Lessons for the Lib Dems from the bungling Conservative culture wars

As Stephen Bush has pointed out in the New Statesman, the bungling efforts of the Conservative Party to fire up a culture war in the UK don’t necessarily mean the underlying strategy is a bad one. Poor execution can wreck even the best of strategies.

What these efforts also highlight is the odd position of the Labour Party under its most left-wing leader in decades. The leader may be left, but it’s often caught in the middle – or voluntarily sat in the middle.

That’s most obvious on Brexit where for all Jeremy Corbyn’s disdain of Tony Blair, he is taking every tactic out of the New Labour Triangulation Political Geometry Set to attempt to appeal to both Leavers and Remainers.

But not only on Brexit. Across a range of issues the Labour Party is, as David Howarth has often pointed out, a coalition of two rather different political tribes – the Leave-voting, anti-immigration, welfare-cutting, mass state surveillance loving baiters of liberalism and the Remain-voting, immigration hugging, welfare defending, written constitution loving folk who love to hate Nigel Farage almost as much as the Conservatives.

That’s why the opportunity for the Liberal Democrats crystallised currently by Brexit is a longer-term and broader one. It’s to be the effective political voice for the other end of the spectrum which has Theresa May’s Conservatives at one end and Labour an uneasy coalition in the middle of.

Labour’s position there is one of strength – but a brittle strength because pulling disparate coalitions together can give you surprising political success. They can also fall apart under moments of political strain. Witness the speed with which Liberal Democrat support dropped from straight after the 2010 general election. Before decisions on tuition fees, before decisions on NHS reforms, before decisions on welfare changes… before all those things people subsequently so often cited, Lib Dem support dropped sharply in the face of the mere fact of making a choice in a hung Parliament.

Hence the opportunity for the Liberal Democrats – an opportunity rather than a certainty, as it’s one the party has to rise to meet.

Hence too the Liberal Democrat strategy being proposed at the party’s conference in Southport in March. Not to try to appeal to everyone equally, but to build the foundations of the party’s recovery on that clear and distinctive liberal, tolerant ground at the opposite end of the political spectrum from the occupant of 10 Downing Street.

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Such a core of support provides the foundation on which to add tactical votes and candidate personal votes to do well in first-past-the-post (FPTP) elections, as well as providing the bedrock of support to succeed in the multiplicity of elections by other means in the UK – not to mention those FPTP elections over large geographic areas which the party has always under-performed in.

There was nascent signs that this approach could work ahead of the 2017 general election, including not only Witney and then Richmond Park but also council by-elections and the early signs in the Manchester Gorton contest. Then, however, came Tim Farron’s theology road tour through the media studios. Whether you view that as the result of unfair media obsession or the result of his own choice of answers, it certainly took the party’s election campaign off in an unhelpful direction.

More on that proposed new strategy and its prospects in the next edition of Liberal Democrat Newswiredo sign up here if you’re not yet one of its 12,000 readers.

5 responses to “Lessons for the Lib Dems from the bungling Conservative culture wars”

  1. As far as Brexit is concerned I think Corbyn’s triangulation was never intended, he simply had no choice. He clearly supports Brexit, but most of the Labour party and the Trade Unions were against, including his left wing supporters. The vote to leave in the referendum has given him an opportunity to support leave and he wins the Remain vote because those who support Remain want to punish the Tories. And dare I say the younger voters appear to like his other policies as well.

  2. Whatever the logic of natural liberals voting LD, how are you going to deal with the reality on the ground, the view that, in any given constituency, if I vote with my heart I shall be helping to let the Tories/Labour in?

    • Today’s 28th February) article by Aditya Chakrabortty in the guardian “How a town got its power v-back) clearly demonstrates that membership of the EU is no bar to taking public utilities back into public ownership.

    • Fair point in constituencies where we can’t win, but where we can win, the number of voters we can win from our main opponents is usually quite small and the big gains come from the third party: many voters will, for example, vote LD to keep the Tories out. So we can’t really complain about a leftish Lib voter in a Tory/Labour marginal voting Labour. We can make all the arguments about the credibility a high vote gives us and about building for the future. By the way, Labour’s cultural conservatism is nothing new. I was reading a social history of Britain between the wars and one thing that came out strongly was the conservatism of Labour on open/shut, diverse/uniform and gender equality issues. This comes as a slight surprise to a baby boomer like me, familiar with the quite liberal Labour image of the sixties.

  3. The following might seem strange from a distinctly left-wing member of our party. However…

    Our party urgently needs to address the issue of wealth creation. We can all make worthwhile suggestions about expenditure. But unless we can explain how these can be paid for they are meaningless.

    My emphasis would be on a major promotion of SME type businesses. Research shows they offer far greater scope of increasing employment and economic growth. We can also integrate this with a proactive emphasis on ‘Green oriented’ SMEs. This should include green perspectives on energy consumption, waste disposal etc. If done correctly such an economic expansion would not mean greater consumption of materials etc, but the creation of higher tech, higher value items. Thus, products that have longer working lives, require less expensive maintenance etc.

    Such ideas are not unrealistic pipe dreams. The analysis of modern industrial practises shows they are achievable aims.

    NB By profession I an a specialist in modern manufacturing methods

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