Firm foundations for long-term success
The solution to the ‘microwave problem’ is of course what I set out last time in my new pamphlet, How to rebuild the Liberal Democrats. As I wrote in that:
There has been a sequence of different policy, campaigning and messaging priorities in the last year, but no clear overall strategy. Or, to be fair to party leader Tim Farron, the strategy since his election in July 2015 has been not to have a strategy and instead rather rely on a nimble reaction to events. There is certainly merit in that approach, and successful third party leaders have often been noted for their willingness to focus on the short term opportunities to seize scarce media attention.
The risk, however, with that approach is that you end up going round in circles rather than progressing. Hence education was first out as a priority but is now back. Or the target for 100,000 party members was floated, quietly side-lined and then returned.
Even worse, without clear direction the natural momentum is to take the easiest, most initially appealing option at each turn, which can lead a party into a political cul-de-sac. That in part is the story of the Liberal Democrat build-up prior to May 2010. Overall that story is a positive one, but it shows the dangers of falling prey to such tempting cul-de-sacs, in this case the temptation of accumulating support in a way that brought headline triumphs but was bound to fracture horribly in the face of the pressures of a hung Parliament. If your voting support is heavily dependent on a mix of people who really dislike the Tories, people who really dislike Labour and people who really dislike all politicians, then whatever you do in a hung Parliament, disaster looms.
It requires strong self-discipline not to charge down every inviting cul-de-sac, and the way to have that self-discipline is to have a strategy which gives a different way of choosing where to head.
What is more, the absence of a strategy to do something different does not mean nothing happens. It means, rather, that the party continues as it was before. Habits, procedures and bureaucracies continue to churn on, and where they are taking the party in the wrong direction, then they take the party even further from where it should be.
You can read the pamphlet in full here to see the solution – the better path the party can take to recovery, based on building up a larger core vote for the party. (You can also join the discussion on Facebook here.)
That is also why in the new round of party committee elections coming up, rather than run again for the Federal Policy Committee, I’m going to run for the Federal Board (the successor to the Federal Executive). It has a new role in creating and coordinating the party’s strategy, including putting a proposed strategy to party conference and then, if it is adopted, coordinating its implementation across the different parts of the party.
Constitutional changes such as that are only an enabler for an effective strategy. You can’t force a good strategy via changing the wording of rules. But you can make it easier to have one – as the Governance Review has rightly done.
Now that the opportunity is there, it is crucial that the Federal Board produces a strategy which is more than simply a ‘let’s all have lots of nice things’ ragbag which accumulates everyone’s pet idea on its way through the democratic processes.
The test of the strategy will be whether there is anything substantive that it doesn’t include. Because genuine priorities and real strategies are as much about what you decide not to to do as what you do decide to do.
For the Liberal Democrats, that should mean a prioritisation on building up a larger core vote – with the honest understanding that therefore doesn’t simply mean trying to regain all the places we used to hold.
It means winning in a different mix of places, some old and some new, but which are based on a much more coherent and hence resilient appeal rather than the random lucky accumulation of where happened to have the hardest working teams appear of their own volition (see expanded explanation here).
The best time, of course, to make such as switch is now, when the number of incumbents is (sadly) at an all time low and hence there is far more flexibility to switch areas of priority.