Peter Kellner, the President of polling company YouGov, has written a typically thought-provoking piece analysing – using recent polling figures – what he believes to be the reasons behind the Lib Dems’ current difficulties, and suggesting some solutions to overcome them.
The piece is a good one, and worth reading in full, though I have some reservations, not primarily about his conclusions but about how he reaches them. One of the key polls he cites asks voters to place themselves, the main parties and the party leaders on a spectrum of right to left. And while voters overall place both the party and its leadership, as well as themselves, pretty near the centre, Kellner picks up on the fact that left-wing voters tend to place the party on the right, while right-wing voters do the opposite. Respondents, in Kellners view, are projecting the things they least like about political parties onto the Lib Dems.
This is an interesting thesis, but I find myself unconvinced, because I don’t agree with the premise of the question. What Kellner sees as a confusion within the party (and among voters) about where on the political spectrum we fit, I see as a glaring example of the inadequacy of the simplistic left/right division of political views. If the whole point is that liberalism doesn’t fit neatly (or at all) onto this spectrum – which I believe it self-evidently doesn’t – then how can voters who might, with a less simplistic analysis, be properly classed as liberals be expected to answer such questions?
Those reservations aside, there is at least a point in the conclusions that Kellner draws, and that is that the lack of discipline engendered by decades spent in opposition, followed by the subsequent confusion of holding power for the first time in a generation, has led to the party at times trying to please all of the people all of the time. As Jonathan Calder puts it:
One can also understand the voters’ puzzlement about what we now stand for. Through the Blair and Brown years the Liberal Democrat complaint against their governments was essentially that Labour was not being social democrat enough. And then we went into coalition with the Tories.
In large part that move was forced upon us by the election result: the economic situation demanded a stable government and the arithmetic of the Commons meant that a Conservative/Lib Dem coalition was the only one possible.
But it also reflects a shift in the balance of power within the Liberal Democrats. Ever since it was created the party has played host to a remarkable variety of views. That is no bad thing – let a thousand flowers bloom and all that – but it does make possible remarkable shifts in direction.
While I broadly agree with Jonathan’s latter point, his first one is spot on. As a street-fighting, oppositionalist party operating in an electoral system designed to keep anybody but the main two parties from winning elections, we have too often neglected the importance of maintaining (and expounding) our values. One could sometimes be forgiven for thinking that campaigning itself was our ideological heritage. As Kellner puts it:
The confusion of ideology and policy has crippled the Lib Dem brand. Most people – and huge majorities of Lib Dem deserters – say they don’t know what the party stands for, and think then party has broken its promises. Less than one voter in three agrees that ‘by entering the Coalition, the Lib Dems have managed to get real liberal policies put into action’ – and most of these are either already Lib Dem supporters or pro-Coalition Tory voters.
So here’s where I agree with Kellner’s conclusions: the Lib Dems must use our time in government to forge a coherent narrative. What that narrative is is a different debate (though I personally see great merit in the suggestion – posited once again by Nick Clegg yesterday – that our time in government is demonstrating that we combine economic competence with a passion for social justice in a way the other parties do not).
But where I depart from his view is in the implied suggestion that the party needs to decide which end of the spectrum it wants to be on and stay there, picking up votes either by convincing right-of-centre voters that we are a right-of-centre party or left-leaning voters of the opposite. For the truth is that the Lib Dems are, and should be, neither. It might be an inconvenient truth to political analysts wedded to the idea that left/right classification is the beginning and the end of any analysis, but liberalism has never and can never conform to such a rigid view of the world.
Lib Dem revival, if it is to be sustaining, must come not from moving left or moving right but from distinctive, radical liberalism, both in word and in deed.
* Nick Thornsby is Thursday Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs here.