What the results tell us about the Lib Dem future
Military and nautical metaphors abound in the world of political prognostication, so try this nautical one to capture the state of play for the Liberal Democrats after Thursday. Ship massively damaged by huge storm makes it through to calm seas. Boat still very leaky, limping along miles from safety but the bailing out of water is now a smidgen ahead of the incoming leaks. If calm weather holds, may be time to make enough repairs to survive the next batch of bad weather (did anyone mention Parliamentary boundary changes?). Touch and go still whether boat can be made seaworthy enough to actually get anywhere beyond floating around frantically bailing.
No-one before Thursday expected the Liberal Democrats would recover in one bound, and the party did take some steps towards recovery. The question is not so much the extent of the recovery so far but whether the party – and the leadership in particular – really grasp just how much more needs to be done to give recovery a fair chance of working out.
The reason for my raising that question is two-fold. One is simply that in many places and ways the party slipped further away from being the third party of British politics. Its challengers for that role are different in different parts of the country, but one or other of them gained on the party in many places.
The second is the frequent silence in the party, especially from those in senior leadership roles, about the need for the party to change except when talking about constitutional amendments. Many of them are necessary and will help recovery, but they are only one small part of what is needed and, aside from the brief period of attention on the diversity motion passed at York, wider talk of change is more often absent than present.
Notable, for example, was the lack of anything beyond cheery optimism in Tim Farron’s emails to party members about the election results in the last few days. He does cheery optimism well, and that is a key part of successful for leadership. But there were no buts in his messages about what else the party has to do, just as there have not been in his speeches in recent months.
During the leadership campaign he frequently talked about how much the party needs to change to recover. Now, however, that seems to be replaced by premature Stakhanovite optimism. Where we work we can win once again, so get to work.
Improving the party’s diversity. Growing the party’s membership. Modernising our campaign techniques. Reforming our internal process. Introducing a culture of testing and learning. Properly integrating digital throughout the party’s operations. Finding a new compelling narrative. Those are all major challenges. None of them came after the cheery optimism. The message wasn’t ‘well done, now let’s get stuck into the hard work of change’ it was just ‘well done’ and silence.
There are some signs of a more hard headed approach to the future than simply ‘get to work in your patch again’, especially in the appointment of Shaun Roberts at party HQ – a man with a long record of wanting to change the way the party does things.
But only some and there are some big gaps at present, such as on the party’s message. David Axelrod caricatured – with a bite of honesty – the Labour general election campaign message as ‘Vote Labour and win a microwave’. In many ways the Lib Dem message at these elections was ‘Vote Lib Dem, win a street crossing and a bar chart’.
Admirable things, street crossings, but any party can campaign for them. Better political weather means the Lib Dems can do better with the street crossing and bar chart combo than in recent years, but it still leaves a very soft Lib Dem vote. One which is not built on long term loyalty to a liberal cause – a point which I explored in more detail of course with David Howarth in our core votes pamphlet. In particular, we highlighted why the reliance on such a soft Lib Dem vote caused so many problems even in the party’s heyday. That’s why the party’s local government base had stopped growing years before going into coalition. We need to rebuild a different, and better, party.
So that’s my verdict: the modest nature of the party’s recovery shows how much it needs to change to really recover – and that if it does, it will work. But the reactions so far raise serious questions about how many people in the party are up for that change.