by Energlyn Churchill

Who are the Liberal Democrats and what are they for? It's a question that the electorate has struggled with, not least because different party members are likely to give differing answers. If all political parties are broad churches, then ours is broader than most. Classic Liberalism, Social Liberalism, Economic Liberalism, Social Democracy; you name it and I've probably encountered it during my 22 year association with the Party. It goes some way towards explaining why we have often been accused of trying to be all things to all people.

The historic failure of Liberal leaders to nail any definitive colours to the mast has not helped the situation. Instead, we have relied on the 'cult' of well known local candidates who 'get things done'; on being the party of protest; on being the party that does a good job locally. Other than perhaps having the vague sense that we are a 'progressive' party, very few vote Liberal Democrat because they have a clue what Liberalism is. Frankly, we've never really told them.

When we threw our lot in with the Conservatives in 2010, it came as an unpleasant surprise to a lot of people. Our vague 'progressive' credentials were seriously undermined; whatever they thought we were, it certainly wasn't a Tory coalition partner. We all know what happened next: a total failure to distinguish the Lib Dems from the Tories in government and a subsequent general election campaign in which we presented ourselves as a 'split the difference' party between Labour and the Tories. The cringeworthy 'heart to the Tories, brain to Labour' strapline did nothing more than mark us out as a party desperate to be in power, no matter who we shared it with. Above all else, it is the historic failure to build a core vote based on a convincing Liberal narrative that is the reason we now find ourselves in this sorry state.

The imperative to develop and carve out a distinctive brand has never been more urgent. We face nothing less than an existential crisis that we can only hope to survive by providing a distinctive and credible Liberal Democrat vision that both sets us apart and tells the electorate what it is to be Liberal. The 'Your Liberal Britain' consultation is an attempt to begin developing that narrative in the only way that Liberal Democrats know how: by asking our members. I firmly believe it will be an incoherent discussion and any attempt to accomodate the views of Social Liberals, Classic Liberals, Orange Bookers and Social Democrats by drawing a line of best fit will fail. That simply takes you full circle.

It is the Party's leaders that should set the agenda. Sadly, Tim Farron seems to be making the same mistake as his predecessors. Having initially sought to steer the Party towards a Social Liberal agenda, he has hit the reverse button following Corbyn's election to take us back towards the non-descript centre in an effort to appeal to moderate voters. I believe Tim to be a Social Liberal through and through, but he needs to show it more. Constantly re-positioning ourselves in relation to other parties will not dig us out of our hole. It makes the electorate suspicious and distrusting of us at a time when we have to regain that trust.

Whilst some are dancing the dance of equidistance, others would prefer us to align ourselves more closely to other allegedly 'progressive' forces in British politics. Someone once said that the Tories are the enemy and that Labour is the competition. The Tories are most certainly the enemy in my eyes, but this should not automatically mean that my enemy's enemy is my friend.

Unlike centrism and equidistance, I accept that the idea of a progressive alliance has logic. The Tories dominate the right of British politics in a way that no single party can monopolise the left. With the left being a more competitive space, this makes it easier for the Tories to divide and conquer. As they continue to wage their social war on the poor, the Welfare State and the disenfranchised, some are arguing for a progressive alliance ahead of the 2020 General Election based on social justice and political reform to take the Tories on. There is disagreement over the nature of the alliance. Some want electoral pacts; others want shared platforms and common priorities; a few are happy to plump for ongoing informal discussions. Whatever the nature of such an alliance, if press reports are to believed then senior members from left-leaning parties are actively talking to each other about it.

Whilst it might be in the interests of the common good, a progressive alliance is certainly not in our Party's long term interests. If you are a party with a strong core vote, an identifiable brand and a strong parliamentary presence then the electoral risk is limited. You will attract support whatever happens. We have eight MPs and no one really knows what we stand for. Being part of an alliance will make it nearly impossible for us to stand out from the crowd. Why would you vote for us when you could vote for the bigger alliance partner? 

Some would respond by saying that electoral pacts would mean that Labour could step down in those seats where we are the challengers to the Tories and vice versa, but this is to assume that Labour voters would support us in the absence of a Labour candidate. It also assumes that those who had voted for us in the past in those seats would do so again. Many people vote for us because we are not Labour. The well worn 'vote Lib Dem, get Labour' message would be deployed by the Tories immediately, and it would resonate with more effect in the context of a formal alliance. It would also do little to help us build up a core vote across the UK as a whole if we were to not stand in some constituencies, as well as disenfranchising those who would have otherwise voted Liberal Democrat. If an alliance did manage to deliver the utopia of proportional representation, our subsequent support in those uncontested areas would be undermined for years to come.

By far the biggest flaw in the progressive alliance approach is the Labour Party. Under Corbyn they are in total disarray. Their parliamentary party is largely against him and is preoccupied with getting rid of him. He is viewed with suspicion by large swathes of the electorate. His position is far from secure and Labour is incapable of forming an alliance with itself, let alone with other parties. We have just as much responsibility to offer a distinct alternative to Labour's shambles as we do to the Tories.

Any talk of forging pacts, alliances or agreements is an unwelcome distraction. It's imperative that a Liberal voice is maintained in British politics for the longer term. For that reason, our focus should be on rebuilding the party based on a credible core vote attracted to a strong Social Liberal narrative. If 2020 proves to be inconclusive we will be in a much stronger position to negotiate with an increased parliamentary presence. If we put the cart before the horse, 2020 could kill off Liberalism as a distinct political force, and its blood would be on our hands.

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