Particularly in the aftermath of a general election, you hear lots of Liberal Democrats saying that the party needs to more radical or more distinctive. Or, as this views are often played out on the internet these days, MORE RADICAL!!!
The problem is what often comes next: the favourite policy idea of the person making this call. (A policy, which by lucky chance, is the policy they’ve always thought was a good idea even well before the election result.)
Often in the past that policy has been the decriminalisation of cannabis, although other policies across political reform, housing and taxation are also favourites. Yet in the 2017 general election we had just that in our manifesto. Not only was it in there, it received a deluge of local, regional and national media coverage. So much so that the Britain Thinks focus groups showed it was one of the very few things about the party which actually cut through to voters and got their attention, overcoming the women’s hockey problem.
And of course the result of the party adopting a distinctive policy, discarding decades of Conservative-Labour consensus to propose a radical, evidence-based reform which the public supported was that the Liberal Democrats rode to a landslide victory… oh hang on…
Individual policies certainly can make a dramatic impact, but it’s when they symbolise something wider about the party. Hence the Lib Dem problem with tuition fees, much though that is surround by myth over both the politics and the impact of it. Or why Tony Blair’s hard-line law and order approach worked so well for New Labour’s early days.
In both cases one policy spoke to a wider sense of who the party was.
Reverse the usual Lib Dem approach
Which of course brings us to my core votes theme. What the Liberal Democrat need to do is be clear about who we are trying to appeal to (only despots aspire to the support of 100%), the overall message we have for those people – and then the policies which illustrate and substantiate that message.
Far easier to say than do, of course, but one element is straight-forward – that ordering of target, message, policy which is the reverse of what the party has traditionally done.
It’s an issue Jim Williams and I have talked about in more detail in our pamphlet, Reinventing the Liberal Democrats.