can hope to get up to 40%. We could get 40% if they moved to the extremes but this is not going to happen. As a smaller party we need to be more responsive to the political climate.

Perhaps we need to think about our end game and the strategy we are running. FPTP will change but how long will it take to bring in PR? How long will it take to make Britain a more Liberal place given the current system? How important do we think it is to make Britain a more Liberal place? Perhaps we would have more chance of fulfilling our aims by targeting the left block of voters, wrestling them away from Labour and making Labour the 3rd party. We won’t do this by staying in the centre, there just aren’t the votes there and every time we enter coalition we lose significant elements of our definition, hampering our progress.

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9 Responses to Rethinking long term Lib Dem political strategy: Towards returning the Lib Dems to the largest party in the UK

  1. Reblogged this on watchonnumber10 and commented:
    An interesting article about the history and challenges ahead for the Lib Dems, however wedding themselves to the Torys may have gained them power this election, but may set them back a couple of generations come the next as they suffer a backlash from the leftist for moving to the centre/centre right, and from the disaffected right wing for watering down the right. leaving them with nothing but a small core of dedicated. The biggest threat next election may come from the Greens

  2. Byzant says:

    Your analysis is correct, a refocusing is necessary now. Here are some thoughts:

    Electoral reform
    The referendum on AV was a total disaster, not just because it was badly handled but also because although most voters were probably in favour of reform, it quickly became clear that AV would not have resulted in any significant improvement over first-past-the-post. As a result the uncommitted voters abstained or voted against it.
    LDP needs to redefine its position and firm up a worthwhile alternative to which it can stick for the 5 or 20 years it may take before a chance to reopen the issue comes up again.
    Moreover it needs to define a position not just in terms of Westminster elections but also for the various tiers of local elections where the current system leads to the kind of absurd results we have seen in Surrey.

    Funding of elections and parties, control over lobbying
    Constraints on how much can be spent in electoral campaigns and on the size of individual or corporate contributions are necessary if the UK is not to follow the degradation of democracy which has already taken place in the US.
    When lobbyists control elections through funding mechanisms, elections degenerate to contests between alternative PR agencies wrongly labelled ‘parties’. We have seen this trend spread to Labour under Blair, and the result is growing indifference and abstentions by the voters.

    Devolution in the UK
    I am not aware of the existence of a coherently researched policy to further devolution other than lip service and the idea of a local income tax. In the Coalition, this important plank of LD policy has sunk out of sight.
    In a letter to a local paper I raised the question as follows:
    “Robert Serman and Richard Oldham have eloquently described the farce of the Surrey County Council meeting on the 16th which decided on parking for Haslemere (Letters 23/3), ignoring the views of local residents. The underlying question is why did a Surrey and not a Haslemere Council consider this local issue? The roots of this are profound.
    We are supposed to benefit from a democratic local administration in this country. This is a myth. It is not very local: excluding school grants, Surrey Council spends roughly £1,010, Waverley £130 and Haslemere £14 per inhabitant, so it seems localism largely ends at a population of 1 million, and partially at about 116,000. And it is not very democratic either: the Conservative Party has nearly 100% of the councillors at all three levels, and so the 30-40% of electors who did not vote for them are almost completely unrepresented.
    If parking here is to be decided properly, we need a wholesale reform of both the administrative and the electoral processes of the country. Why not start with an analysis of the consequences of equal per capita allocations at the three levels, then consider how to adjust it as little as possible upwards to achieve real local devolution? …”
    A basis for a new coherent policy needs to be researched and developed working from the bottom up and the top down.

    Successive governments since Thatcher have eroded the value of private pension schemes largely in response to pressures from companies and City interests. After a long period in which companies were absolved from making annual contributions to their pension schemes because of the equity boom, they were then allowed to opt out of these schemes when payback time arrived and move to new and generally inadequate new models. The relaxation of private schemes has now been encouraged to spread to public sector pensions on the specious grounds that they were unaffordable or too generous by comparison to private pensions.
    The inevitable result in the long term is that the state will have to pick up the bill when a high proportion of pensioners will become eventually indigent. There is a close parallel with the PFIs, most of which can be described as ‘apparent savings today, misery tomorrow’.
    The two major reforms required, in my view, are:
    a) all employees and companies should be obliged to make significant minimum contributions to pensions of the order of 6 or 7% each;
    b) a national funded pension scheme should be created and made available to everybody which would invest and administer these funds. This would result in annual management costs which would be an order lower than in the schemes offered by the City and comparable to the costs incurred by well-established in-house pension administrations in large companies. Suitable proven models exist in other countries.
    The LDP should develop a policy along these lines.

    The NHS
    The LDP has gone along with a bill promoted by the Conservative Party (which has received significant funding from private health companies in the last 4 years) and which is contrary to its policies and to the views of the majority of its members and of the electorate.
    This will destroy the NHS in the longer term without solving the problems of how to fund the health of the people.
    We should dissociate ourselves from this.

    The changes for schools introduced by Gove are imitating developments in the US and elsewhere which have been shown to have a negative impact on the education of the bulk of the population, instead of emulating the far more successful education systems in for instance Finland. They will concentrate power at a national level and lead to further privatisation of another national asset. They will also provide a source of funds for the Conservatives in the long term.
    Once again, we should dissociate ourselves from this.

    Other areas
    Not covered here.

    • Hi Byzant, thanks for the comments, they are very thorough. You have some good ideas and I wonder if you have written them up for LibDemVoice? I am sure they would love to have some posts from you.

  3. Pingback: Top of the Blogs: The Lib Dem Golden Dozen #274

  4. Art says:

    One key issue not noted here is the rise of minor/fringe parties. The fascinating graph of vote share over 200 years doesn’t account for the fact that SNP, PC, UKIP, Greens, Respect and BNP etc are (particularly if you add them up) now a significant electoral force (10% of vote in 2010, compared with about 2-3% in the 60s-70s). So a long-term strategy needs to take account of the fact that we may have common interests with some of those parties. Of course, I would rule out BNP – goes without saying – but we need to think about whether we are working effectively on electoral reform and greater regional devolution with some of the others. That would give us the basis to rebuild our national strength.

    • Hi Art, you’re right I hadn’t really thought about that. Perhaps we should have a better strategy around other parties. We certainly need to pick ourselves up from where we are right now

      • Art says:

        This is why I think we made the wring choice on elected police commissioners. Missed a chance rebuild credibility at a provincial level.

      • art says:

        With that in mind, take a look at this link, particularly the Lib Dem word cloud at the bottom. It really shows what a job we have on our hands. I would love the party to fight the national fight, but I really think we have to rebuild locally.

      • Hi Art, thanks for the link, very interesting, in fact I may blog about it myself!

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