Liberal Democrats turned a heavy emphasis on local campaigning from a necessity into a core part of our identity. That led us to misunderstand our appeal.
If one year ago you had asked me to predict where I would have watched the results of the General Election come in, I would certainly not have guessed a kitchen in Vietnam. Yet there I was. On the plus side, the six hour time difference meant that I could watch it at a respectable time of the morning rather than brutally late at night. The negatives, however, predominated. The kitchen is not air conditioned, so mental anguish was compounded by the physical discomfort engendered by the humidity. There’s also a gap between BBC World broadcasting something and viewers in Vietnam seeing it: the purpose of this delay is to allow the Communist Party to cut the signal if its human rights abuses are discussed. But on that day its effect was that I was seeing twitter react to things before (from my perspective) they’d happened. However, worst of all was the knowledge that I hadn’t been there campaigning alongside my colleagues at the crunch time. A few months before hand, I had moved two continents away and that had largely ended my contribution to the campaign.
This act of desertion (as it rather melodramatically appeared to me on that fraught morning) meant that I’m not really qualified to join in the ongoing debate about what went wrong with the election campaign. I only saw it in the distorting mirror of social media and online coverage. Nonetheless, I still feel a strong impulse to find a convincing narrative to explain the ruin of an enterprise that has been so important to me.
My only option, therefore, is to zoom out, to use the distance I gained by moving and prioritise breadth over depth. So what follows focuses less on the party’s strategy than on its essence. Doing so does not mean that I do not think people like Nick Clegg and Ryan Coetzee made bad choices. I do. But as Marx wrote: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living”. Our recent mistakes were a logical outgrowth of decisions we made long before going into coalition.*
I believe that we became too defined by the local to operate effectively as a party of national government. Our spines stiffened too much when we heard people say that the only things that would survive a nuclear war were cockroaches and Lib Dem focus deliverers. We were too interested in the details of local government. And we too often spoke to the electorate not as liberals but as locals.
We imagined that this process was binding us to localities like barnacles to a rock. In reality, this General Election was to show that these were very weak bonds with which to try and resist powerful national waves.
My argument here is that rejuvenating the Party as a national force cannot be done locally. Clearly we must fight locally in order to win constituencies. But that is a complement to rather than a substitute for finding a national vision that resonates with the electorate. We must never again be in a position of knowing how to sell our candidates as individuals but not being able to convince voters that those same people collectively constitute a desirable alternative government.
Local campaigning: the necessity that proved not to be virtue
The ongoing Liberal Democrat leadership race presents something of a paradox. Both the candidates followed the traditional route for Lib Dems to get into parliament. Yet to be successful they will have to preside over a shift away from that model.
Like most of their colleagues, Farron and Lamb won their seats after a period of intense local campaigning in a rural or suburban area. Such campaigning will have focused at least as much on them as individuals as it did the party, and will have been as much about local as national issues.
Yet the limitations of this model are becoming apparent. As we have seen in successive general elections it tends to unwind when the MP who was its focus steps down. And the election just gone provided a gruesome demonstration of how fragile success based on local popularity is when the national picture reasserts itself.
That’s different from what Liberal Democrat activists have generally told ourselves. Our mantra for a long time was “where we work, we win” and we made local campaigning central to our recipe for success. In fact, I’d suggest a better mantra would be “we will lose unless we work”. Local campaigning was a necessary complement to national developments: we need concentrated efforts to concentrate our votes and win seats under the First Past the Post. Otherwise we’d wind up in the position UKIP is in now or the Alliance was in back in 1983. However, national developments remained central.
Consider the 58 constituencies that elected Lib Dem MPs in 2010. 2/3rds of them were captured by the party in just three General Elections: 1993, 1997 and 2005.** In each of those constituencies there will have been an immensely hard fought local campaign to make those wins possible. But I strongly suspect that without a substantial desire on the part of voters to give Thatcher/Foot/Major/Blair a kicking, very few of those wins would have happened. So if we want to replicate our success in those years, we need to generate a similarly advantageous national climate.
Anatomy of a disaster
To complicate matters further, there seems to be a mismatch between our areas of electoral strength and where there are the voters with whom we have the greatest ideological affinity. A recent episode of BBC Radio 4’s Analysis argued persuasively that the axis of British politics is progressively shifting. The left/right divide on economic policy is losing salience, while a divergence between voters comfortable with a cosmopolitan culture and those who reject it is becoming more important. The presenter, Economist journalist Jeremy Cliffe, argues that the first manifestation of this is the emergence of UKIP and that it’s essentially the party for anti-cosmopolitans. He speaks at length about how difficult this shifting polarity will be for Labour and the Tories; their left/right coalitions contain both cosmopolitan and anti-cosmopolitan voters and it will be difficult for them to avoid alienating one group or the other.
He didn’t consider what it would mean for the Lib Dems. There’s a plausible case that it ought to be easier for a liberal party as it clearly belongs on the cosmopolitan part of the spectrum. But it hasn’t been. The problem is that the areas the Party represented generally weren’t as cosmopolitan as it was.
We had won those seats not as cosmopolitans but as centrists. In the second half of the twentieth century, the Party found the greatest success in areas of the country without a large unionised working-class which nonetheless felt alienated from the Conservatives. This meant it wound up with seats that were mainly in rural communities and greying suburbs. These were places where the cosmopolitan voters our liberal message was most likely to resonate with were not particularly well represented.
Lacking a strong ideological connection with such areas, we instead tried to ingratiate ourselves with their residents by presenting ourselves as the go to guys for sorting out their bins or leisure centre. Such campaigning often became reminiscent of someone on a treadmill turned up high: anything less than constant furious exertion would result in the Party plummeting to earth. This often proved unsustainable. And even if it could be kept up, this proved to be a weak bond that could be dissolved by strong national currents.
The Party is rightly proud of its local campaigners and what they’ve achieved. However, it cannot reasonably expect them to indefinitely reap bounteous harvests from such unwelcoming soil.
A new cosmopolitan life?
I would suggest that the implication of this version of events is that in future we should be looking for gains in areas with voters more closely aligned with our ideology. That will probably mean looking for gains away from our traditional areas of strength. The Analysis episode, I referenced above suggested that cosmopolitan voters are most numerous in cities and in towns that have populations that are on average younger, more ethnically diverse and better educated than the national average.
The generally more transient populations of these areas are going to be especially hard to target with regular Lib Dem campaigns. If you are not going to be living in an area for very long then you probably aren’t going to be impressed by someone presenting themselves as a local champion. And even if you are, the effort invested by the Party in making you feel that way will go to waste if you then move out of the area and can no longer vote for that local champion.
I, therefore, posit that in order to succeed we need to get better at mobilising voters around identities other than locality. In Liberal Democrat parlance ‘community’ has generally come to mean ‘people who live in a given geographical area’. In reality we a connection with an altogether broader range of individuals. Indeed, if one looks back to the Theory and Practice of Community Politics, a pamphlet that is still seen as seminal in Lib Dem circles and to which our modes of campaigning are often traced, it states that:
A community is a group of individuals with something in common: nationality, neighbourhood, religion, work, workplace, victimisation, hobbies and mutual interest are a few obvious examples.
Locality is but one of the things that can bind people together. Our address is but one part of what makes each of us, us. I’m a rather extreme example of this; I could not even have a conversation with most of my neighbours. So in my case nationality, language, upbringing, occupation and (I’m afraid to say) ethnicity all trump geographic proximity.
The Party has had some success at appealing to a broader consolation of identities. The first example that came to mind was our efforts to reach out to scientists as personified by Julian Hubbert and Evan Harris. But it’s tended to get less emphasis than proving our candidate was ‘a champion for <insert constituency name here>’.
The alternative balance I’m proposing would be novel only within the Liberal Democrats. It’s essentially what Labour and the Conservatives already do. An optimistic view would be that they’ve caught up with us in terms of local campaigning in marginal seats. Five years ago, I was part of a Lib Dem campaign that was absolutely walloped by a Labour campaign that looked remarkably like a Lib Dem campaign. It put lots of emphasis on the sitting MP and his constituency work. But the ability to do this in particular seats does not preclude those parties from having a strong national identity and an appeal that does not rely on a particular individual. We ought to be looking how to replicate this combination.
What would the logistics of making this change be? I’m woefully underqualified to offer any kind of comprehensive blueprint. But here are some practical suggestions I think arise from what I’m suggesting:
- Most obviously the targeting strategy would need to shift. When picking constituencies to focus resources on, Lib Dems should give more weight to ideological fit and less to past election results. Going on the hunt for cosmopolitan voters would not necessarily mean a single minded focus on London and Manchester. The episode of Analysis I quoted earlier suggested that you find clusters of such voters not just in big cities but in the towns that exist within their orbits. Warrington and Swindon were given as examples.
- Making the Party more diverse becomes more important. I don’t mean morally, it’s always been important in that regard, but electorally. Being principally a group of old, white men was a survivable handicap when fighting seats with lots of old, white men in them. If we start fighting more diverse seats it becomes a bigger problem.
- Hug the Greens to death. They are direct competitors for the mantle of cosmopolitan alternative to the big two. As gratifying as I would find it spell out to the electorate how backward looking and conspiratorial their thinking is, that’s going to alienate the very people it’s supposed to winning over. Better to ‘love bomb’ them: highlight common ground, use switchers as messengers and give people considering voting Green reasons to feel positive about the Lib Dems.
- Attack UKIP. They didn’t turn out so well but the Clegg vs Farage debates were not a stupid idea. UKIP is a bogeyman for the kind of voters we need to attract and highlighting our differences from the party also highlights the values we share with those voters. That’s likely to be especially effective if the ‘big two’ are busy trying to play down their differences from UKIP.
- Make a particular priority of winning back the voters who came over from Labour in 2005 and 2010 but went back or moved again to the Greens in 2015.
- Be prepared to alienate some voters. When we were fighting elections primarily in places like Richmond and Devon coming out and saying we need radical planning reform or that the welfare state should not be so biased towards pensioners would have been suicidal. Now it might be a good way to break into new territory.
Defeat will set us free?
A lot of that won’t be comfortable for the Party. It will be very different from how we’ve operated before and will put at risk some of our few remaining good results. And as I said earlier, it’s just part of what we’d need to do to turn ourselves round. There will, therefore, be a strong temptation to stick with what we know: to think that bolstered by our new members we’ll finally be able to deliver enough focuses and do enough casework to make a breakthrough.
That would be a mistake. Now is precisely the time to be radically reinventing ourselves. One of the few blessings of our drubbing last month was that it has given us a kind of freedom. We have so little left, that there’s no point clinging onto it. We can, therefore, afford to think more like a start up than an established player; we can focus on the possibilities of future rather than keeping a wary eye out for threats to our present. That’s not a comfortable place to be for we are close to collapse but it is also an exciting one because it gives us the potential to soar.
* Disclaimer: I am not laying claim to any particular personal wisdom. I write with hindsight rather than foresight. Prior to the election, while I was relatively pessimistic about our prospects, I had no inkling of quite what a disaster was approaching. I also do not mean to criticise anyone whose made decisions that contributed to the Party evolving in the direction I believe was so dangerous. Almost invariably, those choices were sensible ones based on what was known at the time. Furthermore, people often made bad decisions because past decisions had left them with no good decisions left to make. And in their position the force of circumstance would probably have led me to do the same.
** For the purposes of this exercise when I say a seat was “captured” by the party at a given General Election I mean: the most recent time that the Liberal Democrats, Liberals or SDP gained it or a predecessor seat. For neatness sake I’ve counted by-election wins as happening at the following General Election on the theory that similar national politics will have been at play. I’ve rounded up ever so slightly to get from 63.79% to 2/3rds.