It seems quite odd as we sit in the eleventy-billionth week of quarantine to recall that the 2019 general election only happened four months ago. I was recently prodded to submit some thoughts to the ongoing review into what happened in the election going on in the Liberal Democrats and decided that I should turn them into a blog post as the likelihood of them featuring in the final report of the election review feels somewhat slim to me. As well as looking back at the failings of 2019, I’ve done another post building on that to look at how we might move forward in the post-Covid 19 world.
Is there a future for the Liberal Democrats?
How do we build a liberal future, and are the Liberal Democrats part of that?
I’ve noticed amongst several parts of the party that a certain narrative about the election is taking root, and it needs to be challenged before it becomes conventional wisdom. Indeed, some of it already is conventional wisdom in the party, which is why the explanation has become so easily prevalent.
The general argument is that our way of doing things has been tried and tested so is fundamentally sound, and it was just a few poor decisions in the election campaign that doomed us. Conveniently for some, this allows for much of the blame to be dumped at Jo Swinson’s feet, and doesn’t require us to make many changes to the way we operate. The problem is seen as that we had policies and opinions on things, which were bad, and instead should concentrate on having as few opinions as possible while delivering as many leaflets as we can to show us pointing angrily at as many things as we can. That’s not to say there were no errors in the election campaign, but these are mainly problems of procedure and people getting complicated judgement calls wrong. In that vein, I would suggest that the party’s main problem came when the Brexit Party effectively withdrew from the election and we did not then take the opportunity to rethink and reshape our tactics in the light of this decision. When the election looked like it might be a chaotic four-way fight, pushing the idea of Jo Swinson as PM was risky, but worth trying to challenge the three blokes arguing about their favourite form of Brexit. When that didn’t come to pass, a new strategy other than “keep doing what we were doing and hope something turns up” was needed.
However, the main focus for attention is the idea that all our problems can be attributed to the revoke/remain position we adopted, often served with a side of “and that’s why we shouldn’t have any controversial policies and just focus on pointing at potholes”. (This is part of a long-running issue in the party that includes Nick Clegg’s “I’ll avoid breaking pledges in the future by…not making any more pledges”) However revoke/remain wasn’t a problem in and of itself. Instead, it reveals two big problems the party has if it’s ever going to get back to any sort of level of success and not remain a fringe party.
The first problem is our policy process, which is sclerotic and bureaucratic, determined to churn out acres of worthy policy that almost no one in the party (and absolutely no one outside it) will ever pay any attention to. What we need is big ideas to catch the public’s attention, what we get is policy-wonk managerialism that tries to please everyone and offend no-one. Only occasionally does a big idea get adopted as policy, and usually only when it bypasses the policy process, which exists purely to grind down big ideas into inoffensive mush as I wrote about here:
The Liberal Democrat policy process is broken.
I’ve been thinking for a while that the way the party makes policy is not fit for purpose and needs fundamental change…
There’d been a strong movement in the party for it to adopt a revoke position from 2017, but it was constantly blocked by the push for policy that tried to be all things to all men and not offend anyone. The party passed through a series of fudges around a second referendum but always having some wiggle room about not explicitly saying we just wanted to remain in the EU because of fears of offending some mythical cohort of Liberal Democrat-voting leavers. This is a process the party has gone through with so many other policies, where any attempt to be bold has been watered down because there’s a belief that there’s some perfect policy out there that will appeal to everyone if only we compromise enough, rather than sticking to our guns and setting out our position clearly. By committing to fudge, the party delayed the point at which we could have adopted a radical and distinctive policy around revoke/remain, which meant that by the time it finally was adopted it was too late.
This then leads to the second issue which is that Liberal Democrats are extraordinarily bad at explaining and selling our policies when we do adopt them. In part, this is because managerialist mush is hard to sell, but mainly it’s because we’re generally atrocious at telling a story about ourselves and what we’re for. The party doesn’t have a consistent message based on values and principles, so when we try to suddenly shift to a policy that’s based on a big idea — like revoke/remain — we simply haven’t got the credibility with the public to do that. The comparison here should be with 2003, when we adopted a similarly controversial stance of opposing the Iraq War (again, over fierce internal opposition that wanted moderation in all things) but could make that case because Charles and Paddy had spent years building up the party and their own reputations for doing the right thing and having principles. Tim had started this process again (before getting skewered by his own beliefs) but Vince appeared to believe nothing other than what was passing through his head at any given moment, and Jo simply didn’t have the time to build any sort of reputation or trust with the public.
The core to both of these issues is that we have to accept that being in politics means that some people are going to disagree with and dislike you. There are always going to be people who won’t vote for us, and it’s foolish to try and make concessions to those who will always treat us with bad faith. The Liberal Democrat 2019 election campaign failed, not because we were putting forward radical policies, but because we’ve spent most of the past decade trying to pretend we’re not radical, and have various institutions within the party determined to stamp out anything different, interesting and radical in case it offends people who are never going to vote for us anyway.
My initial fear with the election review was that it was going to find Jo Swinson and her team were convenient scapegoats for all that had gone wrong. Then it would say that we just had to keep on keeping on, shut up about policy and deliver more leaflets, while only recommending cosmetic changes to the way the party works. I think the current crisis has changed the likelihood of that being the sole outcome of the review, but I still fear we’ll miss the opportunities ahead of us in the post-Coronavirus world.