Did we spend 2019 expecting a 1980s-style realignment of politics?

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At conference you have all sorts of conversation and all sorts of unusual things happen. I could tell a tale or two but I am reserving them for my (never to be written) memoirs.

In September 2018, excitement in the party was high. One almost needed a brown paper bag handy to breathe into, should things get overly hyperventilatory.

The gist of the excitement was:

We have to be more relevant! There are rich people going round with large truck loads of cash, looking for somewhere to dump it.

We’ve got to be in on the conversations to set up a new centre party, otherwise we will be sidelined and irrelevant.

The train will leave the station without us if we don’t do something NOW!

Party leader Vince Cable missed a crucial Parliamentary because it was so important that he was at a “secret” meeting about setting up a new party.

OMG. Don’t panic, Mister Mainwaring! Don’t panic!

We need to do something!

Supporters! That’s the answer! Let supporters in and let them vote for our leader!

Get a leader who is not in Commons! That’ll do it!

Get Gina Miller to lead our party! That’ll do it!

I kid you not. This was the level of hysteria in the party.

And I think it is important to refer back to that moment, to understand what happened in the 2019 December election.

To understand much of what went on, you need to look at it in the context of the expectation of a major realignment of politics involving the establishment a new centre party which would then somehow fuse with the Liberal Democrats. …A bit like the SDP and Liberal party alliance and merger in the 1980s.

All the vast ambition of the “Revoke” policy, “Prime Minister Swinson” and carpet-bombing the country with leaflets delivered with pizza menus stemmed from an expectation that the mould of British politics would crack and we would be the beneficiaries of a vast stampede of public approval and defecting MPs.

Only, as we all know, a new centre party was formed but, as David Herdson wrote on Political Betting, “Change UK have given a masterclass in how not to launch a political party”.

There were defectors of various hues going in different directions but they were all vaporised in the general election, and so, nearly, were we – except in terms of votes, where we added 1.4 million compared to 2017.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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21 Comments

  • John Marriott 21st Jan '20 - 10:55am

    People sometimes, when discussing the ‘Revoke’ strategy promulgated by Swinson and Co, compare it to the end of David Steel’s ‘command’ to the Liberal Assembly all those years ago. You know the line. It went something like “Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government”. “Such presumptuousness”, you might be inclined to say. Or, more bluntly; “Pull the other leg!”

    Now, if you listen to that Steel conference address, do you, like me, reckon that this raising his voice at the end of the sentence had nothing to do with antipodean inflexion but more to do with asking a question?

    If true be known, neither politician was really convinced that either event would happen. The question you need to ask is why on earth did they bother with either impossibility in the first place?

  • Mark Smulian 21st Jan '20 - 11:58am

    The “go back to your constituencies and prepare for government” conceit was dealt with in the first Liberal Revue in 1984 by the late Mark Tavener, in a sketch featuring an adviser on the phone to Steel.
    The adviser spends the sketch unsuccessfully trying to dissuade Steel from giving vent to his true feelings by telling the conference: “Go back to your constituencies, bloody well stay there, you appalling bunch of muppets.”

  • “where we added 1.4 million compared to 2017.”

    UKIP got 4 million votes in 2015, and all it resulted in was an ability to apply effective external parliamentary pressure to force the EU referendum. What you might ask will your extra 1.4 million votes add within the parliamentary FPTP system, I would suggest if the miserable failure to usurp democracy in trying to stop Brexit, and the result of the GE is anything to go by, little or nothing at all. Until you either get the critical mass to win under FPTP(never going to happen) you remain a marginal relatively impotent makeweight participant in the Westminster bubble.

    You talk about a centre party, but centre of what?
    You talk about the Greens, SNP, Plaid, LibDems and Labour as some sort of political soulmates, when in reality most are of the left, and the Greens to many are as loony left as it gets.

    The concept of a party of the ‘ centre ground’ seems to be a catch all for those in the political bubble who oppose a Conservative party, simply because it is the Conservative Party.
    Your centre ground is not the common ground if recent events are anything to go by, the common ground is where most of the electorate live, and is therefore de facto the centre ground whether you like it or not. Johnson’s recent win buries the lie that all elections are won on the mythical political centre ground, the reality is that elections are won when the centre ground is slap bang on top of the common ground, at the moment, and for the forseeable future that common ground is nowhere near where the LibDems and the others are choosing to position themselves.

    The next big public debate going forward will be on political reform, and I fancy the LibDems will exclude themselves from getting involved unless they can do it on their terms, and will therefore be irrelevant to the debate, because to do so will mean you will have to break bread with people like Johnson and Farage, who aren’t part of your centre ground posse.

  • Funny you mention that. I gather the Liberal Democrat History Society is having a session on the 1979 election on 3 February…………… in which the Party elected 11 M.P.’s… the same as this time, but with 600, 000 more votes.

    Be interesting to check out what has happened to those eleven constituencies since …. Orkney & Shetland apart, of course.

  • I certainly got very excited about the possibility of a repeat of The Alliance (not the Merger which was a disaster). We will never know how Real that possibility was because The Independent/Change grouping decided that they didnt need Us & in fact, could replace Us. By the time some of them had realised their mistake the window of opportunity (if there was one) had closed. I dont see how We could have been more Open to Collaboration, We did our best.
    What we need to do now is prepare for the coming Local Elections in May & work on developing a New Alliance with The Green Party in England & Wales.

  • Paul, you start a hare running, but then you abandon it!

    To me it seems evident that:
    1) There is room for a centre party given the degree of disgruntlement that exists among some ‘heritage’ voters for both Lab and Con
    2) That a new party cannot succeed without logistical and administrative support

    Therefore, if we consider ourselves to be in the centre and we position ourselves as offering to provide both the kernel and the structure for ‘Centre Forward’* we could anticipate Lab and Con refugees accreting around us.

    For that to stand any chance of working though, we’d have to make it clear that we were not claiming to be the one true faith of centrists and that we are open to others bringing their ideas and their energy to the centre. We’d also need to demonstrate that we are ‘open’ and not tribal by devices such as electoral pacts at local government and parliamentary by-elections, and there is ample opportunity to do this long before we get close to the next GE).

    Much of the likelihood of this will depend on who Lab elects as its new leader, and how quickly the wheels come off Johnson’s brave new future. Those things are out of our hands, but we should position ourselves in anticipation that things may break our way.

    All the above, though, also depends on whether we are prepared to see our identity subsumed into some new centrist grouping.

    *Centre Forward – my favourite name for a new party.

  • There are, of course, other things you can do with a brown paper bag, as airline passengers know well enough. Some of us had similar emotions watching Steel and Owen walking in the woods and, in another era, Cameron and Clegg in the Rose Garden. When politicians take a decision to work together for a common purpose, whatever the political merits there ought to be ways of avoiding gut-wrenching choreography.

  • Paul Holmes 21st Jan '20 - 1:20pm

    Comments seem to be missing one of the key features of Paul Walter’s article, namely the hyper ventilating at ‘rich people’, new Parties, transient media ‘personalities’.

    This love of shiny new things flies in the face of all the electoral reality of the last century or more. There are no ‘quick fixes’ anymore than the electorate will be moved around like chess pieces at the behest of ‘Party Strategists’.

    As for some of the ‘exciting new personalities’ there was an entire suspension of common sense in many cases. When one Conservative journalist joined the Lib Dems (and later the CHUCK/Tiggers) purely to oppose Brexit as she said, commentators here on LD Voice called for her to be given a safe LD Parliamentary seat (because we have loads of those to hand out like sweeties). Yet anyone who read her media columns would know that she was far from being a Liberal Democrat in her beliefs and views. Others have made the same point about some of the Lab/Con MP’s who defected.

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st Jan '20 - 1:54pm


    To understand much of what went on, you need to look at it in the context of the expectation of a major realignment of politics involving the establishment a new centre party which would then somehow fuse with the Liberal Democrats.

    Ordinary people were tricked into thinking that the main issue that has made our country unpleasant for them to live and try to work in was membership of the EU. So, they then supposed that the way to get a major realignment of politics was to leave the EU. And with the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats working together to persuade people who wanted to leave the EU to vote Conservative, in effect what happened was that in the 2019 general election a large proportion of people, particularly from poor backgrounds, voted Conservative in order to show their opposition and unhappiness to what is, actually, the policies of the Conservative Party and what they have done to our country since they took control in 1979.

    When our country was seen as a two-party Conservative-Labour country, people unhappy with the way it was and wanting a realignment would show that by voting Liberal. They needed a bit of local activity to persuade them to do so by showing it was a real alternative run by people who really did care for their concerns. However, it meant once the activity was done, our strongest supporters were poor people in areas where Labour was weak and the Conservatives dominated. And we were gradually picking up what used to be safe Conservative seats in that way.

    Sadly, in the past 10 years, we seem to have been working very hard to throw away all that sort of support. We have done nothing to try and win back what used to be who enabled us to win seats. Instead, it seems we have been determined to be seen as the party of the wealthy establishment.

  • @ Paul Barker “I certainly got very excited about the possibility of a repeat of The Alliance”…

    I just wish you, and Lib Dems in general, would put your slide rules away and get excited about rising poverty and inequality in the UK. Lib Dems should be shouting from the rooftops about the 1.6 million food bank parcels given out last year by the Trussell Trust alone….not counting another 40% given out by other independent Food Banks. That’s a 22% increase over the previous twelve months and a disgrace in the fifth richest country in the world.

    Navel gazing about the General Election ain’t gonna fix it. Ignoring it during the campaign contributed to a feeling that Lib Dems were obsessed only by Europe and introspective diversity issues (and pressing the nuclear button) to the exclusion of everything else…maybe that’s why people on the margins voted the way they did – in despair at not being heard.

    @ Matthew Huntbach…. Spot on. Correct.

    @ Geoff Reid. Do you remember that schmaltzy picture of Steel D.M.S. and Shirl the Girl sitting on the grass of an Oxbridge College lawn ? Love’s young dream. And what’s all this about a Lib Councillor defecting to Labour in Bradford ?

    For now, sadly, difficult to look at the first eleven and say. ‘that one’s competent, charismatic and a Prime Minister in the making’.

  • David Becket 21st Jan '20 - 2:52pm

    The Gang of 4 had three well known and respected politicians, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Roy Jenkins. They also had, in Bill Rogers, one of the best political organisers of his day. Unless you can put that type of mix together forget starting a new party.

  • Innocent Bystander 21st Jan '20 - 2:57pm

    Paul,
    Another of your “provocative” cruise missiles!
    I would love to see a centre ground party emerge. The public mood is right for it and FPTP is not an obstacle if, but only if, the offering reflects what the public want.
    The key problem for the LibDems in filling that void, is highlighted by Jack above. The LibDem ‘centre ground’ is not where the public are. The LibDems are economically to the left and pro-remain – but the public keeps electing the party that is neither. No amount of presenting figures and analysing percentages helps. It’s just avoiding the issue. The party has gone from 12 seats to 11 after 50 years of massive effort by tens of thousands of foot soldiers. There is no reason that the next 50 years will be any different. Why should it be? What will be the attention grabbing offering? UBI? Land Tax? The public will either laugh or yawn. They won’t vote.
    I want to see the centre ground filled but, for example, the referendum in 2016 was thrown away with a campaign that had threatening finger wagging at its heart. So much so that opponents could easily give it a label that stuck – “Project Fear”. Compounded by including reckless, big mouthed C list celebs who did the same sort of damage they would do in 2019.
    Stop telling people they were, tricked, fooled, lied to etc (when you weren’t). They are at least as intelligent as those who offer those insults.
    Empathise with them and offer ways to better their lives, not just the usual Santa Claus bag of presents they know they’ll have to pay for themselves. The biggy is the economy and the LibDem economic policy has been endorsed by the New Covent Garden Soup Company. That says it all.
    Instead of preparing for government prepare some decent, eye-catching policies.

  • And who unhesitatingly, unequivocally, yes or no, pressed the button on the cruise missile ?

  • Matt (Bristol) 21st Jan '20 - 5:24pm

    In my opinion the new centre party that could have been formed last year was not formed. Change UK was not it, nor are we.

    It would have been a socially conservative, euro-friendly-soft-brexit, pro-democracy party that would attract people who equally distrust social permissivism, celebrity politicians, London, and centralised government.

    Consensualists? Constitutionalists? Moderate Communitarians? I don’t know what you call them, they’re not necessarily centrists in the think-tank-managerialism sense, although they might vote for people of that tendency once in a while.

    These are the soft-left wing of the Tory grassroots (and sometimes the soft-right of the Labour grassroots.

    We like to think we know how to talk to such people. I genuinely think we have no idea how to do so, and increasingly attracting activists who regard them with such contempt it’s obvious, and there is every reason to think that our pretence of being a middle-ground party is wearing thin with them.

    They are the people who Boris Johnson was able to persuade that he could speak for them, when quite frankly he is going to defecate on them from a great height.

  • Mary Regnier-Wilson 21st Jan '20 - 7:20pm

    Oh yes.
    Knowing just how much work it takes to organise a local party to win a large campaign my eyebrows were levitating when told in autumn 2019 that we were going to win 80+ seats. I was fully aware how few of our LP’s were capable of doing the grunt work that is necessary to win as LibDems – being ignored in the media and not seen as a default we have to work so hard for every vote. Which means numerous leaflet and letter deliveries, thousands of door knocking attempts and hundreds of engaged activists are necessary to force our messages into people’s homes and make them realise we can win.

    The good results in the EP elections surprised me, and made me question whether my scepticism about the shiny new world where media cut through would miraculously gift us seats with minimal effort was actually upon us. But all my instincts (and actual canvass data) said that we would be laughed out of the polling booths when the general election came.

    I desperately wanted to be wrong. I desperately wanted to believe those who said we were experiencing a seismic shift in the political landscape. But shit happens.

  • “I think if there is one key message from the last ten years it is to look for a leader who is very experienced, even slightly boring.”

    So Vince then.

  • Suzanne Fletcher 22nd Jan '20 - 8:21am

    “Go back to your constituency and prepare for power”. A sideline to this discussion I know, but it brings back memories.
    I was in the process of rather clumsily, and with no experience, laying out focus number 1, in a bid to be the first Liberal councillor in Stockton, in a by election.
    The TV was on and I heard David Steel say those words. I was excited and inspired, yes I could.
    And yes I did. In those days it was called breaking the mould, and it happened rather noisily. I don’t think labour in particular ever got over the shock.
    I’ve now retired and the ward is still Lib Dem, with 266 focus gone out.
    But I was guided by a sound Liberal rooted in Liberalism and real community politics, Phil Hanmer from Sunderland. I was welcomed in a letter I still have by a Tony Greaves from ALC. My hand was held by ALC as I gradually learned the ropes, and never moved away from those initial guiding principles.
    Maybe that is the key word. Principles.
    But inspiration and guiding are in there too.

  • “Which means numerous leaflet and letter deliveries, thousands of door knocking attempts and hundreds of engaged activists are necessary to force our messages into people’s homes and make them realise we can win. ”

    Well actually not always. You do need the stars to align pretty nicely to win without that but it can definitely be done.

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