Dick Newby writes….Limehouse at 35

2016-01-20 13.51.09

35 years on from the Limehouse Declaration and the launch of the SDP it’s easy to see the similarities. We have a Labour Party with a very left wing leader pushing ideologically driven policies and zero prospect of winning the next election. And we have a Conservative Party which is pursuing harsh economic policies at home and is split down the middle over the UK’s relationship with the EU.

But if there are similarities with 1981 there are even more differences. Britain is now a very different place socially and economically. It is much more ethnically diverse, particularly in the large cities. It is far less deferential and far fewer people have a strong party loyalty. It is also much more affluent – the average household is now earns twice as much as it did in 1981 – and unemployment and inflation are both much lower.

The scope for a new party to break away from Labour is also much less. The Gang of Four were well-known and well respected. There is no equivalent group of individuals lurking within Labour. And Scotland is lost to Labour probably for a generation at least. As a result, the prospects for a new party are much poorer. In 1981, opinion polls undertaken before the SDP was even formed showed it, along with the Liberals, gaining 46% support. No such potential exists today.

Yet, despite its strengths and despite gaining over 25% of the vote in its first General Election, the SDP-Liberal Alliance only gained 23 seats. It was checked by the harshness of the first-past-the-post electoral system. The same challenge would face any new party.

So in my view, moderates in the Labour Party today cannot realistically plan to create a new party. As the Corbynistas extend their stranglehold over Labour, moderate Labour voters will have to look elsewhere.

How can we persuade them to vote Liberal Democrat?

For a start, we must demonstrate that we share their support for a fairer and greener society. We have begun to do this this by voting down tax credit cuts, supporting the cause of child refugees and fighting  the assault on green energy . We must demonstrate again that we win elections. We have begun to do this by winning Council by-elections from the Highlands to Devon. And we must show that we have a Leader whom people can trust. And Tim has begun to do this by the principled policy stances he has taken.

As we continue our rebuilding process, we should learn one lesson from the Alliance. We must strike a chord on those issues which most concern most voters – health, education, housing  jobs and immigration – rather than issues which have traditionally preoccupied us. We will not win back votes by being passionate about constitutional reform or land value taxation.

As in 1981, Labour’s leftward lurch gives us a huge opportunity. We mustn’t let it slip.

* Dick Newby is the Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords.

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  • Nonconformistradical 25th Jan '16 - 12:23pm

    “the average household is now earns twice as much as it did in 1981”

    What sort of ‘average’ – mean or median?

  • Absolutely agree with you that there are no votes to be gained from constitutional reform and land value taxation – you could have also have added scrapping our nuclear deterrent to the list. Those policies won’t attract Labour voters, they already have that from Corbyn’s Labour Party.

  • Are we really saying that the Cameron brand 2015 Tories are as bad as Thatcher in tne ’80s? I mean, are we REALLY saying that?

  • Eddie Sammon 25th Jan '16 - 5:41pm

    You are right about focusing on the issues that matter to the voters, but when it comes to constitutional reform I make an exception for the House of Lords. I’m not saying this because you are in the Lords, I’m saying it because I don’t want constitutional issues downplayed entirely.

    It’s not a fringe issue. What’s the point in having a big election campaign and doing all that policy work if a left-wing majority in the House of Lords think they have the right to block anything they want, seemingly.

  • This article is a long-form argument that there is no alternative. I don’t agree; there always is although it might emerge from an unexpected quarter.

    Moist atmosphere requires something to nucleate the condensation of water droplets into cloud. Absent that droplets can’t form and the air becomes supersaturated. Politics is analogous; there has to be some nucleus around which a new state of political matter can condense.

    So, when the Labour project collapsed in the late 1970s Thatcher was ready with an alternative plan and the rest is history even though her ideas were strongly contested even among Tories for a long time.

    Now the Thatcherite neoliberal project has collapsed in turn but no-one stands ready with an alternative. Blair signed Labour up to the neoliberal project but with more spending on schools and hospitals. That’s still neoliberal. Corbyn offers a reheated version of the old plan. Lib Dems in turn chose to prop up the neoliberal project but really just want more votes. They have no better plan to offer; indeed some positively avoid any such as that might be *gasp* radical. That’s bad if your real ambition is to join the establishment.

    Greece, Spain, even Germany have seen new or minor parties come from nowhere with astonishing speed and that could happen here – it already did in Scotland where the SNP was able to spin an alternative plan out of nationalism although how that might actually work in the long term as a small nation on the European periphery beats me. Similarly, UKIP has got limited mileage on blaming everything on the EU but the public are rightly unconvinced by that theory.

    I therefore think UK politics is highly unstable and could move onto a new tack with a new cast of characters remarkably fast – provided that someone is able to nucleate that process. I would like to think the Lib Dems could do that with a better plan. After all, when your support is <10% you simply can't win by slugging it out on existing rules; you have to reinvent the game and at that point you really have nothing more to lose.

    Unfortunately, the Lib Dems (a) don't know how to do so at the purely practical level of policy-making and, much more seriously, (b) some of the party establishment doesn't want to do anyway. Someone will upset the political applecart sooner or later. History suggests the far right is much better at this than liberals. Do we have the ambition to beat those odds?

  • @ johnmc

    “Are we really saying that the Cameron brand 2015 Tories are as bad as Thatcher in tne ’80s? I mean, are we REALLY saying that?”

    Putting the shrill rhetoric from Maggie on one side, YES, and on issues like welfare reform they’re even worse.

  • Conor McGovern 25th Jan '16 - 7:20pm

    Gordon – Brilliant post and bluntly put! I remember Norman Lamb going on about relaunching the Lib Dems as a new political ‘startup’ and Tim would be as good a figure to lead that as any.

  • Gordon and Conar , interesting , do you see it as a rebranding or a realignment with Labour ?

  • Lorenzo – neither.

    The best definition of a brand is ‘a compelling promise, reliably honoured’.

    That is a problem for Lib Dems. The ‘promise’ is a bunch of well-meaning policies that lack coherence beyond apple pie and motherhood. The result is a ship that lacks steerage way; it would be much easier to manage if it was moving purposefully – then people would board it for the journey.

    The ‘honouring’ part is also a problem. Tuition fees is the poster child for this but there are many other examples – the lobbying bill, Help to Buy, TTIP and failure to insist on reform of the City among others. These are all hard-line neoliberal finance and corporate-friendly stances.

    So, if by branding one means a quick lick of fresh paint, then no way. A root and branch makeover is necessary along with a very different tone.

    As for realignment I don’t see this as moving the boundaries between broadly static party positions – a bit more Labour and a bit less Tory. All the parties are stuck in ruts of their own making; we need to rearrange the policy pieces that traditionally belonged to one or the other. That’s difficult because they all have a strong constituency for their own orthodoxies (hence Corbyn’s success) irrespective of how much the world has changed since the heroic epoch they hark back to (global superpower and empire for liberals).

    For organisations change is hard so they often flunk it leaving people to vote with their feet if they want change. Hence Labour voters crossing to the other extreme (by traditional measures) to vote UKIP. The more parties stick to their orthodoxies the more certain their ultimate collapse is. For party leaders the challenge is to reinterpret traditional values in light of current circumstances – and that is very, very difficult.

    So, I think Conor is right – we need to think like a political ‘start-up’ Silicon Valley-style. That means aiming to be disruptive and taking nothing for granted. It means understanding what’s really going on under the surface and working to address that, stealing others political clothes where they have better ones and NOT trying endlessly to position vis. a vis. others.

    The opportunity Lib Dems now have is that there is nothing left to loose; the difficulty is that they have neither the habits nor the governance structures that might enable them to do that. But I live I hope …

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