On Liberal Democrats, equidistance, working with others and electoral success

I’m trying to think of a Liberal Democrat leadership election in which the question of “which party are you closest to?” hasn’t been a big issue for the candidates. The best I can think of is 1988 when Paddy Ashdown and Alan Beith were more likely to be asked which of the two parties that had merged into the Social and Liberal Democrats they were closest to. Or just “which party are you?”

So it’s unsurprising that relations with other parties have been a big issue in the party’s 2020 leadership election. Wera Hobhouse launched her campaign by declaring that the party should “abandon equidistance” and look to form a progressive alliance working with Labour, and Layla Moran has looked at working with other parties in her Build Back Better book. As far as I can see from his campaign site, Ed Davey hasn’t said anything on the subject yet.

So, it’s an issue, but why is it an issue, and what are the potential answers to the question?

To get to the heart of it, we need to look at a bit of history, both of the Liberal Democrats and the predecessor parties, the Liberals and the SDP. In their long history, the Liberals had tried all sorts of different positions, including being one of the two parties in a two-party system, making an alliance with the rising cause of Labour, looking to form an anti-socialist front to keep Labour out and declaring themselves a reforming force of neither left or right seeking to supplant both Tories and Labour. The SDP formed out of a faction convinced Labour was too far to the left and sought to dominate British politics from a new centre before forming an electoral alliance with the Liberals and eventually merging.

The key is that for most of the time from Jo Grimond to Paddy Ashdown the Liberals/Alliance/Liberal Democrats were following a policy of what would come to be known as “equidistance” — not making any commitment to support either of the two big parties and ploughing their own furrow. There were exceptions to this like Jeremy Thorpe holding coalition talks with Edward Heath after the February 1974 election, or the Lib-Lab Pact later that decade, but these were presented as principally transactional arrangements — a quid pro quo of support for policy concessions — not a permanent ideological closeness.

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This from 2015 was probably the most explicitly equidistant the party has ever been.

Equidistance can mean a number of things. It can be caricatured as an extreme centrist moderation, looking to split the difference on everything while committing to nothing, or it can be a “plague on both your houses” radicalism that sees itself as fundamentally different, and thus incompatible, with the powers of the old political system. A refusal to make any commitments to favour one party or the other beforehand has been the party and it’s predecessors’ position at almost every general election, though stated with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

It’s the exceptions to that which makes things interesting, as there have been elections where the party clearly wasn’t equidistant. After the Tories won their fourth election in a row in 1992, Paddy Ashdown committed the party to being party of an anti-Conservative force, which eventually led to a pretty much unprecedented level of co-operation with Labour, even without any formal electoral pacts. There may not have been any formal pre-election pact, but there was a clear indication that, whatever the result of the election, the Liberal Democrats would not countenance a coalition or deal of any sort with the Conservatives, but they would with Labour. While the party wasn’t quite as close to Labour in government in the next two elections, there was still a sense of it as close to Labour, being a “critical friend” in 2001 and a radical anti-war alternative in 2005. It wasn’t until 2010 that Nick Clegg explicitly committed the party back to equidistance and, of course, the coalition.

The important thing to remember in any discussion of party positioning is that beyond the questions of policy and ideology and left/right vs liberal/authoritarian vs open/closed and everything else, it’s driven by the necessities of competing within our electoral system. General elections aren’t a single electoral contest, they’re 650 separate ones which we amalgamate into an overall national result. And as Gary Cox pointed out in his Making Votes Count (1991), single-member plurality elections (“First Past The Post”) tend towards two-party competition, but on a seat-by-seat basis, not a national one. It’s this factor that made moving away from equidistance a clever electoral and political strategy in 1997.

Coming into 1997, the majority of seats where Liberal Democrats were in second place were Tory-held. Given this, it might seem counter-intuitive to seek to be closer to Labour, if the largest portion of voters in the constituencies you were targeting were Conservatives. That misses three important points: first, that Labour voters in those constituencies generally knew their party wasn’t go to win them; second, that the Conservatives didn’t have over 50% of the vote in those target seats; and third, that by 1997 the Conservatives were massively unpopular. Remember, British elections are an amalgamation of smaller contests, not one big one and in the 50 or so key constituencies for the Liberal Democrats, the party generally needed to do two things: make the election a simple choice between them and the Conservatives, and then convince people that they were better than the Tories.

The party was pitching to two distinct groups in these constituencies, but with one main message. The first group were what you’d call floating voters, those without any strong party identification who had likely voted Tory in 92 and before, but had now turned against the Tories. The second group were those who would normally vote Labour but were also motivated by a desire to beat the Tories. Both of these groups are what we’d call instrumental voters, in that they’re more interested in the end result of their vote rather than using it to express their political values. The more instrumental voters with a common goal there are, the more likely tactical voting is to succeed.

The message being sent to all these voters was “You don’t want a Tory government? Great, we don’t either, and we’re the best option for defeating the Tories in this constituency so vote for us!” Now, there’s a lot going on within and behind that message to strengthen and explain it and I don’t have the time to go into the full detail, but there’s two key points to get over here. The first is the more obvious. By abandoning equidistance and working closely with Labour, the party made it clear to Labour voters that it was safe to switch their vote, that voting Liberal Democrat was another path to a non-Tory government.

The second point relies on an assumption that many people miss: the group of “Tory voters” is not homogeneous and not fixed in attitudes or behaviour. People who’d voted for Major in 92 and Thatcher in the three elections before that weren’t all dyed-in-the-wool Tories and by 1997, many of them were heavily dissatisfied with a party that had overseen recession and Black Wednesday. These floating voters were looking for an alternative government, and even though the Liberal Democrats had move closer to Labour, Labour (in the perception of these voters, at least) had moved closer to the position of the electorate. On its own the idea that moving closer to Labour can win over Tory voters seems illogical and paradoxical, but it ignores that abandoning equidistance for 1997 was the solution to a three-body problem where Labour’s position was just as important as the Liberal Democrats’.

And this is similar to the situation the party find itself in now (though on a much weaker position in terms of seats and votes than it was pre-1997). Decisions on equidistance aren’t taking place in a static environment. The question is not “the Conservatives are here and always will be, Labour are here and always will be, where do you want to position yourself between them?” Rather it’s one where both the other parties are in constant motion and the decision to be made is do you want to keep avoiding both of them, or are you prepared to share some space with one of them? How much does the party want to exist on its own, and how much is it prepared to work with others. Equidistance tends to imply the party can find a fixed point to stick to, when perhaps it’s better to think of the issue as a spectrum of possible strategies from total avoidance of any kind of working together at one end to full cohabitation and electoral pacts at the other.

The important thing to consider, and this is what was on Paddy Ashdown’s mind in 1992, is not how things are today, but how do we expect them to be by the time the next election comes around? What he realised then was that it was ridiculous to imagine the Liberal Democrats supporting a fifth Tory term whenever that election came around, and so the party needed to commit to being part of a broader anti-Tory grouping.

I would suggest that the Liberal Democrats of 2020 are in the same position with regard to the election of 2024 (or whenever) and I can’t foresee a situation in which you could credibly claim the Tories of Johnson (or his successor) and Starmer’s Labour are two sides of the same coin. The question then is how does the party best marshal the anti-Tory vote of that election in its key seats to win as many MPs as possible while putting the Tories out of office? That’s the debate we should be having around “equidistance”.

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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