For the Liberal Democrats and its predecessors the party’s strategy for success at general elections was based on the accumulation of random chance through hard work. That is, a particular Parliamentary seat would become winnable through the combination of the right mix of personalities coming together at the local level, opposition errors, issue opportunities and helpful demography or tactical situation. Causal factors one and all, but with the accumulative appearance of random chance.
It made for a diverse set of winnable, and won, seats without nearly as much in common between them – and those who voted Liberal Democrat – as is the case with other parties.Hence the problem of the Liberal Democrats never having built up a large core vote, with all the downsides in terms of vulnerability to bad times and the certainty of losing a large chunk of support in a hung Parliament regardless of what you do. Without a larger core vote, the party is simply too vulnerable to tough times and facing too uphill a struggle to progress in good times.
For more on all of that see my Lib Dem strategy pamphlet written with David Howarth, in which we also set out the alternative: targeting instead a group of voters who share our liberal values in order to build up a core vote. In other words, picking what we want our party support to look like in the future and then going after the voters who will deliver that, rather than seeing the random accumulation of locally-driven success in diverse areas and then trying to stitch that together into something.
We tried that and it fell apart under stress. As it would have had there been, say, a Lib Dem-Labour deal in 2010. Different voters would have deserted the party, but they would still have been counted in droves.
The cleavage over Brexit provides the opportunity for the Liberal Democrats to set out on this different approach. Or more accurately, the difference in values and hopes for the future which differences over Brexit illustration provide that opportunity. For simply talking about a referendum on the Brexit deal, increasingly popular though that idea is, means talking about process and means rather than about vision and hope.
This opportunity also comes as a time when such a pivot in the party’s strategy is much easier to do.
For the sad fallout from the 2015 and 2017 general elections are that there are far fewer Lib Dem MPs than there use to be. Pivoting to a core vote strategy when you have lots of MPs elected in a very diverse set of seats is much harder because of the understandable reluctance to do anything which doesn’t appeal across all your held seats. We saw that problem in the past when an understandable hesitancy to say anything that might not go down well in all the different Lib Dem held seats often held the party back from saying anything too distinctive and strong in the first place.
This hangover from the past still rests heavily on the party. Possible candidates I talk to keep on referring back to old election results. Regions keep on thinking about supporting future target seats based on the past. The party’s selection rules keep on looking backwards to work out what are the winnable seats. And the list goes on.
As a trained historian, I am of course keen on learning from the past. But to rebuild as a better and stronger party, we mustn’t just look to replicate the past. We need to build something different, more durable and therefore more successful.
We have – hopefully – only a brief window in which to carry out that pivot in party strategy before there are too many internal vested interests in place once again which would stop it.
That’s why premature Stakhanovite optimism is problematic. That’s why the regular switching around of party messaging is risky. What we need instead is to take a strategy and run with it, reversing our usual approach to policy.
UPDATE: A comment on Facebook referenced this apposite Friends clip.