The Lib Dems’ big problem: and how to solve it

A Lib Dem 'Facebook flashmob' in Trafalgar Square before the 2010 election, when Lib Dem fortunes were at their apex. But a failure to articulate a clear message is making this election battle significantly more difficult.A Lib Dem 'Facebook flashmob' in Trafalgar Square before the 2010 election, when Lib Dem fortunes were at their apex. But a failure to articulate a clear message is making this election battle significantly more difficult. (Source: Liberal Democrats)

Becoming a Lib Dem was never a fashionable choice. But never in my lifetime has my party been as unpopular as it currently is. Much of the dissatisfaction arises from our decision to join – and, to some extent, our priorities during – a Coalition which our leader always said he was open to considering, which economic crisis forced us to rush into, and the composition of which parliamentary arithmetic dictated to us. Yet the problem lies far deeper than this. The reason why over half of our voters deserted us as soon as we got close to power was because, despite decades of hard work, we failed to build a ‘core vote’ equivalent to the class-based Labour and Tory fiefdoms – a bloc of die-hards who would vote for us no matter what because they believed in liberalism, and recognised that the Lib Dems were best suited to advance that ideology. This failure is the result of the prominence of a specific faction in our party.

Never in the field of political journalism has so much been written so badly by otherwise intelligent people about the divisions within the Lib Dems. Both the Guardian and the Telegraph, and everything in between, portray the division as one between Social Democrats (a kind of ‘socialism-lite’) and ‘libertarians’ or ‘Gladstonian liberals’, who believe in the retrenchment of the state from both our economic and our personal lives (glibly summarised as ‘legalise everything and privatise everything’). However, they do so falsely. Libertarians, if they belong anywhere at all, sit far more comfortably in the Conservative or the United Kingdom Independence parties than in the Lib Dems. The divide, rather, is between non-Gladstonian modern liberalism and centrist managerialists, who share with New Labour a belief in retaining, with a few small tweaks, the status quo.

The truth is that Gladstonian liberalism was out of date during even the last administration of Gladstone. The Liberal government of the 1890s was, in its commitment to a tiny state and risibly low levels of taxation, perhaps the last government which libertarians would truly have approved of. It failed catastrophically because the ex-Whig aristocrats who made up the administration, which was as just as patrician as the Conservative front bench, failed to meet the aspirations of a newly enfranchised working class. Their causes – temperance, church disestablishment, Irish Home Rule – were niche, if laudable. Meanwhile the Disraelite Tories, who brought in the Reform Acts, bestowed benefits on workers and focused their minds on imperial adventure in the hope that they would prop up the Establishment and stave off revolution. It worked. In an era without a functional Labour Party, the Tory working class, set free ‘like angels in marble’, kept the Liberals out of power for a generation. Today the only Lib Dem politician who could legitimately be interpreted as Gladstonian is Jeremy Browne, soon to resign his seat of Taunton Deane, whose call for a cut in the top tax rate to 40p in the pound has been met by a deafening silence from the rest of the party.

A generation later, in 1906, the Liberals won a landslide victory. They did so by proposing a programme known as New Liberalism – the introduction of the welfare state, labour exchanges, the People’s Budget which milked rich landowners – which emphasised the role of the activist state in promoting and ensuring freedom. New Liberalism eventually lost support owing to factors which are today irrelevant (a bitter personal dispute between Asquith and Lloyd George as well as the attraction of an increasingly unionised working class to socialism, given events in Russia). But it is an ideal I fervently believe in. Though ‘left-wing’ in light of the current post-Thatcherite consensus, it is not socialist; though it will follow socialism part of the way when it comes to reducing wealth inequalities, it sees the state as an empowering, not an equalising, tool. Known today as social liberalism, it commands the support of around two-thirds of Lib Dem members. Sadly, it does not command the wholehearted support of the party leadership.

Fast-forward to the early 1980s. Labour, then as now, was divided between those who believed in socialism and those who believed in the capitalist status quo. Unlike now, the former camp was in the ascendant. The soggy centrists who formed the spin-off Social Democratic Party eventually merged uncomfortably with the Liberals in 1988. Thus, pace the Guardian, it is the Social Democratic tradition in the party which is the less, if we must use the phrase, ‘left-wing’ – and it is broadly to this tradition that Nick Clegg and David Laws (any theory I had that Laws might really be a libertarian and not a trimmer was quashed by the recent revelation, from a secret source, that he had privately opposed party policy on cannabis legalisation) appeal with the current spate of insipid messaging.

Julian Huppert. "In Cambridge, for example, the Tories genuinely can’t win, so the Lib Dems pose as an ‘anti-Labour’ party"

Julian Huppert. “In Cambridge, for example, the Tories genuinely can’t win, so the Lib Dems pose as an ‘anti-Labour’ party” (Source: Leo Reynolds)

There is nothing wrong with the party standing in a ‘centre ground’ between socialism and neo-liberal capitalism. There is everything wrong with triangulation – defining yourself against two completely different parties in order to occupy the ground between them. It doesn’t work. The current managerialist approach is to claim that our party, in permanent coalition of course, will inject fiscal rectitude into a Labour-led government (‘Labour can’t build a strong economy’) and fairness into a Conservative-led one (‘The Tories can’t build a fair society’). Of course, voters who accept Labour’s incompetence will vote Tory, rather than settle for the Lib Dems moderating Labour, and vice versa with Conservative unfairness. There is no incentive to vote Lib Dem here, and no explanation of why liberalism, when rolled out on a large scale, is both fair and economically sound. Regrettably, at a time when voters are angrier than ever with the political establishment, Clegg has deliberately attempted to make the Lib Dems the establishment (“a serious party of government”). When voters are crying out for radicalism, our only selling point seems to be that we can moderate the radical instincts of others.

By obscuring what our liberalism is, we have broadly failed to build a core vote. The only Liberal/Lib Dem core vote has historically been geographical (insofar as the rural poor in the ‘Celtic fringe’ of Scotland, Wales and the West Country have felt less proletarianised and have continued a tradition of electing Liberals rather than socialists). This phenomenon apart, there are three reasons why Lib Dem MPs have been elected in previous general elections. One is through protest voting – some voters just want to vote for the ‘other’ party. One is through tactical voting – in Cambridge, for example, the Tories genuinely can’t win, so we pose as an ‘anti-Labour’ party. The third is through community politics, where our MPs have posed as glorified local councillors, effectively delivering uncontroversial and non-ideological benefits for their micro-communities: street lighting, getting rid of potholes in roads, better-funded schools. This is not to be sniffed at, but many Conservative and Labour politicians have also won support for the same thing. It is not distinctively Liberal.

The latter two factors will continue to work in our favour in May’s General Election, and reports of a Lib Dem wipeout have been greatly exaggerated. I predict we shall get somewhere between 30 and 40 MPs. Yet few, if any, of them will have been elected with a mandate to pursue a Social Liberal legislative agenda. This is unfortunate. In many ways, the time has never been riper to build an ideological core vote around social liberalism. The decline in class perception – although actual class is still going strong – renders irrelevant one of its great weaknesses: that its appeal is not class-based. Indeed, the Green Party have had some success building support around an intellectual conception of socialism, rather than the traditional working class, Old Labour ideology. Meanwhile, socialism has never had less hold over the minds of men (which should, incidentally, impose an upper limit on the Green vote share), and the populace is still incredibly dissatisfied with the way things are. For the many who abjure conservatism and libertarianism, we need to be there. But the Lib Dems need to do the vision thing.

  • jon

    Yes. Excellent piece. But this involves a constant and consistent idea of internal messaging as well as external messaging, akin to Thatcher seeing her advisors, banging Hayek down on the table, and saying “This is what we believe!” So write early and often anywhere a Lib Dem might see it and get people joined up to SLF, I guess.