Can you persuade this man to be a Lib Dem?
No prizes for having spotted that the usual drift of these newsletters is ‘please vote Lib Dem’. There’s plenty of positive material to report this week, including the party’s big new £2 million fundraising push (if members raise an extra £1 million, a group of donors have promised to double it). But here next is something rather different – a piece from a voter explaining why they aren’t that keen on the Lib Dems, thank you very much.
The voter will be familiar to many readers being blogging and tweeting lawyer Carl Gardner. Someone who feels very strongly about Brexit, Carl also ticks many of the other boxes which would make him a Lib Dem cheerleader. But he isn’t – and understanding why people such as Carl aren’t (yet?) won over to the party is crucial to understanding how to grow the party.
So here is Carl’s piece, with which I disagree with often in detail but which sets a good challenge for all Lib Dems: ‘how can we win over someone with these views?’. (Clue: telling them they are idiotically wrong won’t work).
I’m a disillusioned former Labour voter – and was a member for 21 years. I’m openly and proudly centrist: as the left has got crazier, I’ve become less and less comfortable at the idea I might be thought “on the left”. The last time Labour went bonkers, I was in the SDP. And having worked myself stupid last year during the referendum, I applaud the LibDems for their stance on Brexit. I may well vote LibDem, just this once, on the 8th of June. But I won’t be joining you. I know I’m not a Liberal Democrat, and will never be one. If that puzzles you, here’s why not.
The first and most important reason why not is the Liberal Democrat obsession with changing the constitution. Lib Dems think PR is the answer to all the country’s ills but it’s really not; the reason most people don’t give a monkey’s about it, and rejected electoral reform given a chance, is that they know it’d make not a jot of difference to their lives. Nor would “federalism” (whatever might be meant by that) solve all the problems of the Union or defeat Scottish nationalism.
What makes these obsessions a turn-off is not just that they provide no answers to contemporary problems but that they’re a displacement activity for Lib Dems, preventing thought about bread and butter issues like what happens at work, what happens in schools, what taxes we pay and what standard of healthcare we get for it.
Lib Dems at their best can come up with good, socially-relevant policies like the pupil premium – but there’s far too little of that. Lib Dems would much rather talk about STV, and fail to see that their own (and the Greens’ and Ukip’s) commitment to PR is no more but also no less selfishly partisan that Tory and Labour opposition to it.
And there’s more. I’m concerned about the threat of extremist terror, and am far less concerned about the vanishingly small risk that GCHQ might conceivably look at my private data – if they need to do so, fine – than I am about how social networks use it. But the Lib Dems seem to oppose every power intelligence agencies have. It’s one of the ways the Lib Dems sometimes resemble the Corbynist left that I’m a refugee from.
Another is your very timid approach to Trident. Dogged by your liberal left and unable to full-bloodedly support a deterrent, you seem always to be trying on some hopeless new compromise: Trident but with fewer submarines, for example. If I thought that was for military reasons, I might be persuaded. But I know it’s not. It’s for purely internal party reasons, to give something to those who think of themselves as peaceniks. No, thanks. If I wanted someone unserious and ideological about defence, I’d back Jeremy Corbyn.
I worry, too, that you’re being taken over – or at least influenced – by some of the sillier ideological tendencies to be found on the “left”. There may be coherent philosophical or sociological arguments for completely decriminalising “sex work” – I’m not convinced. But as a policy, this would be toxic to voters. Dennis Parsons’ speech at your conference the other year (suggesting there was a better case for dissuading young people from a career in accountancy than in “sex work”) shows how far down this rabbit-hole some Lib Dems have gone. And there’s the fringe obsession with Israel. Yes, you got rid of Jenny Tonge. But David Ward was nearly a candidate again this time, in spite of all that’s gone before. The Lib Dems, like Labour, seem to be a bit Chakrabarti on this.
So there it is. On Brexit you’re right, and may well get my support this year for that alone. But you’re a long way from appealing in any deeper way to this particular ex-Labourite – and I doubt I’m alone.