Be careful what you wish for

Lib Dem Voice is currently full of excited speculation about the timing and possibilities of an election. It is worth standing back a little.

Who else really secretly wants an election? Certainly not Labour – it is difficult to think of an opposition in a less credible state. But Boris Johnson does. By tacking to the hard right he can destroy the Brexit party while the collapse of Labour means he has nothing to fear from that direction. His only care is a working parliamentary majority. He could not care less whether the Liberal Democrats get 50 seats or 150 provided he gets that majority. And as we well know a Parliamentary majority effectively means absolute power in the British constitution.

For the situation of the 1980s not to play again, where a weakened Labour party and a resurgent Liberal movement fight each other to a standstill, several things need to happen – none implausible individually but en bloc a great deal to hope for. The first is an arrangement of some kind with the Greens. The environment is central to our platform, it is central to theirs and it is central now in public consciousness. It needs an arrangement with the remains of Change to show that we can build a broader coalition. It needs a reasonable number of Tory remainers to jump ship and be on board to give a remainer movement credibility in this direction. But above all it needs a sufficiency of Labour MPs to jump ship in order to break the current Labour party. In such a movement the Liberal Democrats may be ‘first amongst equals’ but they cannot be wholly dominant if it is to work.” What the policy platforms of such a broad church would be could give many happy hours of debate, hours we probably do not have given the onrush of weeks till Brexit.

These are high bars to ask – particularly given the deeply embedded loyalties people naturally feel to movements to which they have given their lives. However there are no prizes for coming second. We still end up with a hard right government outside the EU. Be assured the Tories have done the maths on the swings and movements necessary. They are as well aware, as we should be, of the electoral mountain that we need to climb. There are many websites where you can feed in the maths of relative vote share percentages. They make sobering reading. To gain power a Liberal Democrat movement would need not simply to get over 35% of the popular vote but also to hold a commanding lead over the Conservative party.

So we should stand back a little. Yes, we do want an election, but if those who want Brexit want one too and are in full control of the levers of power and patronage in this country then we should focus on the first and most important matter. Stop Brexit. Ally with anybody to use the existing parliament with its anti Brexit majority to drive through a halt to a no deal Brexit and hopefully force another referendum. That is what is and should be at the heart of Liberal Democracy.

To have an election on our opponents ground and lose it is as great a betrayal of the Liberalism we all believe in as not to have fought one at all. It is that and that alone which should be the single most important task for our party and its leaders.


* Hugh Andrew is Managing Director of Birlinn Ltd, one of Scotland's largest publishers. He served as Convenor of the Scottish Policy Committee.

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  • Richard Underhill 31st Jul '19 - 3:57pm

    The timing of an election for the House of Commons is also crucial.

  • The Tory lead was much greater than it is now in the run up to the 2017 election. The polls also looked much worse for Labour.

  • I hope MP’s are thinking this through properly.
    In the absence of legislation, we will leave the EU on 31st Oct.
    It is not at all guaranteed that if Johnson calls for a dissolution of parliament and a fresh election that the opportunity will be there to legislate an extension to the deadline and we could just fall out during the election period. Parliamentary convention on tidy up is far from clear on this. The fixed term parliament act throws some quite bizarre scenarios for consideration. As I understand it, for Johnson to pass a motion for a fresh election he needs a two thirds majority. Opposition MP’s would need to vote against until an extension to the backstop is guaranteed and hence vote to keep the government in place. The workable option for remain is a vote of no confidence. It is quite conceivable that after the first vote and within 14 days, a coalition of cross party MP’s could band together to form a majority and hence a government. This could be used to extend the backstop and seek a new solution. Simply jumping at an election may backfire.

  • Barry Lofty 31st Jul '19 - 5:13pm

    I fear the British electorate is going to fall for the same unconvincing lies and outright propaganda as the Americans and we will be saddled with our version of Trump. Sadly not enough liberal minded politicians will have the backbone to leave their present parties and safe seats to cause the major changes we desperately need in our country. As a long time Liberal Democrat I sincerely hope I am wrong!

  • Chris Bertram 31st Jul '19 - 6:39pm

    An arrangement of some kind with the Greens… they are all very welcome to join the Lib Dems! Our commitment to green issues is the equal of theirs; a Green vote is little more than virtue signalling.

  • Samuel Cardwell 31st Jul '19 - 6:41pm

    I would go further and say that we need a full-on electoral pact with the Greens. If you add together the LD and Green ‘scores’ from most recent polls, we suddenly look very competitive indeed – my hope is that the number of hard-left Green voters who would be turned off by such an agreement would be more than made up for by the number of ‘hold their nose’ Labour voters who might finally take the plunge if we really looked like winning. Obviously such an alliance would be on the understanding that we see through electoral reform, making such alliances unnecessary in the future. But we should look around the country and offer something like 100 seats for the Greens to fight with our full blessing. It will not only avoid vote-splitting, it will also spare vital resources for both parties.

  • Samuel Cardwell 31st Jul '19 - 6:48pm

    @Chris Bertram – with respect, that is how we lose. Why not acknowledge that there are lots of people who currently want to vote Green? As many as 9% according to some polls. If they get ‘squeezed’ in an election, some of them will go to us but a lot will go over to Labour. If their vote ‘sticks’, it won’t translate to seats and will allow the Tories to come through the middle in lots of places. Rather than antagonising them – making the same mistake Change UK made in the European elections, dare I say – why not harness them? These are not normal times – if an election happens before Brexit, it will be all or nothing.

  • Ah man, Samuel! Those Greens, they’re not going to vote for us in a million years dude. They all think we’re bad news. And it turns off our voters who think the Greens are lefty cranks (not without good reason).

  • Richard Underhill 1st Aug '19 - 9:34am

    Boris Johnson is throwing megabucks at an information campaign for no deal, while Parliament is in recess. Labour are saying it is a waste of money compared with the mere £9 million that David Cameron spend on one leaflet in 2016 for Remain.
    There is also money for the recruitment and training of immigration officers. The ISU union was interviewed on BBC tv and said that the service has been severely underfunded for years so more money is welcome. Recruitment and training has been quickened from 8 months to 6 but the security requirements need to be met. Therefore most of the new recruits will not be in place by the end of October 2019.

  • chris moore 1st Aug '19 - 11:25am

    @amuel Cardwell. “If you add together the LD and Green ‘scores’ from most recent polls, we suddenly look very competitive indeed”

    Fantasy psephology.

    The second preference of most Lib Dem voters is not Green. The second preference of most Green voters is not Lib Dem.

  • Peter Hirst 1st Aug '19 - 12:39pm

    If we should prevent Brexit, what then? We will still have the same divisions, rising inequality and done virtually nothing to combat climate change. We also have a host of social issues that have deteriorated while we’ve sorted out the aftermath of the referendum. Will we finally realise that we need a new constitution that will make it easier to respect the electorate while improving our status nationally and internationally?

  • John Barrett 1st Aug '19 - 6:39pm

    Hi Hugh. An interesting article, but I think you have got this one wrong.

    I think it much more likely that Boris and Co. will work towards delivering Brexit in October, in the hope of wiping out the need for the Brexit party before calling an election. Then calling one in the immediate aftermath of a no-deal Brexit.

    Only time will tell.

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