Whoops of delight and the whoosh of triumphant fists punching the air were apparently to be heard at Lib Dem HQ on Tuesday when Theresa May announced the 8 June election. For a party hammered so badly two years ago, the chance to regain some lost ground is indeed enticing, but if we’re to make the most of the opportunity some nettles need to be grasped.
Tempting though it is to believe in our invincibility based on recent by-election successes, we are still only around 11% in the polls. That will go up in certain seats, but our final total of MPs will depend on whether we’re willing to be smart, and to set aside the tribalism of past elections.
If you’re sick of terms like ‘progressive alliance’ or ‘cross-party cooperation’, fair enough. But then think of it like this: in an election that is going to defy traditional party allegiances because of the role of Brexit, we cannot adopt the old “my party right or wrong, and all other parties are the enemy” attitude. We have to think of the broader concept of liberalism, as well as openness, tolerance and internationalism.
That means recognising that there are plenty of people in other parties – largely Labour and the Greens – who are philosophically close to us. We may have issues with the Labour leadership, but that doesn’t stop us recognising that there are many good people in Labour. And while we believe we’re big on the environment, it helps to have a specifically environmental party to keep us all honest.
With such recognition, it makes no sense for like-minded people to be pummelling each other to a political pulp just because they’re in different parties, when the main enemy is the Conservative party’s contemptuous attitude towards the fabric of British society.
This does NOT necessarily mean Lib Dem candidates standing down. It might in certain seats; we owe Sarah Olney’s victory in Richmond Park to the Greens standing aside, and Brighton & Hove Lib Dems are exploring the mechanics of not putting up a candidate against Caroline Lucas. But sometimes it’s better to offer people the chance to vote for a Lib Dem, if only to tell voters that we’re in the business of cooperation, not a stitch-up.
Yet even where we do stand a candidate, we need to be aware of the places where ‘smart targeting’ could pay dividends, in other words we simply register the candidate but do nothing else as all we’d gain is enough votes to stop a like-minded Labour or Green candidate beating the Conservatives. Faced with an election where the sitting prime minister wants to force a hard Brexit, bring back grammar schools, and make it harder for anyone but her party to win future elections by gerrymandering the electoral map, we have to be smart.
And we have to show a generosity of spirit that involves accepting that some seats that are potentially winnable by us are another progressive party’s target. Sometimes it may depend on the candidate – it would be easier, say, to accept a social democrat Labour candidate as the principal progressive challenger to the Tories than a Corbynista. And any principal progressive challenger would have to represent much of the broad progressive agenda, in particular a commitment to a proportional voting system. But we have to be open to the possibilities.
It’s important for our local parties to have the freedom to negotiate with other local parties who the principal progressive challengers should be, perhaps in clusters of two and three seats. But we must remember that the mark of generosity is when it costs you something you really value. The Greens have done a lot of work in the Richmond and Kingston boroughs, so it was a wrench for them to stand aside for us. We have hailed it as a great Lib Dem by-election win, but it was – at least partly – a cooperative effort. With more cooperation that evokes the referendum campaign, we can deprive the Tories of more seats.
Even an 11% poll rating feels good when you’ve flatlined at 8% for a long time. But 11% won’t win us many MPs, and we won’t be able to put anything like the effort we can devote to a by-election into any seat at a general election. Smart targeting with other parties is therefore essential. In this election, we really have to grasp the nettle.
* Chris Bowers was a two-term councillor on Lewes District Council