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.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 Newswire – do sign up here if you’re not yet one of its 12,000 readers.