A fair society is a resilient society
Beware the temporary becoming permanent
At any previous point in our history, if the government had banned public gatherings of more than two people – ending political protests, trade union picket lines and even just sunbathing with friends – liberals would have been outraged. Indeed, often were outraged in response to similar massive curbs on our liberty.
But with coronavirus, rather than liberals being off to create placards ahead of a protest that deliberately flouted the rules, instead what criticism there has been are complaints that the ban was not introduced quickly enough.
Immediate necessity, however, should not make us permanent authoritarians. Temporary, emergency measures have a habit of sticking around for a very long time. Income tax – introduced by Pitt the Younger in his 1798 Budget as a temporary measure to pay for the Napoleonic Wars – is very much still with us. Even though it has twice been abolished, each time it has come back. Likewise, the Official Secrets Act of 1911 was rushed in as during a period of spy fever, yet hung around in a massively restrictive form until 1989. Or the ‘temporary’ solution to House of Lords reform agreed in 1911 which is still with us.
Nor should we forget the other consistent pattern of granting the state extra powers over what we can do, where we can go and who we can meet: such powers rarely get applied equally to all sections of society. With so many problems over how police stop and search powers, for example, are disproportionately deployed against ethnic minorities, should we really expect none of those problems to happen this time around?
A fair society is a more resilient society
The challenge, then, for liberals – and the Liberal Democrats in particular – is to craft the long-term liberal response to coronavirus.
One which protects both our health and our civil liberties. One which tackles the social inequality that coronavirus is so sharply illustrating. One which enhances the international cooperation and long-term planning whose necessity we are being so painfully reminded of. And one which shows that liberalism, not authoritarianism, is the right answer.
A liberalism, then, which is true to both the meanings of the word – freedom and generosity.
A liberalism which makes the case that a fair society is a more resilient society. Because a fair society is one that can best protect and nourish us in the face of the challenges of the age, immediate ones such as coronavirus, long-term ones such as climate change, and endemic ones such as social injustice.
A fair society is the one that can best give everyone the most freedom possible to live their own lives as they wish, to be who they wish to be.
Delivering the liberal vision
Our mission as party, then, should be to harness the many liberal voices in our society behind a powerful political voice that can challenge, and win out over, the authoritarians and populists.
The way to do that requires an updated version of the core votes strategy for the party that David Howarth and I set out in 2015. It is an approach that we’ve seen the potential of, such as when the party stuck to its pro-European guns in the 2019 European Parliament elections, pitching to a pro-European vote without being scared off by the thought that a distinctive pitch might also put off some voters.
But there is still much more to do.
As David and I wrote then and is still the case, the current Liberal Democrat core vote is tiny. At around just 1 in 20 of the electorate, it is so small it is barely enough to ensure the party’s survival – and nowhere near large enough to help the party through tough times with any sense of security let alone success.
However, there is a sizeable share of the electorate – around 1 in 5 voters – who share the same attitudes and values as our current core vote.
That would be a core vote large enough to make a real difference. We would still need to reach out beyond our core vote to win many elections. But a 20% core would enable far greater electoral success.
In elections with a list PR or STV element – Welsh Assembly, Scottish Parliament, Scottish local government and London – being able to reliably poll at least 20% would transform our electoral prospects.
In first-past-the-post elections, 20% would of course not be enough to win. But that 20% is not evenly distributed. In fact, the party’s research in the last Parliament shows that liberals are heavily skewed towards particular Parliamentary constituencies, showing strongly both in those seats that the party won in 2010 and in new territory for the party.
What’s more, starting with a larger core vote means starting far closer to the winning line in far more seats. That is both a direct advantage in itself and also an indirect one because the closer we start to the winning line the more effectively we can target swing voters to take us the last part of the way to the winning line. The sort of clever targeting of intensive activity on a small number of voters which gets widely praised as the hallmark of modern winning general election campaigns simply does not work if you start as far away from the winning line as we usually do.
Other parties – Labour and Conservatives in particular – regularly demonstrate the advantages even under first-past-the-post of having a larger core vote.
The Liberal Democrats need to seize some of that advantage for ourselves.
How to make it happen
Building a core vote requires attracting people to our values, winning over the liberals who do not see themselves as Liberal Democrats and building bridges to those who have some liberal views, drawing them towards greater liberalism.
That means putting our values front and centre of our campaigning. We need to create and promote policies that best promote our values. In the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, two, in particular, will be crucial:
- What does a fair and modern welfare state look like – one that can sustain people in need with the full range of support they require, including as we’re painfully being reminded of at the moment, access to space for both mental and physical health?
- What does a fair and modern form of politics look like – one that creates the sort of cross-party working that is required for long-term sustained action of the sort needed to tackle climate change or to ensure sustained readiness against future pandemic threats?
Then to use these ideas to win support and action, we need to build a broad and welcoming movement – recognising that for many people, party membership is not a preferred route.
That’s because the evidence shows that there is something about party membership that ends up appealing more to those who already benefit the most from how our society and economy work. Members are more likely to be male, well-educated and higher up the social hierarchy than even the committed supporters of a party.
Party membership, as a concept, is exclusive in a way that liberals should chafe about and want to fix.
A two-pronged electoral plan
That movement will give us the tool to win more elections – a tool we should deploy to two tasks.
One is to take winning elections at all levels seriously. The quickest way to getting more Liberal Democrats into power is to elect more at local and devolved levels next May. We have been seeing through the coronavirus the huge difference Liberal Democrat council leaders, co-leaders and Mayors are making. Having more of them really matters. It’s also the way to put down liberal roots in communities across the country.
But Westminster also matters. Going from 11 MPs to government may not be a short-term objective. Yet even starting from eleven we can realistically aim to win enough seats to help force a Parliament in which no one party has a majority and ensure that in that Parliament, Liberal Democrat priorities – especially electoral reform – are prioritised.
In addition to the 11 seats won by the Liberal Democrats last year, there are a further 29 in which the party finished second and within a 10% swing of winning (26 of them Conservative-held). To put that in context, losing 41 seats will deprive the Conservatives of their majority and in practice losing around 50 tips them into serious problems holding on to power. That means the Liberal Democrats can do the lion’s share of depriving the Conservatives of their majority. Kier Starmer does not have to be a stunning success.
Of course, the exact target seat list for any general election is not a straight read down a spreadsheet of results sorted by majority, and there are seats held by other parties we can seek to win. It does though give a clear sense of the scale of what is plausible – and that Liberal Democrats could be influential in Parliament once again as soon as after the next general election.
Moreover, that sort of magnitude of gains will only be realistic to hope for if the party massively ups its game compared with the 2019 performance. Early steps in doing that have already happened, especially the first steps in improving how the federal party operates. There is much more to do, and the to do list should get much longer when the independent election review reports in May.
Make Hung Parliaments an opportunity, not a trap
That possibility of power in Westminster as soon as the next general election may be a good motivator for the party – power does not have to be decades away. It is also a reminder that we must not repeat the mistakes of the past. Hung Parliaments have not ended well for the party.
This brings us back to the importance of a core vote, based on clearly communicating our values. Because that is the way to have a durable bedrock of support that can survive the controversies of a hung Parliament and one in which Lib Dem voters believe that what the Lib Dems are doing matches the reasons they had for voting for the party in the first place.
Get that right and those Lib Dem voters will remain Lib Dem voters and Lib Dem power can be followed by progress, not disaster.
To quote the former Liberal MP, Russell Johnston:
Our liberalism is not an abstract set of principles. It is a robust and dynamic philosophy of life, of the earth and of the people … It is for these things that we walk the wet streets; it is for these things that we commit our time and treasure; and it is these things that we will one day bring to pass.