A response to Peter Kellner: yes the Lib Dems need a narrative, but they should reject the tired left/right division

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 a day editor at Lib Dem Voice.

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  • Spot on.

    Anyone who has read the Limehouse Declaration or Mill or pretty much any of the informative Liberal Democrat heritage will know that ‘left’ vs ‘right’ is precisely the distinction we reject. We care as a party about liberty and that is more than capable of being harmed by power from either end of the spectrum. Those who say you ‘must choose one or the other’ are philosophically lillputian.

  • Mark Argent 30th Aug '12 - 1:19pm

    Rejecting sounds rather negative. Rather than rejecting the left-right language don’t we need to assert something positive in its place?

    I suggest this would be about consenus politics, and being willing to look at the long term realities which arise from the emergence of China and India as economic powers. That shift redefines economics as we have known it, making the “left v right” agenda look dated. We’re into “a new consensus politics for a new world reality”…

  • Bill le Breton 30th Aug '12 - 2:24pm

    And then there was this extract on Leadership:

    “Elections are not just about the message. They are also, increasingly, about the messenger. Is Clegg the right man to lead his party into the next election? We asked people to say which of six senior ministers they respected most. We offered four Tories (David Cameron, George Osborne, William Hague, Theresa May) and two Lib Dems (Nick Clegg, Vince Cable).

    “The immediately striking thing is that neither Tory nor Lib Dem voters place their own party leader first. But whereas Hague (40% among Tories) just narrowly beats Cameron (37%), Cable (51% among Lib Dem supporters) trounces Clegg (19%). (This question also confirms Osborne’s unpopularity: only 2% of Tory voters pick him.)

    “Cable also has some traction among Lib Dem deserters. Four out of ten don’t pick any of the six; among those who do choose one of them, Cable is way out in front, with Hague a distant second and the rest nowhere.

    “Separate analysis of one of YouGov’s tracker questions confirms Clegg’s poor standing, especially with the four million Lib Dem deserters.”

  • Well, yes. That is the attractiveness of the LibDs, isn’t it?
    Willing to choose the best policy for each circumstance rather than being blinkered by left-wing or right-wing ideology.
    Get that message across and you will win back some of that support that appears to be waning.

  • Charles Beaumont 30th Aug '12 - 3:04pm

    Quite right to reject the left/right narrow concept – but what is the ‘coherent narrative’? All the major parties would claim to combine “economic competence with a passion for social justice”. I don’t think it’s distinctive enough. Where I do think the Lib Dems have a real advantage over other parties is that we genuinely believe in giving more power to the people, through localism, electoral reform and civil liberties. At a time when both the nanny state and the CCTV state are seen as overbearing on ordinary people, I feel that this should be our core narrative.

  • But what does this term “nanny state” mean? This is where I believe people are showing outdatedness. I also don’t think the concept of left/right is “narrow” necessarily (it can be). Bearing in mind the large number of sects, both on the left and right, they are clearly not narrow terms – sometimes a little less than illuminating, perhaps! I think the problem, perhaps even more so for the Lib Dems than for Labour or Tory, is that we have both. I also think we have to be very careful with localism, we clearly need some, but too much – for instance there is no doubt that the world needs to sort out wealth distribution between the developed and developing world – and we find the unfairnesses most of us oppose. In contradiction to some here, I regard (and I don’t think I am alone) these as a “left” issue. Many would describe those governments who are nominally socialist, but with authoritarian regimes as being of the “right”.

    I think green ideas pose a challenge to left-right, because they like other ideas, can be implemented in an authoritarian manner. Left-right does have some support from social psychology and sociology, in that “clusters” of attitudes tend to be found together.

    IMO, the main reason you see the concept argued against so strongly in the Lib Dems – notably by Charles Kennedy, incidentally – is because supporters from the other wing of the party will kick up!l

  • I think the notion of rejecting the right/left division is admirable, but simply doesn’t wash with the voter. And that is what you’ve missed from Kellner’s piece.
    Stand in a voters shoes for a moment.
    In 2010 as a left leaning Liberal, Nick Clegg nailed my liberal vote to a blue mast. ( I know this point will get argued profusely, but I didn’t want Cameron anywhere near 10 Downing Street). I learned my lesson and won’t get caught out by that ruse again.
    But here’s the thing ; right leaning Liberals will learn the same lesson as well. If I were a right leaning liberal, why would I risk (in 2015), my Liberal vote being nailed to Millibands red mast?
    Telling a voter that you are neither left nor right looks good on paper, but 48 hours after an election, I as a Liberal voter run the unpalatable risk, of finding myself horrified to see a PM of a persuasion I didn’t want, moving their furniture into 10 Downing street with Liberal support.

  • Charles Beaumont 30th Aug '12 - 4:27pm

    @Tim13 – like all convenient terms, I accept that ‘Nanny state’ might be whatever you choose it to mean. But there is clearly in modern British life a significant chunk of the population that views welfare reform as important and questions whether all recipient are worthy (see http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/a-quiet-revolution-britain-turns-against-welfare/). I don’t think that’s a left-right question as you will find some people holding that view would self-identify as right-wing and others as left-wing whilst agreeing with the principle. So I sense it’s an important issue, as I also sense that a lot of people across the political spectrum feel that the state intrudes too much in our lives (which I characterised as the CCTV state – admittedly another term that can be stretched in different directions).

  • jenny barnes 30th Aug '12 - 4:48pm

    economic competence – how does that work when the LDs are in a government that has presided over a double dip recession?
    social justice – secret courts, internet monitoring etc>?

    As to left v right – I suspect that most people would know what a fascist right wing regime would look like but when it comes to “left” are we talking about a marxist, possibly gramscian, socio-economic analysis and policies? or neo-liberalism lite with a sprinkling of social democratic welfare a la new labour?
    Privatising the NHS looks fairly right wing to me; so do the tuition fees. Can’t see what is either economically competent or socially liberal about those two policies. Nor, come to that, stuffing the HoL with party placepeople

  • John Roffey 30th Aug '12 - 6:37pm

    Should the narrative include some consideration of our relationship with the EU? Or is subservience to Germany still warmly embraced?

    From the Mail:

    Our fate is now written in German


  • Richard Dean 30th Aug '12 - 6:46pm

    The narrative should definitely have us at the centre of the EU, in the Eurozone, with full voting rights, and with our financial sector operating in continental cities as well as London. Our absence to date is the main reason our fate is now written largely in German.

  • John Roffey 30th Aug '12 - 6:58pm

    @ Richard Dean

    It is written in German because it is they that have the money. This would make no difference if we were at the very centre of the EU or at arms length – like the Swiss.

    However, if we were at arms length – we would retain a fair degree of self determination – which of course would be given up if we were at the centre.

  • Richard Dean 30th Aug '12 - 6:59pm

    I’m not that thick John

  • Tony Dawson 30th Aug '12 - 7:26pm

    I find the rather meandering nature of some of the comments above disturbing. The key message of Kellner’s article is that we Lib Dems are presently heading for somewhere between 10 and 28 MPs. While there may be arguments at the margin, regarding the precise numbers, that is no excuse for fiddling while the Party burns.

    @Peter Kellner:

    “To some extent, the Lib Dems are victims of the phenomenon from which they have benefitted so much in the past: the Government’s mid-term blues. However, unless they manage to solve their deep-seated problems over ideology, policy, brand and leadership – either by changing them or selling them far more effectively – the Liberal Democrats face a torrid time at the next election.”

    What are we going to do about it?

  • David Allen 30th Aug '12 - 7:30pm

    Rejecting the left / right division is a form of denialism. It exists.

    OK, there are times when an issue (civil liberties for example) is not about left versus right, and there are times when we can do something that mixes left and right in a smarty-pants kind of way, like using a market mechanism to help poorer people. But most of the time, left versus right does matter.

    We live in a highly unequal society, and it is getting more unequal. Many politicians are working very hard to ensure that this continues. Others passionately want it reversed. Are we to claim, credibly, that we just don’t care?

  • John Roffey 30th Aug '12 - 7:38pm

    @ Richard Dean

    Well your reply did not give the impression that we would not still be subservient to the Germans if we were at the centre of the EU. Also – you did not give any explanation as to why we would not be better off if we were like the Swiss – retaining a fair degree of self-determination.

  • Richard Dean 30th Aug '12 - 7:53pm

    Germany has the money because they are in the Eurozone! We don’t, because we’re not.

    Germany is a strong industrial power and is doing better than us. Why? Well, we can look everywhere, up, down, round, and even under the bed. What do we find? No.1 Germany is in the Eurozone. Can that be why they do so much better than us? No.2 Germany has a weak financial market. Can that be why they do so much better than us? Is Germany paranoid about self-determination in the Eurozone? Not a bit of it. Germany does what it wants. So why should the UK be paranoid about self-determination? Quite the reverse. We’re outside and we’re less able to do what we want … as indeed the comment about fate and language asserts!

    Survival in this industrial world is about connectivity, interaction, and hard work. Germany shows that being in the Eurozone is good for a strong industrial nation, and the contrast between them and us shows that it is better for a strong industrial nation to be in the Eurozone than outside it.

  • John Roffey 30th Aug '12 - 8:32pm

    @ Richard Dean

    Whereas I cannot deny that Germany’s is a strong industrial power – to argue that this has any connection to the fact that they are in the eurozone begs the question as to why the economic failing nations within the eurozone have not benefitted, as you imply, by their inclusion!

    As you say, Germany are not concerned about self- determination – simply because, as the most powerful economic nation within the EU, to whom the others defer, they are able to determine there own fate.

    We cannot do what we want, for although we are outside the eurozone, we must still obey endless EU directives that would not be the case if we were not a member of the EU – as is the the case for Switzerland.

    Having shown that being in the eurozone provides no certainty for economic success – indeed many of the eurozone nations would argue quite the reverse, and since you seem to be implying that the UK would be better off at the heart of the EU, subservient to Germany – do you not suffer from even the slightest concerns as a member of a party that includes ‘democratic’ in its title, that the people really should be asked their opinion on such an extremely significant issue?

  • Richard Dean 30th Aug '12 - 9:12pm

    The UK would be a whole lot better off at te heart of the Eurozone, yes. The road getting there will be hard – we will have to eat the humble pie that everyone else has eaten and in so doing grown from – but it will be worse to stay out.

  • Kellner says 43% of our vote identified with the party in 2010. In 2010 we polled 23%. 43% of 23 is 10% – which is a about what we are polling lately.

  • Dave Allen >Rejecting the left / right division is a form of denialism. It exists.

    But it ‘s only part of the story. (The economic part). It’s why you hear some people argue that Hitler wasn’t really on the far right. And why people who ‘should be’ Labour supporters sometimes vote for the likes of the BNP.
    The single-axis political model is insufficient.

  • While Nick’s anaylsis contains some interesting points, I think by far the most important one is missing. Hywel has put his finger on it – only 43% of our 2010 voters actually identified with us. For Labour voters it was 84% and Conservatives 76%.

    I would add the following from Kellner’s article:

    “Of the 6.8 million people who voted for them, just under 3 million identified with the party, while almost 4 million did not. It has been like this for many years. The Lib Dem core vote has always been tiny.”

    As I’ve been saying for a while, a large part of “our” vote was never actually ours. More than half, in fact, wasn’t ours in 2010. The rest was part tactical and part protest. The only way to retain protest votes would be never to enter any kind of government. And the only way to retain most of the tactical votes would be to nail our colours permanently to either the Labour mast or the Tory one, basically stating publicly that we would only form coalitions with one of them.

    If, as I imagine, both the above options are unappealing to most Lib Dems, then our central problem remains the same – we have a very small core vote. However coherent a narrative we develop, it will fail to boost our ratings unless we recognise who we have to aim it at. Trying to “recapture” voters who didn’t identify with us in the first place will be futile.

  • Have to agree with David Allen in that ‘rejecting the left-right division’ is simply denialism.

    As far as I’m concerned anyhow, I’m a member of a centre-left party.

  • John Roffey 31st Aug '12 - 2:02am

    Looks like the Tories are concerned about leadership too!

    Lord Oakeshott, a former Treasury spokesman for the Prime Minister, indicated that if Mr Clegg was running a business it would be difficult to foresee the chief executive remaining in position.

    He said that the Liberal Democrats need to “look very hard” at the party’s “management”.
    Senior Conservatives are growing increasingly alarmed over Mr Clegg’s position within his own party amid fears he will face a leadership challenge before the next general election in 2015.

    David Cameron believes that Dr Cable, the Business Secretary, is “on manoeuvres”, according to a well-placed source.


  • Not left-leaning, nor right-leaning, but forward-leaning: forever at the forefront of debate, forever on the cusp of crisis or breakthrough. Our narrative has not changed.

    This is not ‘denialism’ of any left-right dichotomy, this is rejection of constipated dogmas from the past – we are where the twain dare meet, with fresh ideas and the will to reach agreement. Liberalism finds balance.

    It’s also worth noting that the great demagogues of the last century (such as Hitler and Stalin), while readily identified with opposing extremes of their traumatised and polarised generations, cemented their tyrranies by violently flipping from one end of the traditional left-right spectrum to the other and by creating chaos and confusion under the appearance of maintaining order. They are not good measuring-sticks.

    So whatever you want to say about the student fees pledge or the coalition agreement, it wasn’t Nick Clegg rioting in the streets and setting fire to businesses or throwing fire extinguishers from rooftops into the baying crowds – grand and petty dictators alike deliberately wash their hands in blood and suffering, democrats get mud thrown at us because we’re getting on with the job at hand.

    Maybe it’d be good to remember there is a gulf of difference between moderates and extremists of different colours – now that would be radical!

    Sadly too many commentators have still to get beyond sophomorish confusion and self-contradiction. They have yet to learn opinion is often random and contrary, and more often than not counterproductive and self-serving.

  • Tony Dawson 31st Aug '12 - 7:23am

    @Catherine :

    ” Trying to “recapture” voters who didn’t identify with us in the first place will be futile.”

    I disagree. It is not futile. It can be done. It has been done (though never on a widespread scale). But it is mind-numbingly hard to do to constantly seek to ‘win over’ a large number of essentially the same people every few months. The task is difficult enough anyway and clearly made worse by the Coalition and being seen to be in government by the present economic situation. It is where there are significant additions to this burden, created by those who should know better that anxiety can turn to depression and despair.

  • Simon Hebditch 31st Aug '12 - 11:34am

    The left/right spectrum exists whether we like it or not. There can be no positive role for an organisation apparently “holding the balance”. Thameans being in the middle of the road where most people get mown down!

    To put it simply – we must surely be driven by our values and principles – well expressed in the preamble to our constitution. From that flow our polcies and programmes. I happen to think that the values of the party leadership point to the realignment of the right (as Hague claimed in 2010). We should now explore whether it is possible to agree a new political programme from 2015 to 2020 with the Labour Party and the Greens. It may not be possible but it is worth a try.

  • As Charlie said, ‘neither left nor right but out in front’.. I am with Orangepan on this, and Mark has a good phrase, ‘new concensus politics for a new world reality’ – perhaps too wordy for the conference backdrop though.
    But we really must stop reacting to the agenda of our opponents, the comments of Tories only tells us about them, it is designed to be unhelpful to our position, and to base all this on a poll with their record of narrow questions producing the answers their sponsors want!
    The one point that interested me was the number of our lapsed members who said they didn’t know what we stand for, that is either an excuse or plain ignorance, or it could be sheer lack of communication from HQ. Now that IS something the the Party can do something about.

  • Bob Wootton 31st Aug '12 - 9:52pm

    In an FPTP electoral system, the the Lib Dems must come up with a policy that “makes poverty history” in this country, ends “rip off Britain” and makes our governmental institutions “fit for purpose”. It must eliminate unfairness in the social economy and give people more control and responsibility over their financial and social affairs.
    The party must also introduce a written constitution that indicates the the limitations and responsibilities of the state to the individual and of the individual to themself and the state.

  • Helen Dudden 3rd Sep '12 - 2:02pm

    The reason why I became a Lib Dem many years ago was because I happen to believe in the Preamble to the Constitution. I don’t know if it purely political, or the fact I just have a belief in a better life for all.

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