How do we build the Lib Dems’ core vote?

Can the problems the Liberal Democrats are currently experiencing be put down not to the Coalition but, in the long view, to a failure of the party to promote a strong, distinctive liberal philosophy and agenda to the public?

That’s the argument put forward by Simon Titley in the latest Liberator magazine and I have to confess that he says a great deal that I agree with.

He’s right say that the party has a smaller core vote than the other two big parties (ours is around 10%, Labour and the Conservatives around 25%, Simon suggests – and I’m sure those figures are roughly correct).  He’s also right to say that the party has shied away from promoting itself philosophically.  We rarely say “this is the sort of person who’s a Lib Dem”, other than in the broadest sense, because that would naturally tell a big chunk of the electorate that they’re not Lib Dems and shouldn’t vote for us.

Simon’s argument is that, by focusing on local issues at the expense of saying what we stand for and nailing our colours to the mast, we’ve reaped the rewards in the good times, but we’re now paying the price.  Being in power means making hard decisions, not always being the nice guys.  It means making decisions that please some people and anger others – there’s no way round it.  Many people who supported the issues we championed now dislike us for the choices we’ve made.  What worked for us reasonably well in the years of opposition is failing us now we’re in power.

So is he right?

Let’s look at the core vote issue.  Labour and the Conservatives benefit from a larger core vote due to a feeling among many that one or the other is “their party”, whether it’s because their family always voted that way, or they believe the party is on their side.

But you’ll be looking long and hard to find that coming through in the literature or speeches from either party.  Like the Lib Dems, they don’t want to alienate chunks of the electorate (other than small minority groups such as bankers, who are fair game for everyone; or groups that they’re confident are never going to support them in significant numbers whatever they do).

Big parties steer clear of ideology.  They’re broad churches that encompass a wide range of views, and the idea that a unifying ideology for any of our main parties could be painted in anything other than the broadest brush strokes is ludicrous.  When one party states a philosophical position, you can almost always guarantee that exactly the same beliefs – perhaps wrapped in slightly different language – would feel just as natural from the lips of a politician of a different creed (“Education, education, education”, “Save the NHS”, “British jobs for British workers”?)

Within each party there are people with significantly different views on political philosophy and policy, but we work together because the alternative is to be in a tiny little party populated just with “people like us” that never gets a sniff of power – never has the opportunity to put those ideas into practise.

The parties also steer clear because all the evidence is that the voters aren’t very interested.  Politicians who want to test that theory should try putting different types of stories on their blogs and seeing how many readers each gets.  I’ve tried it, and I can tell you that my voters want to read about local stories of interest to them – the more local, the better – and really couldn’t give a monkeys about policy or philosophy.  Why should they?  I’m the one hooked on politics – they’ve got other things in their lives.

Simon’s right in many of the problems he identifies, but I’m not convinced about the solutions.

Lib Dems – like politicians of all parties – often do get sucked into being town hall administrators when they’re in power and often have problems identifying a distinctively “Lib Dem” way of running the council (though there’s a great deal of work being done on that, not least within the LGA).

We do have a smaller core vote than the other parties – and we always have.

We’ve not been as effective as fighting the air war in elections as we could have been (though I think that’s got a lot more to do with lack of money and media access than to do with not wanting to fight a good air war).

And I think many in the party have been taken aback by the tribal response to the Coalition amongst large sections of the electorate.  The Lib Dems have supported partnership politics and coalition working for decades, but though people often say they want politicians to work more closely together and fight less, they seem rather less keen on it when it actually happens and one of the teams isn’t to their liking.

But to pin any major party down to one political philosophy is a fool’s errand, and there’s simply no evidence that promoting it more in leaflets and in the “air war” will gain us either votes or many new core supporters.

Instead, we should look at two areas to improve.

Firstly, a distinctive approach to how we do politics and what we do in politics.  What does make us different as Lib Dems?  When Liverpool Councillor Erica Kemp wrote about being a “Cabinet member for your ward” and the LGA Lib Dem group produced a blueprint for an updated Community Politics, how many people read them, discussed them and took them on board?

We might also look at why so many councils have come into Lib Dem control and then left it again.  Certainly, some have been down to national issues, but not all.  What are we getting wrong and how can we get it right?

Secondly, an acceptance that the Lib Dems is a broad church that can and should perfectly happily encompass, for example, both Social Liberals and Orange Bookers without each side demanding that the other aren’t “proper” liberals and should be drummed out of the party.   Even if it were possible (and it isn’t), there’s simply no need to have one Lib Dem philosophy everyone buys into and push that to the electorate.

It’s entirely right for each of those groups to be speaking to those members of the electorate with an interest and persuading them that the Lib Dems is the party for them; and for there to be a robust ongoing debate within the party over which approach is best on particular policy issues.

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  • I completely agree.
    It really is high time the party got back to ideological Liberalism, as espoused by the likes of Chris Davies, Evan Harris etc. Indeed, uncompromising Liberalism may repel many, but it is a coherent political ideology that attracted mass support in the past, & can certainly build a LibDem core vote greater than today’s 10 – 15%.

  • In my opinion “the problems the Liberal Democrats are currently experiencing” are vey simply explained, and are not touched upon in the above article. The (permanent) problem the LibDems now have is one of (lack of) credibility, and the damage was done to the party in the days immediately after the last general election. The party (LIbDems) that I and so many more voters supported back then did policy summersaults in every policy area. After the pre-election promise to be “different” we saw the LibDem leadership suddenly ridicule it’s own voters pre-election promises; your leadership seemed to be saying “surely you didn’t believe all that stuff we promised”. Mr Clegg went further and told the “lefty” LidDem supporters to go away and find someone else to vote for – so we did! The problems facing the LibDems are not only simply explained they are also electorally lethal.

  • mike cobley 26th Jul '11 - 2:29pm

    There’s no big mystery here – we are in coalition with the tories and supporting policies which are making the lives of ordinary people narrower, bleaker and generally more miserable. When you robustly back job cuts in the public sector (while indulging in self-congratulatory backslapping) you shouldn’t be surprised when the public decide to give you a kicking, as happened in May. I utterly reject the notion that “Being in power means making hard decisions, not always being the nice guys.” Whenever politicians go on about ‘hard decisions’ everyone knows that means hard for those lower down the ladder, not for the politicians themselves, heavens no. And as for “making decisions that please some people and anger others…”, I have been taking note of just who the last 15 months have pleased, and who have been angered. That too is instructive, to those with minds open enough to learn.

    A step forward for this party would be to acknowledge that not every structure and social structure created by Labour since WW2 is an abomination which has to be erased, a belief that runs fiercely through the Tory party. For too long we have been hamstrung by the impulse to present our policies as the non-socialist progressive centre-left – it really is time to accept that Labour’s legacy is now part and parcel of the social fabric of this country, and build from there.

  • paul barker 26th Jul '11 - 2:56pm

    A Core vote of 25% for the Tories seems reasonable but Labour got 16% in 2009, how can a Party get less than its Core vote ?
    Surely its more reasonable to give both Labour & Libdems Core votes of 15%. Add a Core vote of 10% for Others & that still leaves 35% of voters up for grabs.

  • mike cobley 26th Jul '11 - 4:56pm

    Dan – you know very well what I mean; ie, I do not include New Labour control-freakery in the Labour legacy that I wrote about. Any fule no that the Blair cabal was a right-of-centre hijacking of Labour – I mean, you DO know that, dont you? You do know that there is a yawning gulf of principle between pre-1979 Labour and post-John Smith Labour? Such a shame that it takes a social democrat to bring you up to speed on well-known history.

    Yr welcome.

  • David Allen 26th Jul '11 - 5:42pm

    “Big parties steer clear of ideology.”

    That’s not what we told the voters – and won a lot of support for doing so – back in the days when it was Thatcher versus Foot! We rightly pointed out that outdated or off-the-wall ideologies from Marx to Friedman were wreaking havoc on our economy and society. In varying degrees and ways, people like Smith, Major, Blair, and Cameron learned that lesson from us.

    The big parties, I would argue, can afford to step back from ideology. They use the memory of their ideological past in a selective way. Blair won his majority by simultaneously convincing his working class supporters that he retained a residual commitment to socialist ideals while convincing the middle classes that he did not. At the end of the day, the big parties are best able to appeal both to their old-fashioned class voters and to the newly politically mobile floaters by offering a kind of ideology-lite. This is based partly on folk memory, partly on selective re-assertion of little bits of ideology whenever it suits them.

    Lib Dems are different. We don’t have a past ideological tradition which is widely remembered by the public, because we never had a class base. So nobody thinks we are the party for their class of people.

    Oddly enough therefore, we need a clearer ideology than the big parties. We need it because we need people to grasp a reason for voting for us.

    Sadly, staging a conflict between two wings, floating across the political spectrum, and toadying to one of our opponents doesn’t seem to be doing it for us. Well gosh, who’d of thort it?

  • @Oranjepan: I disagree with Mike Cobley that LibDems are “supporting policies which are making the lives of ordinary people narrower, bleaker and generally more miserable.”

    Well, you would think that. LibDems as a whole have ignored the way the government has been treating sick and disabled people. This site has ignored it as well. This site is far more interested in staying “on topic” and following “rules” than discussing the way the DWP & ATOS, supported by LibDems, are treating the weakest members of society.

    Have a look at the (buried) report released today about the WCA. It is absolutely damning, claiming that ATOS has been given a “license to harass and bully disabled people (not my words)”. And who comes out today to defend this? Step forward Stephen Webb MP, LibDem, who claims all is rosy and there’s no problem at all with a policy which has led to suicides.

    Collective ignorance or willful cruelty? You LibDems still think anyone who disagrees with you is simply wrong, or a Labour Troll. You want the power of being in government but you don’t want to answer to the people who you are hurting.

    You think it is so horrible that pensioners have to choose between heating and food in the winter, but you could care less that you are forcing sick and disabled people, people who are already weak, to make the same choice.

    Labour, at least, gave us winter fuel payments. You have taken them away to please the bankers and the almighty markets.

  • I liked Simon Titley’s article, and he expressed many views that I share. What he doesn’t say explicitly, or at least sufficiently forcefully, is that the reason for the party’s catastrophic loss of support since May 2010 is the fact that our Parliamentary party is propping up a Tory government – something utterly unthinkable prior to the right-of-centre coup that ousted Ming Campbell and installed the present leader.

    If the party is to have any kind of long-term future, it must leave the coalition at the earliest practicable opportunity. The taint will last a generation and those most associated with it will never be forgiven by our former supporters, but there will still be an opportunity for others to come forward and rebuild what this country still desperately needs: a left-of-centre party that is committed to civil liberties, is internationalist, and is avowedly hostile to elites and concentrations of wealth and power.

    The party does (or did) have core supporters. One of them was (or is) a sizable chunk of the rural working-class. That is probably the easiest one to recover, because it is of such longstanding. Another was (albeit briefly) a slice of the urban, left-leaning middle-class, which abandoned Labour over the Iraq war and the right-wing policies of Blair-Mandelson. That constituency, having been publicly and contemptuously spurned by our leadership, now hates us with a passion. As for the students. Well, which highly paid adman advised the leadership to make empty promises to get votes (even to the extent of signing a pledge), and then add insult to injury by telling the victims of what has all the appearances of a shameless deception to “grow up”? (Actually, I think it was a mixture of naivety, weakness and incompetence, but that isn’t how it looks to Joe public).

    So what do we do? As I say, the sine qua non to any possibility of recovery for our party is to get out of this coalition nightmare toute suite.

  • You are completely right, except it’s not ‘ideology’ or ‘philosophy’, but ‘identity’.

    You actually capture this when you write “the Lib Dems is a broad church that can and should perfectly happily encompass, for example, both Social Liberals and Orange Bookers without each side demanding that the other aren’t “proper” liberals and should be drummed out of the party”.

    As Oranjepan also points out, Lib Dems are people who are open-minded and can accept difference of opinion. We are a party that includes everyone and considers policies by their ability to make the world that little bit better, not some pre-ordained ideological straight-jacket. That is our identity: inclusive and accepting. I also think it is an identity which can appeal to a lot of people.

  • Keith Browning 26th Jul '11 - 9:06pm

    I have a personal set of values and beliefs, some of which are very fixed and some rather woolly and others that dont matter too much. Some have changed gradually over the years, some have been fixed and occasionally because of experiences and events have changed dramatically.

    If I was to tick box my beliefs against a set of LibDem beliefs I might match ten strongly, six or seven just about and absolutely opposite to two or three.

    I wouldn’t and couldn’t do it the other way round.

    I want to be a Lib Dem and these are the 20 things I have to believe.

    That sounds rather like a right wing Tory attitude, or possibly like someone trying to be elected to be a parliamentary candidate for the Lib Dems !!

    I’m very liberal but there people in the party who might describe me as a right wing Tory and others think of me as a Communist. You cant please all the people all the time, although politicians seem to want to try.

    I am what I am and choose to vote for someone that generally reflects my beliefs but I’m not perfect and neither are they.

  • @Dan wrote:
    “Like a DNA database of innocent people?”

    Trouble is, the Coalition seem to have U-Turned on that too….

  • Andy Hinton
    Fair point but that just defines Core vote to mean “lowest vote in recent GE”. ie Tory 31% Labour 30% LD 17%

    OT, but can we have an official Party piece on this DNA retention business, what is going on here ?

  • My family made up the Liberal party’s core vote until 1979 but since then they’ve voted Conservative more often than Liberal/Lib Dem (its a close run thing though). I’ve yet to vote Lib-Dem.

    If the Lib Dems want my vote they need to work on two main issues. The first is that for a small party it generates a substantive amount of sleaze. A bigger problem than the initial allegations is the refusal by the party and its supporters to criticize anyone let alone demand a resignation. A zero tolerance approach is needed to build credibility in the party and hence its manifesto promises.

    Secondly, where’s my referendum on the EU?

    And that’s it really. I disagree with a variety of Lib-Dem manifesto promises but I’d rather have an honest politician who I agree with on a few big issues than one I can’t trust but agree with on many smaller ones.

  • Barry George 27th Jul '11 - 12:14am

    On the topic of the post… ‘ How do we build the Lib Dems’ core vote

    Funny but we used to have one… It has gone way past the point of working out what we should say to the voter, they are no longer listening so it really doesn’t matter what you say. As has already been said, it was those few ‘deceitful’ days after the general election that turned the liberal democrats into a toxic brand. Everything since then has been merely a side show.]

    I can’t help but feel that it is extremely naïve to think that we have any chance of regaining core support whilst the current leadership and this coalition still exist. Ed Miliband is having the easiest ride of his life. He doesn’t need policies , he doesn’t need to tell anybody what Labour would do instead. He just needs to continue to keep his mouth shut and he will win a clear majority simply by the very existence of our coalition with the Tories and our politically poisonous leader Nick Clegg.

    It’s a very simple lose/lose scenario. There is no room for the Liberal democrats on the right , the Tories , the UKIP and so on have the right leaning voters signed up. Any success achieved by this government will only benefit the Conservatives. We are merely assisting the expansion of their core vote.

    Labour have yet to come up with a single viable policy, yet today they are polling with a 9 point lead over the Conservatives(which would give them a majority of 102) ,very impressive indeed for a party without any policies.

    Of course it doesn’t help when Mr Clegg goes round telling unhappy ex labour voters that they are not wanted in the party. They of course took his advice and removed their support.

    But still some people miss the point. The Liberal brand (on a national level) is damaged goods. Nobody wants to touch it, be seen with it or even to listen to it.

    Once this coalition is over and Nick Clegg is no longer leader then there is a chance we can rebrand the party back to the centre left where our core voters (such as the student community) reside. But for now we are simply wasting our time looking for Liberal Democrat voters who are not Tories and also support our sudden lurch to the right…

    It is no surprise that there are not many such people about…

    It is interesting to read the article and the debate (as always) but it is rather worrying that some may hold the view that its ok to continue doing what we do as long as we find a better way to communicate. When nobody is listening or will listen simply because we are doing what we are doing.

    What are we (perceived to be) doing ?

    We are (perceived to be) enabling a right wing ideological crusade that would not be possible without our complicit compliance. So that makes us the bad guys…

    When we stop doing that then we can start the debate about regaining core votes.

  • Andrew Tennant

    I agree in part – the values of the LD as I used to see them encompass people across the spectrum (myself included) and I would easily say the party will always have the potential to appeal in the medium to log terms.

    Unfortunately the reality is at the moment that the party has alienated a good part of the voters from the last election, partly through very poor communication and also actual policies.

    Trying to pretend that these voters can be enticed back jut by going along the current track and changing some of the communication is to me a fallacy (using myself and other centre-left ex-LD voters as the focus group).

    What has really brought it home to me is the recent furore over Murdoch. Normally the LD would have been to the front of holding the media and the executive to account. With some few exceptions the leadership has seemed to give tacit support to the PM when it is clear he has questions to answer – were are the principles that brough Blair to the brink?

    There was also no support that I can remember in the early debates from the LD leadership (Clegg and Alexander as the two most senior ministers) for the inquiries and holding NI executives to account. I cannot believe they did not support this but why so silent?

    In summary, there is still hope in the medium term because the values stay relevant – short term no chance without a radical change

  • I used to be part of your core vote. I’m a former member who has pushed leaflets on occasion. Until recently I’d never voted for another party, and I still wouldn’t vote Tory or Labour even with a gun to my head.

    I don’t think you’ll ever get my vote back, to be honest. Whatever liberal party rises from the ashes of the LDs when you either split or collapse might get my vote, providing none of the current front bench team go anywhere near it, but you won’t.

  • @Barry George: Bravo, excellent post.

    @Andrew Tennant:
    The WCA is the flawed “work capability assessment” that is failing sick/disabled people and finding cancer patients, deafblind people, ex-soldiers w/PTSD and serious mental illnesses and the terminally ill as “fit for work.”. The government released a report yesterday damning the test once again, but they did that last year and still haven’t implemented the changes. Danny Alexander was the biggest campaigner in Parliament against this flawed, un-medical test, but he stopped campaigning against it and stopped working with disabled peoples’ groups once the Coalition was formed. And suddenly he decided he now supports the test, warts and all. He’s dropped all his previous objections to it.

    So full of integrity and consistency, that Danny Alexander.

  • Dave Warren 27th Jul '11 - 9:30am

    Very few voters actually read the details of each party and its policy.

    Labour in particular still get a vote on the basis of tradition and a
    vague idea that they are the party of the ordinary worker.

    Despite the fact that they long ago abandoned any core principles
    and in government pursued policies that were totally against the
    interest of working people they still get substantial support amongst
    that group.

    Our biggest asset in my view is our commitment to localism and community
    politics. It is what saved the old Liberal party years back and it must be the
    core of what we do in future.

    The issue that does need addressing is coalition. We made mistakes in the
    first few months of the national coalition which we must learn from.

    The tuition fees decision has damaged us badly and we must ensure in future
    that we avoid campaign pledges that we are unlikely to be able to achieve.

  • Graham Jones 27th Jul '11 - 9:31am

    Very little discussion so far of the practicalities of coalition government. What if the political scientists are right who predict more coalition government as voter choices broaden? How to ensure stable government without giving up core values? As the party of inclusion, we should be best at building alliances with people of goodwill who happen to take a different view of the world.

  • @Andrew Tennant

    Firstly my instincts are socially liberal, so I voted LD as a matter of ideology, and secondly the area where I grew up and first started voting was a Lib/ Tory marginal so I was also voting against the Tories as a matter of basic morality. Which was the greater motivation probably varied from election to election.

    What made me let my membership slide was the growing realisation that the Lib Dems really don’t stand for much, having long since joined the Tories and Labour in paying lip service to a core ideology, but only when it happens to match whatever policy they’d adopted through political opportunism. Also, it must be said, I’d become increasingly disillusioned with my fellow members, the vast majority of whom I found lived up (or down) to the stereotype of a Lib Dem – dreadfully nice and sincere, but naive, timid, effete, political wimps. I was still a LD voter at this point though, just not a member.

    What made me stop voting LD was a combination of a succession of truly dreadful local candidates, followed by the huge lurch to the right taken by the current leadership and their disgraceful (albeit entertainingly self-destructive) behaviour since joining the coalition.

    As to your second question – I genuinely no longer have a preference which of the three big parties gets in, locally or nationally. I can’t even pick a least worst option.

  • “Labour in particular still get a vote on the basis of tradition and a
    vague idea that they are the party of the ordinary worker. Despite the fact that they long ago abandoned any core principles and in government pursued policies that were totally against the interest of working people they still get substantial support amongst that group.”

    All their policies? But by introducing minimum wage in their first term, even New Labour proved that they could still introduce polices that provided a massive benefit to low-paid workers. Minimum wage would not have been introduced by a Tory-Lib Dem coalition.

  • Richard Marbrow 27th Jul '11 - 1:42pm

    “Even if it were possible (and it isn’t), there’s simply no need to have one Lib Dem philosophy everyone buys into and push that to the electorate.”

    Can’t agree with you on this particular statement Iain. We can (and do) have one Lib Dem philosophy but it is a broad one incorporating many shades of that philosophy and nuances of interpretation. It does however have to have a Liberal and Democratic underpinning.

    If we don’t have such a philosophy then why would people work to elect candidates who are not themselves? If candidate Jo Bloggs wants to get elected because they like their local Lib Dems and agree with them about potholes, why would I spend my time helping them? If they just want to be managerial and don’t want to build a fair, free and open society what links us together – membership of the yellow tribe?

    I agree with a lot of what Simon wrote in his article (although not the point about equidistance and not the bit where he seems to think the right wing of the party have brought into neo-liberalism) that one of the biggest problems is the decline in our membership and that we can’t expand and grow campaigning at the same time as experiencing a membership decline.

  • David Allen 27th Jul '11 - 2:27pm

    “The Lib Dems is a broad church that can and should perfectly happily encompass, for example, both Social Liberals and Orange Bookers without each side demanding that the other aren’t “proper” liberals and should be drummed out of the party. Even if it were possible (and it isn’t), there’s simply no need to have one Lib Dem philosophy everyone buys into and push that to the electorate.”

    I’m afraid this is self-deception. You can’t mix beer and milk and then sell fabulous thirst-quenching “Bilk” to a grateful nation.

    The truth is that neither faction believes the other has a valid position within the Lib Dems.

    The social liberals point out that theirs was the established dominant philosophy of the party they joined at any time before Clegg took over. The Orange Bookers had made limited inroads into policy influence, tolerable to social liberals, when the Book was published in (I think) 2004. However, schemes such as David Laws’ ideas to privatise the NHS were firmly dismissed as beyond the pale. (Ironically, Laws’s insurance model would probably be a lot less harmful than what we are now bringing in!) So, Orange Bookers were tolerated, as long as they accepted they had joined a party which didn’t much agree with them. What wasn’t expected, or treated as legitimate, was that they should suddenly rise up and take over control of Party policy.

    The Orange Bookers argue, in effect, that their takeover was simply unavoidable. Social liberalism had become outdated and coudn’t cope with present day problems. Only the OBs understood market realities. Since the mainstream Lib Dems were too parochial and hidebound to see the light, a takeover by stealth was reasonable, the end justifying the means. So Clegg joked and waffled inoffensively to win the leadership, thereupon ripping off the mask and imposing a policy of savage big permanent cuts on the Party. Since nobody outside the Party much noticed, he was able to get away with repeating the same act at the General Election – first putting on the benevolent mask of Cleggmania, then ripping it off again to stand shoulder to shoulder with Cameron and Osborne once the election was safely out of the way.

    But – It was all legitimate, do you understand? It was the difference between right and wrong. The Orange Bookers were right. The social liberals were wrong. It was simply necessary for the Orange Bookers to eliminate their opponents so that right could prevail. That’s the kind of thing you can do in your political life if you are totally, unshakeably, convinced that you are in the right.

    So – Whilst many individual Lib Dems will no doubt say that their own position isn’t so hard-edged, and that they stand somewhere in the middle between (say) David Laws and Evan Harris, the truth is that the “centrists” within the party are not in the driving seat. It is the wings, and specifically the OB wing, who are driving.

    And so, we face three bad options:

    (1). Let the Orange Bookers continue to rule. Turn away all left-of-centre voters. We already know where that gets us.

    (2). Counter-revolution – Bring back social liberalism. Bring back Kennedy 2005, or an update. But would that be credible now? Would we get back the 10% of the vote we drove away? Or would we only lose the 10% of the vote we are now hanging on to?

    (3). Package up a nourishing draught of Bilk, pile it high, and sell it cheap (before it curdles)!

  • @David Allen

    As a quick answer to your question, the Lib Dems have to be what their voters expect them to be. Which is to say, that most of us expect us to be social liberal, but a minority of our voters would expect an economic liberal agenda. This minority being smaller than our 10% voting share, not all the social liberals have left. There is absolutely no reason why we can’t combine social and economic liberal policies, especially given the overlap between them that exists anyway, we just need to get the balance right. Our policy in government seems to be too far shifted to the economic liberal side to appease those who voted for us – the coalition is harmonious but not in the correct place politically to make a lot of our 2010 voter-base think it was worth it.

    Of course, building a narrative about freedom, localism and so on is very important, ideally we want an easily recognisable indentity that is not easily pigeonholed into left or right. The key thing though, is to not make our voters think we’ve betrayed them and to square that circle. Clegg is too far to the right to effectively maintain the balance of social and economic liberal policy that we need – we are seen as being left of centre and having betrayed the people who voted for us.

    We need a left of centre leader who is willing to take on a little bit of economic liberalism on the side but to follow a mainly social liberal agenda. We need a Kennedy-type figure again, perhaps when this parliament is winding down and we have to start prepping for the next election then we should get Farron as party leader. 2015 with Clegg at the helm, although he has been working hard to redeem himself, would be a disaster.

  • DunKhan wrote:

    “We need a left of centre leader”

    We do. But we must avoid falling into the lazy, self-deceiving trap of thinking that a change of leader would improve the party’s fortunes. It would not. And that’s because the source of the party’s woes is not the leader but the coalition. I agree that Nick Clegg was the wrong choice and the actions of certain prominent figures on the left of the party who supported him were inexplicable and inexcusable. But ask yourself this. Would any other leader have handled the coalition any better? Chris Huhne might have used different language, and not looked so pleased with himself, but it is difficult to see what he could have done to make propping up a Tory government look any less palatable.

    “We need a Kennedy-type figure again,”

    A figure with Kennedy-like politics, but not his poor leadership style.

    “perhaps when this parliament is winding down”

    Er… How are we going to find a new leader in the three weeks between the dissolution of Parliament and polling day? And bear in mind that we will have to continue to defend Tory policies right up to the wire, for it is Parliament, not the Executive, that gets dissolved.

    “then we should get Farron as party leader”

    Has anyone noticed how Chris Huhne avoids putting himself in a position where he has to defend Tory policies? I’m sure there’s a reason for it. I think Chris is tainted by the very fact that he accepted a ministerial job, but my sneeking suscpicion is he might be the first to walk.

    “2015 with Clegg at the helm, although he has been working hard to redeem himself, would be a disaster.”

    It sure would. But it might be equallly disastrous with Tim Farron or Chris Huhne. The party would have to spend the entire campaign defending its record within the coalition, and that means defending Tory policies over which we have had virutally no influence. How could we present ourselves as a credible centre-left party having spent five years propping up a reactionary Tory government?

    But it may not come to that. Cameron will call a general election in one of two circumstances: (1) when he runs out of time (ie, 2015); and (2) after three or more months of substantial opinion poll leads. If Parliament lasts a full five years it means that the Tories are unpopular throughout and Ed Miliband’s Labour Party returns to office.

    The only sane course for the party to take is to get out of the coalition now and do what it should have done in May last year – force the Tories to govern as a minority.

  • David Allen 27th Jul '11 - 5:12pm

    “The Orange Book isn’t contrary to social liberalism. It’s a series of essays..”

    Yes, largely true, but the “Orange BookERS” are a different kettle of fish, being savage cutters with little interest in social liberalism – as we all now know.

    Perhaps “Cleggites” would be a better label than “Orange Bookers” – but OBs is the common label which Iain Roberts used.

  • David Allen 27th Jul '11 - 5:26pm


    I would love to believe that a change of leader, along the lines you describe, could restore the good centre-left reputation and fortunes of the Lib Dems. However, it wouldn’t work if (for example) Farron were to narrowly beat someone like Laws in a “robust” contest, thereby establishing leadership of a divided party with compromised policies. It would only work if the people who “betrayed the people who voted for us” were ignominiously routed, and I don’t believe that is going to happen. It didn’t happen when the tuition fees disaster struck. If Clegg could survive that, I’m at a loss to know what he couldn’t survive.

  • Daniel Henry 27th Jul '11 - 6:10pm

    “So, the challenge for social liberals is to get out of their (failed) comfort zone of economics-free thinking and start looking at the world with new eyes. For the entirely unsurprising thing is that economics, freed from an creationist interpretation, leads to very liberal conclusions that social liberals would find most congenial.”

    More detail?
    (I’m not saying this out of skepticism, more that if you’re right then it’s pretty significant and I want to learn more)

  • David Allen 27th Jul '11 - 6:15pm

    The struggle for the soul of the Lib Dems between Old social liberals and New Orange Bookers has many parallels with the struggle between Old and New (i.e. Blairite) Labour. In both cases it was “Stand up for your hallowed fundamental principles” versus “We modernisers know better”. Both sides think their opponents are inevitably bound to be morally in the wrong. Objectively, that is not the case. Muscling into someone else’s party and forcing them to abandon their fundamental principles doesn’t sound good, but, if those old established principles really don’t work any more, then maybe you ought to do it. After all, that’s broadly how they got rid of the Berlin Wall.

    A different way to look at the issue is to ask the question “Who needs this party? Who is it who really needs this platform for their distinctive policies, and couldn’t happily go off and join one of the other parties instead?”

    Six years ago, with Michael Howard running the Conservatives, the Orange Bookers would have had a good case for arguing that it was they who needed to hold the Lib Dem stage. The Tories were xenophobic, homophobic, old fashioned and narrow-minded, appealing to life’s sad losers looking for a good old whinge. There was a niche market for successful, broad-minded modern right-wing capitalists, outside the Tory party, and that’s where Clegg and his Orange Booker colleagues aimed to position the party after their putsch. To be fair, that niche was there six years ago. But with the advent of Cameron in place of Howard, the niche has disappeared again. There is no longer any good reason why the Orange Bookers should not just join the Tory party, and let someone else take the Lib Dems back.

    Six years ago, with Blair and Brown running the Labour Party, the social liberals had a good case for arguing – successfully – that it was they who needed to hold the Lib Dem stage. Labour were waging illegal war, in cahoots with Murdoch, sold out to bankers and financiers, and sacrificing civil liberties in a knee-jerk appeal to voters in exaggerated fear of crime. There was a niche market for politicians with a social conscience who opposed all these regressive policies, outside the Labour Party, and that’s where Kennedy positioned the Lib Dems. With a fair degree of electoral success (and it might have been more had Kennedy’s intellectual ability been as good as his common sense). To be fair, that niche was there six years ago. But with the advent of Ed Miliband in place of Brown and Blair, the niche may well be disappearing again. There is no longer such a strong reason why the social liberals should not just join the Labour Party, and let someone else keep hold of (the corpse of?) the Lib Dems.

    So – OK, I’m in a bleak mood today (!) – but my conclusion is that right now, neither the Orange Bookers nor the social liberals really deserve to be in control of the Lib Dems. Just at the moment, neither side has enough to offer which is distinctive, attractive, and constructive.

  • Andrew Tennant wrote –
    “What’s the WCA? Wheelchair Association?”

    Your kidding right? and this is a topic about building the core vote, well then may I humbly suggest that ALL LD members find out what the WCA actually is, act like decent human beings and fight against it, then you’ll build on your core vote I’m sure

  • @Andrew
    Apoligies excepted.
    But seriously the LDs as a whole should take the lead from the Liberal Youth and support their motion on Employment Support Allowance and Work Capability Assessments when it comes to conference.
    For me personally, it’s this issue above all that has led me to withdraw my support for the Party after a lifetime of voting LD/Liberal but if the Party makes a stand on this and fights for the Disabled (and God knows We someone fighting our corner atm) that could change.

  • We don’t need to build an ideology as such, but we need people to have a clear idea of who we are. Most voters will be able to you a list of words to describe Labour and the Tories, but what would they say about us? That is perhaps our problem with the wider electorate. Liberalism doesn’t really stand for anything anymore, it can mean whatever people want it to mean. I would say there’s little point in trying to convince people of the merits of liberalism. We should focus on policies and clear values and thread them together to make it easy for people to know what to expect from us.

    Now we move onto the question of what we stand for. I personally we should be a centrist party that reaches out to the center-left and center-right. It is of course the ground that Labour and the Tories occupy, but they are parties that have essentially made themselves more liberal to become more attractive. But many people have a problem with both parties, and should really be voting for a liberal party that represents their values more fully. It’s up to us to drop the social liberal vs Orangebooker nonsense and work together to build a party that is capable of being elected to government.

  • Keith Browning 27th Jul '11 - 9:06pm

    I looked up WCA on wiki and found 16 alternatives – the only two that sounded remotely liberal were the Waste Collection Association and the World Clown Association.

    I was going to opt for the latter but now someone says it stands for ‘Work Capability Assessment’, which wasn’t one of the wiki options and I’m not sure I have ever heard the phrase before.

    Is that more or less likely to persuade me to continue to support and vote Lib Dem.

    Probably less because I hate acronymns particularly when they are associated with claiming social benefits and I’m liberal enough to just want to allow people the freedom to get out there and do things for themselves.

    Jargon talk like this is a big turn off – and I’m one of your supporters.

  • Barry George 27th Jul '11 - 9:18pm

    Dave Page

    And Barry, Nick Clegg didn’t say that left-wing people or disaffected Labour voters weren’t welcome in the Lib Dems. He said that there was more to the Lib Dems than simply being a party for disaffected left-wing former Labour voters, which is entirely true.

    He didn’t say there was More to the Lib Dems than simply being a party for disaffected left-wing former labour voters at all..

    What he actually said was…

    The Lib Dems never were and aren’t a receptacle for left-wing dissatisfaction with the Labour Party. There is no future for that; there never was.”

    That of course can be read many ways. But considering that almost all left wing voters felt dissatisfaction with the Labour Party before the last election, it can be read that he is talking everyone who is left of the centre and dissatisfied with the labour party.

    I have voted Liberal all my life and my political philosophy is left of centre. I am also dissatisfied with the Labour party. So Nick Clegg was certainly telling me that he doesn’t want my vote any more. Nor does he want it in the future, and most bizarrely, nor did he want my vote when he used it to get his MP’s elected..

    To steal his phrase . there is no future for that; there never was…

    If you are a serious centre left voter.. Who do you vote for ? The illegal war starting Labour party ? (I have never given them my vote anyway) The Tories ? (of course I am kidding) …

    There was really only one ‘receptacle’ for dissatisfied centre left voters and that was this party .. The Liberal Democrats

    Now, thanks to Nick, there are none that welcome my vote…

    There a many voters like me , who have watched the coalition with the Tories, Have seen the party lurch to the right and understood Nicks clear message that we are no longer wanted. Many have failed to notice the hijacking and subsequent self-destruction of the Liberal Democrats as a brand.. Caused by both turning their back on their core voters by telling them that this has never been and will never be their home and with one swish of a magic wand (and a few days in a dimly lit room with the Tories) the transformation of the party to the centre right was complete.

  • Barry George 28th Jul '11 - 12:24am

    @ Oranjepan

    If that’s what you feel you need to tell yourself to justify your choices, so be it.

    I wasn’t aware that I had declared any choices to justify..

    Simply put , Labour are way ahead in the Polls , The Liberals are currently a toxic brand and Nick Clegg is (probably) the most disliked person in the country. That all speaks for itself.

    I did make clear that you could read what Clegg said many ways and I accept that you don’t read it the same way. But considering the number of times that quote comes up in debates on this site it clearly had impact…

    Left leaning voters are incredibly less likely to vote Lib Dem in future…

    You may be correct about what Clegg meant when he said what he said. But you cannot deny that the centre left( by in large) have picked up on those words and thrown them back in his face…

    I’ll admit Clegg’s speeches appear full of coded meanings, but that’s his bashful nature which causes the tongue twisting

    hmmm , was it not you who just said If that’s what you feel you need to tell yourself to justify your choices, so be it.

    It seems it applies to us both 🙂

    I see him as the destroyer of the party I have cast my vote for relentlessly over many decades… You merely seem to see him as being guilty of bashful tongue twisting…

  • Barry George 28th Jul '11 - 12:32am


    It’s not to my personal taste, but I appreciate it works wonders among the mandarins of public-schooled Whitehall officialdom.

    On that note we agree…

  • “Ed Shepherd, that’s the same Lib Dem-Tory coalition that’s raising the personal allowance to £10,000? Clearly the Lib Dems have no interest in helping low earners!”

    Well the personal allowance is not £10,000 yet. If the coalition had really wanted to raise it to £10,000 they could have done it by now but they have chosen not to. Whether the promised raise in the allowance will be outweighed by the VAT rise is a debatable point. What is undoubted is that the minimum wage has benefitted vast numbers of low-paid workers and that the minimum wage was opposed by the Tory Party but introduced by the Labour Party. The point of my answer was that the Labour Party did introduce important changes between 1997 and 2010 that helped the low-paid. Many low-paid people will choose to vote Labour for that reason. What would wages for the low-paid be now if that minimum wage had never been introduced?

  • @David Allen. Complete & utter nonsense. The Classical v Social Liberalism battle was fought in the last century.

    Social liberalism is the belief that Liberalism should include social justice. It differs from classical Liberalism in that it believes the legitimate role of the state includes addressing economic and social issues such as unemployment, health care, and education while simultaneously expanding civil rights. Under social liberalism, the good of the community is viewed as harmonious with the freedom of the individual.

    So-called Orange Bookers are clearly Social Liberals.

  • Barry George 28th Jul '11 - 6:10pm


    I completely reject the claim you repeat that the LibDems under Clegg are somehow ‘toxic’ or ‘unpopular’.

    There are none so blind…….

    Clegg has the least positive (or more accurately the most negative) aproval ratings of all political leaders.. its that simple…

    Have you actually tried talking to members of the public about Clegg ?

    I have….

    Stating that Clegg and the party are ‘TOXIC’ is not in any way an ad hominem. Its not an attack against the person it is a reflection on how the party is percieved outside the echo chamber of Lib Dem Forums.

    We are seen as a poisoned brand … nobody wants to vote for us … or have you not seen the polls ?

    You clearly haven’t … As you have made it quite clear that you do not even accept the notion that the party is unpopular!

    All I can do is repeat your prophetic words which somehow seem more and more relevant the further we converse…

    “ If that’s what you feel you need to tell yourself to justify your choices, so be it. “

  • Barry George 28th Jul '11 - 6:14pm

    @ Ed’s .. could you please delete my badly formatted comment above….


    I completely reject the claim you repeat that the LibDems under Clegg are somehow ‘toxic’ or ‘unpopular’.

    There are none so blind…….

    Clegg has the least positive (or more accurately the most negative) approval ratings of all political leaders.. its that simple…

    Have you actually tried talking to members of the public about Clegg ?

    I have….

    Stating that Clegg and the party are ‘TOXIC’ is not in any way an ad hominem. Its not an attack against the person it is a reflection on how the party is perceived outside the echo chamber of Lib Dem Forums.

    We are seen as a poisoned brand … nobody wants to vote for us … or have you not seen the polls ?
    You clearly haven’t … As you have made it quite clear that you do not even accept the notion that the party is unpopular…

    All I can do is repeat your prophetic words that seem more and more relevant the more we converse…

    “ If that’s what you feel you need to tell yourself to justify your choices, so be it. “

  • There’s a lot that Simon says (!) that makes sense, and I’d be interested in his response to some of the more cogently-expressed views here. But in his “It’s your fault” J’accuse at the end, I’m irresistibly reminded of this exchange from Porridge:

    Wainwright: I’m prejudiced against liberals, longhairs, pill-heads, winos, queens, slags, squealers, pikeys and greaseballs. Are you in there, sonny?

    Fletcher: Isn’t everybody?

    Everybody but Simon and the Liberator Order perhaps……

  • David Allen 29th Jul '11 - 4:48pm

    Colin W

    “@David Allen. Complete & utter nonsense. … So-called Orange Bookers are clearly Social Liberals.”

    Could you explain please, Mr W? Are you saying that all is perfect harmony within the Lib Dems, and that David Laws and Tony Greaves agree with each other on everything that matters? Or are you saying that all is not perfect harmony, but that David Allen (and Iain Roberts, and lots of other people) have chosen the wrong labels to describe the two opposite sides? Which is it? Or are you the one who is talkng nonsense?

  • Barry George 30th Jul '11 - 12:05am


    Thanks for your reply, I will try hard not to dismiss it as a collection of positive sound bites. To date the Lib Dems still have my vote, well I have voted LD at all the opportunities that have been made available to me. Currently I would probably not vote for anyone. If I am not voting LD then rest assured , none of the other parties would get my vote either.

    It is clearly with good intention that you inquire as to how you could regain my vote but to do so would merely continue the pseudo conception that all is well and that the party just needs to listen and communicate more. Unfortunately this is a misnomer.

    Far more important is for the party to recognise, accept and acknowledge why voters like me are so angry with the party. Rightly or wrongly we ‘feel’ betrayed by the actions of the Leadership , the formation of the coalition and by the actions of the party in Government.

    You cannot take the centre left party of Paddy Ashdown and Shirley Williams, then form a coalition with the Thatcherite Conservatives, showing little to no distinction between yourselves and those Conservatives and then ask the voter

    ‘now what can we do to convince you to make the very same seismic jump with us ?’

    Now that the party has made that giant shift.. the core voter has gone… Well to be frank he is still where you left him.. It is not the voter that has shifted opinion it is the party that has shifted its own alignment away from the voter
    So in short you have two choices.

    (1) Fight to return the party to its rightful place in the political spectrum. You could go a long way in doing this by supporting the Liberal Youth motion at conference which would open up a chasm of distinction between us and the Tories and could potentially begin to convince the voters that Clegg is not merely a Conservative chameleon but is still in fact a true blood Liberal that will stand and protect the weakest in our society

    (2) Or you can simply accept that the party that I voted for really has abandoned its core voters and as such has no intention of getting them back. You can instead start your search for a new set of core voters from the centre right, by trying to tweeze out any votes that are not already committed to the Conservatives or UKIP voters and see if there is room on the right for another political party. I of course wish you luck with that.

    We life long voting liberals are still out here, we are merely waiting for the party to come back to its natural home. Sadly I (currently) believe that this will not be possible under this leader or under this coalition and that the urgent repair that the party needs cannot even begin until we have washed the dirt from under our fingernails and started to rebuild the trust that was built up over decades and was lost in a dimly lit room in a mere few days following the general election.

    But , I am certainly open to persuasion as to other strategies that will bring the core voters back. I am just not naive enough to believe that there actually are any.

    Getting on the Liberal Youth bandwagon would be my advice. They are the future of the party and without them this party has no future.

    To stay on theme I will end with a sound bite of my own.

    Ask not what the voter expects from the party now. Ask what it was that the party did to lose the voter in the first place.

  • @Oranjepan

    I actually took the time to read the Simon Titley article which I thought was quite honest, it could probably be summed up in one phrase – “if you try to be all things to all people, you become nothing”.

    There is also the matter of consistency, I think people like some sort of consistency so how do you think something like the example below would sit with the public:

    Message: “We think the Lords is outdated and undemocratic”
    Action: “We’re glad that we used the outdated and undemocratic Lords to block a policy”
    Future Action: “We used the undemocratic and outdated Lords to block one thing we didn’t like, perhaps we should use it to block other things”

    In a previous post I asked a question, unfortunately I asked to late as the piece had already disappeared to the back pages and was probably covered in an inch of cyber dust – we’re not quite at that point here so I thought I’d try again.

    Has anyone in your Party actually commissioned work (e.g. in depth polling) to find out what the public thought/think of the LDP? I only ask as I see lots of discussion similar to the one here but I never seem to see reference to research. I would suggest that the people who frequent these boards are not the ones you need to win over, the fact that they are here probably means that they have a far greater interest in politics than the average person. If you haven’t asked the uninterested public, then how can you possibly know if what you are doing is going to have an impact (almost as per the last line from Barry George – ask the Public what the Party did to lose them and what they did to never win most of them).

  • Dave Page: “The Orange Book isn’t contrary to social liberalism. It’s a series of essays about how “classical liberalism”, based around markets and competition, can be used as a means to deliver social liberal ends.

    I think this is part of the problem. Social Liberalism was not created as some sort of seperate movement to “classical” Liberalism. Social Liberals were Liberals and they kept being Liberals. What happened is that most Liberals (and Gladstone was the only recognisable dissenter) realised that markets and competition were not delivering Liberal ends. So they turned to other methods.

    What the Orange Bookers seem to have down – exactly as some Thatcherites did, those who saw Thatcherism as the rebirth of Liberalism – is achieve a complete ignorance of why Liberals began to move away from markets and competition, why they concluded that the original Liberal methods were incapable of delivering the Liberals’ goals. Upon finding their methods weren’t delivering their goals, Liberals chose to adhere to the goals and find new methods. The logic of the Orange position is to do the opposite, to forge Liberalism based upon means rather than ends – we know, from decades of bitter experience, that markets and competition do not deliver Liberal goals, but they still think the Lib Dems should advocate those methods, so logically they advocate the abandonment of Liberal goals.

  • The Liberal Democrats looked and acted well in relation to Murdoch. In acting in a distinct way, the Liberal Democrats looked like a party with an identity.

    If the Party want to rebuild the core support then taking up more separate and independent principled positions from the Conservatives will quickly restore the level of support. It must be on actions and not political spin and rhetoric.

    Osbourne and Cameron continually value to acknowledge and spin criticisms of their destructive policies, it is infuriating and wrong. It will bite them like the PR spin eventually bit Blair. The Party should not fall into that trap if there is to be a recovery in fortunes.

    Barry George is correct in pointing out the dire state of the polls. Acknowledging honestly the standings in the polls 8 to 14 percent and not spinning that would be a start.

    Some really interesting contributions in the debate. I think that Liberal Eye has a lot of interesting things to say and writes well.

    Prescription for recovery – take up some distinct major and important policy positions from the Conservatives. The Murdoch, phone hacking and distortion of democracy response from the Liberal Democrats shows that the Conservatives are dependent on Liberal Democrat support.

    The Liberal Democrats can oppose the Conservatives without the Coalition government or the world ending. Doing the correct and principled thing as on Murdoch and seeing Cameron under pressure feels good doesn’t it ?

  • Mark Bristow 1st Aug '11 - 1:12pm

    You had a chance to gain a generation of ‘core voters’ when pledging to abolish tuition fees. Then instead of gaining this generation, you alienated them!!! You did this by voting for tution fees to be raised to £9000 per year…. Had Lib Dem politicians at least abstained from the vote the Lib Dems may have held on to a substantial proportion of this generation…

    I for one will never vote Lib Dem again, and if a Lib Dem comes knocking on the door towards the next election (local or national) they will be swiftly removed from my doorstep.

  • how do we build the Lib-dems core vote.;@ by comming out of this Tory Led coalition and getting rid of Nick Clegg as Leader

  • This is a fundamentally misguided approach. Voters are interested in policies not ideology. I voted Lib or Lib dem in every election since I was old enough to vote. The Lib Dems failed to deliver AV let alone PR, upped tuition fees and are now backing the persecution of the disabled. I don’t think I could ever, ever trust you again. It’s no good whining about “hard choices” – once Nick Clegg swallowed the Tory ideologically driven program of massive spending cuts in too short a period the Lib Dems have nothing else to do but tow the Conservative line. Without a massive revolt from MPs soon and the end of the Coalition the Lib Dems are doomed to annihilation at the next election. I’m lucky enough to live in a constituency where my vote matters but from now on I’ll only ever vote tactically to keep the Tories out.

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