UK Liberal Democrats have suffered a second devastating blow just over a year after the 2015 near-wipe-out. Early on Friday afternoon, I listened to Tim Farron giving his reaction and setting some of his thoughts about where our Party is and what we should do next. It was a good speech containing some analysis of underlying changes and some ideas about next steps for LibDems.
It wasn’t a thorough analysis and it didn’t amount to a strategy, but that wasn’t Friday’s job. The challenge now is to understand what happened and to set out a clear strategy for what we do next.
This short essay offers a starting point from a social liberal perspective.
First and above all, we have to recognise that the future has to be a struggle for hearts and minds, not just for votes. The referendum was a blue-on-blue battle because Conservatives have already won the battle to frame the questions: about immigration, economics, welfare and English nativism. The campaign took for granted core Tory values about the nation’s goals and then argued about how to deliver them – unsurprisingly, the more simple, raw view of those values won.
For Lib Dems, our share of the blame comes because, over decades, we concentrated our energies on winning locally on street-level issues and saw squeezing third parties as a key strategy. In many places, we forgot or just put on the back burner the core argument of the community politics strategy: local campaigning should be about gaining the right to be heard and to persuade on the big issues and ideas as well as fixing the potholes and providing competent administration of the status quo.
That vacuum was made worse by the fact of coalition with the Tories and even more by how that coalition was managed. At least, however, the big ideas were there in the background and could be discerned in some of the battles we fought within the coalition. And Nick Clegg’s resignation speech was a powerful reminder of the liberal values that hadn’t been heard or seen by most people in the preceding years as was Tim’s speech today. To misquote Dickens, nothing in politics became Nick so much as his leaving of it. And Tim has been speaking up for liberalism during his leadership.
The greatest indictment for losing the fight against Tory prejudices, however, must be made against Labour. The Blairite coalition of voters was put together by accepting key Tory prejudices and pretending that they could better deliver on them than the Tories themselves. They gave away core left principles on social justice, internationalism, migration and Englishness for the sake of office.
We need a movement for liberalism and liberal ideas which goes far beyond the everyday concerns of an ordinary party. There’s little point in ever more technical ways of getting out the vote if those voters don’t understand or accept what we aim to achieve with success in achieving office. Justin Trudeau appealed to voters in a country where people shared his liberal vision and attitudes and even his opponents knew that they had to fight on that territory. In England, we have lost that battle over many years. A successful liberal government can only be based on a country with liberal values at its heart.
That means campaigning on liberal issues at every level and using the respect we earn locally to build support for a liberal vision based on social justice, human dignity and respect for others. It also means turning our party into a debate about how to achieve those things, arguing ideas and policies through with liberals throughout the country and with everybody else. It is not about tailoring manifestos to existing prejudices, avoiding difficult issues on doorsteps and “getting out the vote”.
The big ideas of 21st century liberalism start with the recognition that our planet’s security is fragile. On economics, we need to recognise that modern capitalism uses its power to distort markets, manipulate consumers and create gross and disfiguring inequality. We recognise Adam Smith’s assertion that market economics need to be based on public morality and Keynes’s view that states have a crucial role in regulating markets. We need to return to Beveridge’s vision of defeating the modern giants that stand in the way of enabling everyone to have a decent life. The goal of health policy is to create a healthy society not just to treat illness and that means recognising that good health is about employment, environment, decent housing and the sense of controlling one’s own life. Learning is a lifelong process that enables us to make the best of ourselves. And, above all, there is the certainty that every person’s life is equally precious, whether they live in Clacton or Calcutta, Syria or Southend.
Most importantly, the development of our ideas needs to start from understanding what’s wrong and what should be done to create right. Too often, we start with the existing powers of an existing Department of State and devote our time to working out the tweaks needed to make it more efficient.
Tim Farron is also right to say that the experience of working with key people in other parties during the referendum should form a good basis for future co-operation. That will be easiest with the Greens and perhaps Plaid Cymru. He is right in saying that Corbyn’s betrayal of his own voters over the EU means that he isn’t a leader with whom we can work, even if he had the support of his own MPs. The greatest losers from Brexit will be the people, many of them traditional Labour voters, who will lose jobs, income and hope because Brexit will hit them hardest.
The SLF will be working to help Tim and others to build the case for new and progressive alliances which represent liberal values and fight for social justice. We also recognise that those alliances will include some liberal Tories who have no future in the parties of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage.
I don’t know whether we can do any sort of deal with a Labour Party with all its different elements or whether we have to default to a Grimond view of realignment of the left based on new parties. That would require a political earthquake – but that sounds like a good goal for social liberals! And, the hollowness of existing structures often isn’t seen until they collapse.
Gordon Lishman (Acting Chair, Social Liberal Forum)