“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.