Part one of this two-part series can be read here.
Why the party has to work within the left rather right
If the Party’s much heralded ‘fight back’ slogan is to avoid fighting back against its former voters, working against the logic of the electoral system, or to not act as a mere rallying call aiming to distract the public from our recent mistakes, then the Party must accept the key dilemma of having to ‘pick a side’. Only then will it be a meaningful return that will lead to us getting more MPs elected. I believe that for strategic reasons alone the Party must choose the left. While special accommodation should be made for right-leaning Liberal Democrats, the case that the Party should again be allowed to operate on the left is so overwhelming that doing so is in the common interest.
In July 2015, Pack and Howarth set out their ‘How to rebuild a core vote’ strategy and argued that, as a values based Party, the Liberal Democrats should seek to build a core vote of people who hold a basic liberal outlook, e.g. tolerance and openness to others. They calculated this to comprise about 38% of the electorate. They similarly recognised that the major dynamic of British politics is however not liberal/ illiberal, but left/ right, observing that ‘… contrary to the repeated hopes of Liberal (and Liberal Democrat) politicians, much of politics has been fought out for many decades not in the field of openness, tolerance and internationalism but in the field of economics’. When they then looked at the economic views of these voters with a broadly liberal outlook, they found that the group was skewed towards the left, observing:
‘… about a fifth put themselves right of centre on whether the government should redistribute incomes, about a fifth are centrists and three fifths are left of centre, of whom one in three are very strongly in favour of redistribution and two out of three somewhat in favour. Similarly on questions about privatisation, nationalisation and tax and spend, the median tolerant and open voter is on the centre-left. YouGov’s profile of Liberal Democrat voters produces a similar result and what we know of the post-May 2015 new members is that many were motivated by left-of-centre issues such as proposed cuts in social security benefits and threats to employment protection.’ (p5)
Member surveys by Lib Dem Voice are completed by a self-selecting sample, but are the only mass member surveys currently conducted where the results are made freely available. They too have found the Party’s membership is skewed towards the left, most recently finding in October 2014 10% self-defining as centre-right, 25% as centrist and 49% as centre-left.
If we account for the Liberal Party only standing in a small fraction of seats in the 1955 and 59 Elections and a little over half of seats at the 1964 Election as did the Liberal Democrats in 2015 (the deposit threshold from 1918 to 1985 was 12.5%), the 2015 Election result is arguably the worst in the history of the Party and its predecessor Parties. If we compare local results from 2015 with those where the Liberals stood in the supposed nadir of the mid to late 50’s, we find generally that the Lib Dems in 2015 performed the worse. As Dr Seth Thevoz told us last year on this website, in 2015 the Party only obtained 63 second places – a tiny fraction of those obtained in 1983 or at any other election since the 50’s. However, if we look at the 8 held seats and 50 next most winnable by size of majority to overcome (areas from which any fight back at Westminster is to be based), our nearest competitor is the Conservatives in 37, Labour in 10 and the SNP in 11.
It could be argued that by aligning with the Conservatives on the economy, as Nick Clegg tried to ensure we did during coalition, that the Party began to encroach onto right-wing territory. The only seat in 2015 where the party led an overtly right alliance to success however was in Sheffield Hallam. Our candidate was Nick Clegg, an impassioned advocate of the Lib Dem-Con coalition, so a highly convincing figurehead for anti-Labour voters. The Lib Dems threw enormous energy and resources at the seat (in part trying to save the Leader from some of the consequences of their leadership), while the central Conservative Party did little to resist their vote being squeezed in favour of their important Parliamentary ally (the Conservatives came second in the seat back in 2010). This seat was fought in exceptional conditions, pointing to the great difficulty of its success being replicated elsewhere. Indeed, the only other time in living memory that the Party flirted with right-wing economic positions was during its low point in the 1950s (which should serve as another stark reminder of the electoral waste land that awaits British liberals on the right).
In contrast to Sheffield Hallam - and if we ignore forthcoming boundary changes and exclude Scotland - we find that the large majority of our target seats are susceptible to anti-Tory challenge. The experiences of 1997 and 2015 expose as fallacious the argument that Liberal Democrats need to move rightwards to beat the Conservatives – history shows the Party does better against the Conservatives at Westminster from the moderate centre left (and when Labour is relatively moderate itself). In Scotland the main dynamic of party politics is not currently left versus right, but has been superseded by the independence question and where, in some seats, the Lib Dems still operate as the main unionist party verses the SNP. However, especially strong anti-Conservative feeling among Scottish voters means the Liberal Democrats taking such a position will be of little impediment there.
We know that our membership and potential voter base lean towards the left, while the large majority of our targets are open or susceptible to anti-Conservative challenge. If we choose a side, it has to be the left. When the right wing former MP Jeremy Browne complained in 2013 that the Liberal Democrats were like a ‘shopping trolley that defaults to the left’, his fundamental difficulty was with liberal opinion in Britain more generally. Right wing voters with a liberal orientation are simply too small a constituency to coalesce around to achieve very many first places under First Past The Post.
Implications for the Party of choosing the left
It is easy for social liberals to accept that the Party should return to its long-standing anti-Conservative roots. But this is a common need based around, not the personal preferences of social liberals, but the way our electoral and party systems currently operate. I write this post for the Social Liberal Forum website as it is a centre of thought leadership that facilities detailed discussion, but all Liberal Democrats should accept this cold analysis, and not repeat the all too often and tragic mistake of the Clegg leadership of assuming that because an argument speaks in favour of a social liberal position, it means it must be factionally motivated or wrong.
Strategic arguments against centrism are not new, but they are yet to be widely digested. However, in addition to ensuring these lessons about positioning are heeded and that the Party is allowed to return to its traditional anti-Conservatism, there is also need to find accommodation with the right of the Party and the fraction of liberals that favour the right over the left.
Nick Clegg’s leadership – where many on the left were ostracized and disenfranchised – provides a useful template of what not to do. He used his increased power from being a Leader in a time of coalition Government (of a coalition supposedly formed to provide security in a time of economic difficulty) as cover to realign the Party in a more rightwards direction; as Deputy PM he appointed as his first Head of Strategy someone who had already advocated that social-liberals should join Labour (and after leaving post argued that those of the centre-left should still look to Labour); he treated coalition economic policy as the Party’s policy, rather than the product of a necessary compromise in coalition; and he permitted policies (in opposition to the coalition agreement) to be implemented such as marketizing the NHS and the massive subsidy of Nuclear fission energy. None of these efforts were attempts to try and shore up the left flank. In whatever way such abuse of power and trust is described, it certainly wasn’t good or, as history shows, a successful liberal leadership.
Although Charles Kennedy became associated with the Party’s social liberal heyday, it should also be remembered for its successful attempts at broadening the Lib Dem tent. Whatever someone’s feeling about the Kennedy era, the right of the Party was not ostracized. Members of the Pro-Euro Conservative Party were accepted after the Party disbanded in 2001. Members on the right in the Commons were appointed to senior positions, including leading right winger Mark Oaten to Home Affairs. Charles Kennedy signed the foreword to ‘The Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism’. Aspiring to unite more liberals and lead by consensus should not be a naive suggestion for liberals, but second nature. The Kennedy era should provide some inspiration of how the party can operate as a party of the left and which also tries to include liberals on the right.
Members on the right should be reassured that while parties operating within a left- or right-wing bloc develop some common strategic interest, operating on the left would and should not mean the Lib Dems having to become an adjunct of or surrendering autonomy to Labour (as the Kennedy era showed), or that being of the left has to be the Party's main appeal. The Party should renew its commitment to federalism, decentralisation and to serving the needs of Britain’s economic periphery – a part of the Party’s long standing appeal significantly overlooked during years in Government with the Conservatives. Most importantly, the Party’s main offer should be its liberalism, and its political liberalism - something that has long united the Party and been neglected in recent years - should again be thrust to the forefront, and in particular proportional representation.
Clegg asserted in the summer of 2010 that the ‘The Liberal Democrats aren't a sort of glorified form of the Electoral Reform Society’, but this was a strange thing for a Liberal Democrat leader to choose to emphasise. The interests of the Party and those who vote for it are aligned in seeking a fair voting system. Equal votes should be a basic prerequisite of a liberal society. As Dr Thevoz pointed out on this website in 2013, typically smaller parties only succeed in coalitions where they compete under a proportionate voting system. For philosophic, moral and strategic reasons, a fair electoral system (not entering a coalition as soon as possible) should again be at the forefront of the Party’s demands.
Under a proportional electoral system, the Party will be in a much stronger position to deliver key pledges, demonstrate its distinct contribution and deliver over the long term lasting political change. Under such a system it may even be possible for two liberal parties to succeed - one of the left and one of the right, as in The Netherlands, Estonia and Denmark - thereby providing a liberal voice in both Governments of the left and right. Although liberal fraternalism may endure, under PR right wing liberals may even be able to sustain their own grouping. PR should also spell the end of the need to squeeze third party votes, so letting the Party readjust as less overtly anti-Tory and more pro-liberal overtime. But whatever happens, Lib Dems should stay united and unashamedly demand basic democratic equality for voters.
The need for consensus speaks in favour of a range of democratic reforms. These include, as the 2015 Election review recommended, separating the interests of the leadership from the Party during periods of formal working with other parties, but also a renewed role for directly elected Party committees, as this is where consensus, including over policy, can be better negotiated (better than by direct One Member One Vote alone). It was the centre-right Party grouping, Liberal Reform, that sought at the 2015 autumn Conference to give the Party Leader a veto over the Federal Policy Committee in formulating the General Election manifesto. This did not seem to be in their or the collective long-term interest.
Returning to a position of equidistance was a major historic blunder. To some extent, it was the strategic equivalent of Labour re-adopting Clause 4. Until the prospect of a grand coalition becomes a distinct possibility, the Party is unlikely to ever be able to freely alternate between the left and right (regardless of the electoral system, though First Past The Post is more punishing). Despite the 2007-2015 leadership believing it knew better, it lacked understanding about why many voted Liberal Democrat, and sadly oversaw the implosion of a Liberal Democrat vote that had taken decades to construct. Members should never empower such people as leaders while they still have such limited understanding.
Rejecting equidistance can be only one part of the Party moving forwards. Between 2010 and 2015 the Party ultimately helped the Tories detoxify its brand with some centrist voters, and toxified itself with many others - and I would recommend the Party investing in focus group work to improve its understanding of its reputational problems. It needs to establish credibility with more voters, before it can expect to establish better rapport.
Furthermore, a more inclusive and consensual internal culture should be rebuilt (complemented by a renewed democratic structure), though there can be little creative tension on the issue of centrism. The profile of party members is such that a sizeable chunk is either personally content with or willing to acquiesce to the Party adhering to a centrist position. While those of a genuine centrist persuasion (and others) must play an important role in the Party fighting back, for the Party to do so asks of those personally committed to centrism to understand why it and equidistance cannot be the Party’s future, for all our sakes.
Centrism as a political strategy provides (even for major parties) a poor plan for sustaining long term political change. Amongst the myriad of impulses that drive voting behaviour, the transaction most want from their vote is, ultimately, good political leadership, not representatives who simply echo the wisdom of the crowd, which can be provided by anyone. While acknowledging the importance of left versus right, the Party should be cautious in further emphasising this dynamic, and make clear that it is its liberalism that it brings to political leadership.
The Party should not focus on its relationship with other parties or possible packs or deals, but assert its priorities to voters. In doing so it should again however be free to reassert its anti-Conservatism, which chimes with its history, membership and potential voters. Debate over the Party’s policy platform is not the subject of this post, but it should have bold and distinctly liberal things to say about matters such as insecure employment, stagnant productivity (and its link to wages), housing costs, internationalism beyond the West’s borders, oversight of the state security apparatus, and political disenfranchisement. It must again become a Party of change. It should not mismanage expectations or lose sight of its goals, but cast achieving long term and lasting change, not as inconvenient barriers to forming coalitions, but synonymous with long term support for the Liberal Democrats.
Paul Pettinger joined the Liberal Democrats in 1992 of his own volition, aged 11. He served as a Liberal Democrat Exeter City Councillor and from 2006 to 2009 was Liberal Youth’s member of staff. He has spent the last 7 years campaigning to ensure that the state funded school systems in England and Wales better promote integration and treat people of all religion and beliefs fairly and equally. He sits on the Board of the Electoral Reform Society.