I’ve been mostly on the sidelines for this Liberal Democrat leadership election. While I generally leaned towards supporting Layla Moran (and wished she’d stood in last year’s contest), I was feeling generally underwhelmed by the party as a whole at the start of the contest.
After the debacle of the 2019 General Election, I was one of the first to suggest that we as a party needed a pause before we jumped into the next leadership election both to lick our wounds and to assess what the new political environment would be like. (Obviously, I had no idea of quite what 2020 would turn out to be like at that point) We did get that delay and the Thornhill Review into the election as well, but even when the pandemic hit it felt to me that people were still operating under the assumption that we’d be “back to normal” soon enough. We’d taken the pause, but the big questions of what the Liberal Democrats are actually for, and what the party could achieve in the future regardless of who was leader, were being avoided.
That slotted together with another idea that’s been occupying me lately: that one of the party’s key problems is that we assume our election results from 1997–2010 are the norm we’re currently deviated from, rather than the outliers from which we’ve now reverted back to the mean. In other words, the assumption is that the Liberal Democrats are a party whose baseline is getting a decent amount of votes which results in winning a reasonable (though not proportionate) number of seats. That the party hasn’t done that in a decade is because of mistakes, problems and issues that need to be rectified, but once they are fixed then we’ll back in the big time. In this assumption the principal debate in the party should thus be over what these mistakes, problems and issues are and how best they’re fixed.
However, taking a longer view shows that the since the UK settled into a Conservative-Labour political duopoly, the role of the third party (in whatever Liberal/Alliance/Liberal Democrat form) has been to generally do quite poorly at elections, and even when the vote share has gone up the return in terms of extra seats has been relatively low with the party tending to win around one Parliamentary seat for each percentage point of the vote it gets. There’s some oscillation around that one for one exchange but the only significant and long-lasting outlier is the 1997–2010 period.
The party’s post-2010 issues are not just about the party’s share of the vote collapsing, it’s that the effectiveness of that vote has reverted to the pre-1997 mean. If you’re not taking any before the 1990s into account in your analysis, though, it’s easy to just see this as a temporary slump.
The problem this leads to, though, is an assumption that there’s both a simple fix to the party’s problems and that this fix can be delivered entirely internally. In the most basic form, this solution says “we did well up to 2010 because we campaigned hard, once we remove (insert obstacle here) we will be able to campaign hard again, and thus we will be back where we were before 2010”. This has the advantage of being a simple and seemingly obvious solution, but it shares the disadvantage of most simple and seemingly obvious solutions in that it’s completely wrong.
Now, you can make an argument that the Liberal Democrat success of those years is down purely to the party’s campaigning prowess, but the problem is that the inevitable conclusion of that argument is that the party is doomed. I wrote about this in more detail a few months ago, but the problem with the party’s campaigning methods is that they were ones that other parties could and did replicate (with some pretty bad consequences for British politics as a whole):
How community politics became customer service politics (and then consumed British politics from…
This is the story of how a Liberal pamphlet from 1980 led to the collapse of the British political system.
“Campaign harder” is not a solution to the problems of the party, not least because we already have a dangerously Stakhanovite approach to campaigning, but also because everyone else is campaigning harder too, and often in better and more effective ways than we’ve ever managed. If pre-2010 success was solely down to campaigning prowess then it was solely a first-move advantage that the party had, squandered and now can’t be repeated. Campaigning is necessary for electoral success, but no matter how much of it you do, in the long-term it can never be sufficient in itself.
If you’ve read anything else I’ve written about the party over the last few years, then that won’t come as a surprise to you, as my position has always been that campaigning skill alone is not why the party was successful in those years. Liberal Democrat success was based much more around the party’s position, its messaging and communication of that position and other parties reaction to that position. See this from the start of this leadership election, for instance:
On Liberal Democrats, equidistance, working with others and electoral success
The latest leadership election gives the Liberal Democrats a choice about future directions which they need to…
An interesting point of comparison to our current situation is that Ashdown and Kennedy were both beneficiaries of an earlier period of third party success, as both had been initially elected on the Alliance’s high tide of 1983. After the party’s vote collapsed after 1987, it would have been easy to just say that we needed to do what we did in the eighties and get support back that way, but this time without David Owen around to distract everyone. What’s key to both their leaderships, though, is that they didn’t look backwards at what had worked in the past but looked at the current situation and how it might develop to see how they could push the party forward. The Alliance surge had been based on a “plague on both your houses” strategy, and the space for that just wasn’t there any more.
Which brings us to 2020 and the choice between Layla Moran and Ed Davey for leader. The decisive question for me in deciding between the two is given the party’s history and the current situation in the party, the country and the world, which of them is most likely to lead the party to some kind of relevance over the next few years? And “most likely” is important to stress here — anyone claiming their candidate will inevitably lead the party to success is being disingenuous at best.
For me, the answer is clearly Layla as she is looking towards where we as a party need to be in the future political environment. I might not agree with her on everything, but she’s instinctively radical, and that’s the space the party needs to be operating in. Even before becoming leader she’s shown an ability to get press focus and public attention, and she’s also shown she’s effective at working outside the party and building relationships with others. While I might have problems with some of Build Back Better, it was a bold move to put out new ideas for a post-Covid world and a sign of someone who’s interested in new ideas and different thinking.
There’s no guaranteed route back to relevance or even a guaranteed continued existence for the Liberal Democrats. We can all campaign as hard as we like, but if we’re not making ourselves relevant to the Britain of the coming years, we’re going to continue to dwindle into irrelevance and become a party that occasionally has ups and down based more on the vagaries of luck in local campaigns than anything else. I can’t make an argument that says electing Layla as leader is a guarantee of a return to relevance, electoral success and power, but I do feel that she’s our biggest chance of achieving that. We need to be a party that takes risks, one that’s pushing the ideas that seem wild and cutting edge today but could soon be mainstream. It’s not about being a party that covers all its rough edges in an effort to avoid offending anyone, but being one that’s proud to be spiky, loud and different because we need active and enthused members, supporters and voters. For me, it’s Layla’s plan for the party and the country that offers that.
So, while I was feeling underwhelmed at the start of the contest, I’m feeling somewhat more hopeful by this point in it, because we seem to finally be opening up to having the debates we need about the future of the party and the country and the assumption that we’ll naturally come back to relevance if we keep buggering on and stay the course does feel like it’s withering away. I think there’s still a lot more the party needs to do, and a lot more questions we need to be asking ourselves — some of which include the dread “rebrand” — but I do think Layla can win this election, and I think that can be the start of taking the party into the future. That’s why I’ll be voting for her.