How the Liberal Democrats can become the official opposition by 2035

The Agenda 2020 essays that I have read through on Lib Dem Voice have really been superb and it’s great to see ideas about our principles and philosophy articulated in such a concise way. If we are going to rebuild our party and move forward to become stronger than we have been in a century then we need to have open, frank, even explosive, debates on what we must do to become one of leading political parties in the country again. Armed with the drive and enthusiasm of old and new members alike we can really do something amazing, hence my bold – but not unrealistic – title, using the goals below.

Goal One: To become a true opposition to conservatism

Since the General Election in 2015 we have seen the full force of Tory aggression against the welfare state, and Labour’s complete lack of will to defend it. While the strategist in me wants to believe that this is a deliberate ploy by a Corbynite Labour hierarchy to destroy the socio-liberal welfare system in order to allow for them to sweep to power and rebuild it along purely socialists principles; the realist in me recognises that Labour’s failure is more likely due to a complete lack of direction from the centre. Whatever the reason, the lack of a counter-weight to the Tory obsession with the purity of neo-liberalist capitalism means that once they have stripped the state to the bone they will crack it open to get to the marrow. While Labour will inevitably regroup from their electoral defeat it will be difficult to see how a Corbyn Labour Party will attract the support of Middle Englanders – a seemingly key swing group in British politics. The longer Corbyn remains in power the more solidified the party’s base will become on the left and away from the relative-right of the party (otherwise known as Blairite Labour) that had previously won them elections.

What does this mean for the Liberal Democrats? Ultimately that our opposition needs to be against conservatism with a lower case ‘c’ rather than purely anti-upper case ‘C’. The truth of the matter is that the Labour Party has retreated from taking-on the Tories to a space of relative safety; the left wing of politics. The return to an Old Labour stance at just riling at Tory abuses but then doing nothing about them is reactionary, not progressive. By being a consistent opponent to all forms of reaction and conservatism we can be a true alternative for the electorate.

Goal Two: Be consistent, not revolutionary, about the economy and taxation

Economic policies should not be showpieces to dangle in front of the electorate weeks before a general election but should be the very foundations on which every other policy we have is based on. While this may sound rather dull (and it is), economic credibility will make or break any future recovery of the party and its fortunes – shown so dramatically by Ed Miliband’s claim during the 2015 General Election, against popularly held belief, that Labour hadn’t over-borrowed while last in government.

Our economic policies need to be based on not only what is best for the ‘mainstream’ voter but for what is best for all. While policies such as closing tax loopholes/making sure wealthy individuals and corporations pay the tax they are meant to may be simple they not only help us push towards making our society fairer they are popular amongst voters.
That being said, when it comes to taxation we must try and resist the urge of jumping on bandwagons by supporting purely populist policies. The socialist economic mantra of blaming ‘the rich’ and letting the economics of envy drive taxation policy is just as conservative and reactionary as providing tax breaks for the wealthy. While the ‘super-rich’ should contribute more to taxation to help reinvest back into the nation (and help create a fairer society) tax breaks, or a reduced taxation burden for the middle-income earners (who are the working-donkeys of the tax system) will not only stimulate economic growth but also stimulate political support.

Goal Three: To set the agenda

The Liberal Democrat position on the refugee crisis, Britain’s position in Europe, wanting to create a fairer society and in protecting our civil liberties are helping to set the party apart from the pack. The increasingly generic, opportunistic and populist-based NIMBY policies of the other Westminster parties are becoming increasingly stale and the process of distancing ourselves from them needs to continue. The Liberal Democrat’s time in the Coalition diluted the party’s identity and having clear and consistent policies will help us become identifiable once again. It is absolutely vital that the Liberal Democrats resist the urge to fall back into the safety-net of becoming a protest vote – rather than just opposing the policies of the Conservative and (in time) Labour government we need to keep our strong, distinctive, Liberal, voice.

That being said we must not purely react to the issues, agendas and policies that are presented to us but work to shape the agenda of British politics; we need to set the questions rather than just having all of the answers. To use an example, the nation’s additional debts incurred from bailing out the financial institutions responsible (in varying degrees) for the financial crash of 2008 but they were portrayed by the Coalition solely due to the irresponsibility of the Labour government. Austerity measures were held up as the only way to save the country’s finances from the ‘extravagance’ of Labour’s welfare spending. As such, the debate has now shifted to deciding to what speed and extent the austerity measures should be carried out and away from the financial institutions that caused the situation in the first place.

I would be interested to hear what others think about the above as it is in no way meant to be a definitive list. I truly believe that we, the Liberal Democrats, can become the true opposition not only that this country deserves, but what it needs.

* Ian Thomas is the pseudonym for a party member. His identity is known to the Lib Dem Voice editorial team.

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36 Comments

  • a week is a long time in politics, 20 years is a bit longer. there might not be a lib dem party by then

  • Mick Taylor 12th Nov '15 - 1:57pm

    in 2035, God willing, I’ll be 85. I really don’t want to wait that long to be even the official opposition. 20 years of this appalling government will mean that my children and grandchildren – the youngest of whom will be 20 in 2035 will have to fend for themselves whilst the rich do very nicely thank-you. If Trudeau can go from 3rd to 1st in 5 years (and in reality in less than 1) then I think this article sets a VERY low bar for our party.

  • You make a very good point Mick. We should be pushing to create a Liberal Democrat government as soon as possible, however 4 elections to gain 318 seats is a fair timeframe.

  • *apologies, that figure would give us a majority – your drive to raise the bar has rubbed off on me Mick!

  • ‘The official opposition by 2035’……………… Now there’s something to look forward to …….. can’t wait to celebrate my 93rd birthday with the Lib Dems as the official opposition.But does it mean we’re going to have 20 more years of Tory rule ? Still…..given that Huddersfield Town have’nt won the League since 1926 and the Cup since 1922 – one still continues to live in hope………

    Not sure what, “destroy the socio-liberal welfare system in order to allow for them to sweep to power and rebuild it along purely socialists principles” means. If the Tories hold power for another 20 years there won’t be a welfare system….. and, sorry, Alex, probably not a civil service either.

  • David Evans 12th Nov '15 - 2:17pm

    Sadly, while great on reasons why we can recover, the one thing this article (as is the case for most articles of its type) is missing is a convincing narrative as to who and how we are going to persuade to vote for us over the next five years so we don’t get mangled through a combination of boundary reviews, court cases and loss of so many workers (both paid and unpaid) over the last five years. Until someone comes up with a idea of how to do that, recovery by 2035 will remain much less likely than oblivion by 2025.

    Absolutely we must continue to dream the dream and look to recover, but like this article’s suggestion on taxation, we must try and resist the urge of jumping on bandwagons by simply producing a never ending stream of purely populist pieces.

  • Alex is I suspect very young (I’m not)and is admirably enthusiastic, but 2035? You would need to stop people from giggling before you could address them on that proposal. Sorry, but really what kind of message is that? In the words of some tennis guy whose name I cannot remember in my senior years, you cannot be serious.

  • I’m sorry but you are dreaming if you think the LibDems will be the official opposition in 2035. Nick Clegg and his supporters nearly destroyed the party and it will take a long time to get back to where they were in 2010. The voters showed what they thought at the GE and I can’t see any reason why they would have changed their mind. The Labour party won’t be like the LibDems were with Clegg, there is no way that Corbyn will lead them at the next GE. After a few bad election results Corbyn will be out on his ear and David Milliband will be found a safe seat and elected leader. You guys will go into the next GE with your policies on green issues, legalising pot, rights for minority groups that most people have never heard of, scrapping trident etc – and hardly anyone will care. No it’s a very long road back for the LibDems and I think you would do well to lower your sights a little and start winning at council level and rebuilding all those strongholds you lost under Clegg’s leadership.

  • Much of this is right. Any group needs core values, goals and a strategy for getting there. Too much time in politics is spent on the “fun” stuff of daily dispute without being clear on where one is going, why and how it fits together.

  • Eddie Sammon 12th Nov '15 - 4:15pm

    This is a good article. I would aim for 2030, maybe even 2025, but Alex seems to have realised he was setting the bar a bit low.

    David Evans makes a good point about avoiding a never ending stream of populist policies. When someone suggests an idea such as “helping refugees” or “reducing poverty” my instinctive reaction is “year, sounds reasonable”, but I think it is disrespectful to start giving outraged moral lectures to the majority of the population, disguised as an attack on the Tories, but really when it comes to immigration it is an attack on most of the country.

    The party needs to mar it’s urge for the UK government to lead on every issue and promote personal and state responsibility. When refugees are in France, we shouldn’t just say “bring lots more over here” – we should be telling France to do something about it and France will be doing the same to the likes of Italy and so on.

    I think where some of the “Blairites” went wrong is writing off some of these concerns. We shouldn’t write off the concerns, but tell others to take responsibility too.

  • Dave Orbison 12th Nov '15 - 5:59pm

    “Become a true opposition to conservatism” + “Labour’s complete lack of will to defend it[the welfare state]” Please see many speeches from LibDem Orange bookers inc. Clegg, Alexander etc. on the need to cut welfare and many contributions of LDV who are still of that mind-set. Corbyn has led from the front consistently on this issue. To suggest otherwise couldn’t be wider of the mark.
    “Be consistent… not dangle [showpiece policies] weeks before an election but [such policies] should be the very foundation..” Something like the Student Fees Pledge? Yes, work damn hard to campaign for a flagship policy, go all out to win votes on this issue and show how determined we are to see a policy through only then to see us scrap it as soon as we get in. Works wonders.
    “Set the agenda e.g. immigration” Agreed. But clearly not supported by all LibDems judging by some contributors on LDV. I do agree too that the crash [2008] was caused by the debts incurred by irresponsible financial institutions. Implicitly then surely a criticism that in Tory’s and LibDems election narrative that this debt was due to Labour’s spending plans, was less than honest? As for the criticism that austerity was the only way – wasn’t this another Clegg and Alexander mantra.
    Now going back to your first point. Are you sure a party run by Orange-bookers are capable or even have the heart to be ‘a true opposition to conservatism’? I for one do not.

    Thinking on it perhaps 2035 is a little too optimistic.

  • paul barker 12th Nov '15 - 6:08pm

    A lot of the comments seem to come from people who know whats happening in British Politics & what will happen over the next 5/10/15 years. I feel that I dont know whats going to happen next May. We dont have any firm evidence yet about whats happening now, let alone what will happen. Corbyn has been Labour Leader for 2 Months & the dust hasnt even begun to settle yet. Lets keep our eyes & minds open.

  • An army needs boots (and a lot more besides) or all the ambitious plans of the generals will come to nothing. History provides endless examples of this truth but for some reason would-be strategists routinely forget it and cut straight to the ‘good stuff’ – making brave plans rooted in sand.

    So, “goal one” should be to develop an effective approach to party governance and policy-making or we are wasting our time. At present both are plainly not fit for purpose which is functionally equivalent to an army having no boots.

    I really hope that Tim Farron grasps the nettle on this and gets behind the consultations. He doesn’t have to know the answers himself – there is no reason why he should. He does have to show leadership by keeping asking difficult questions, accepting nothing as a given and demanding a better approach as THE top priority.

  • Paul Barker – absolutely right. Behind a façade of fake expertise the Tories are somewhere between clueless and in hock to carnivorous vested interests (I find it difficult to distinguish between these two). The result is that their best and only plan for the economy is to run it as a Ponzi scheme and keep their fingers crossed.

    They go on about the danger of debt but pile it onto students – the current generation will graduate with getting on for twice the per capita share of the national debt. How, precisely, is that supposed to help?

    Needless to say, this is all massively unstable not to mention the other idiocies they are piling up so the whole lot could implode at any moment. Corbyn could end up suddenly looking rather good. It’s far more difficult to see the Lib Dems achieving that on present form.

  • One advantage we have is that Labour is split between global liberals, Trotskyists and Red UKIP types. The Lib Dems need a coherent economic viewpoint (preferably of the centre right) and to defend the EU and social liberal values, and the party can go into battle.

  • nvelope2003 12th Nov '15 - 9:21pm

    Malc: Why do you think the people who elected Jeremy Corbyn will go on to elect David Miliband as leader ? The Parliamentary Labour Party might want him but it is the members who do the voting.

  • Dave Orbison 12th Nov '15 - 9:45pm

    Stimson “one advantage we have [ not split cf Labour]. Really, but what of this LibDems who prefer to be centre-left as opposed to your centre-right. A split by any other name.

  • nvelope2003 – The problem with the last Labour leadership campaign was the other 3 candidates were at best very average and I doubt even inspired their own campaign teams.. I’m a middle of the road Labour supporter and given the choice the Labour party had even I would have found it hard not to vote for Corbyn. However, if there had been a strong alternative – David Milliband – the result would have been different. I – and it’s only my opinion – think Labour will lose Oldham West to UKIP and that will really start a rethink. Stick with Corbyn and keep a Tory government or go for David Milliband and have a chance of winning. The far left of the party have had their moment, but I think common sense will kick in eventually.

  • James Ridgwell 12th Nov '15 - 10:21pm

    agree economic policy and credibility should be at the heart of our pitch. Depressed by the idea of there even being an ‘official opposition’ in 2035, as this suggests FPTP 2-party politics wont have been binned by then. And in any case can’t we aim for a majority before then? All we need to do is get about 35% of the vote. Something necessary but not sufficient to achieve that would be to make sure we have no major policies that are a ‘deal breaker’ for 60%-ish of the UK electorate (not that I’m saying we have any such policies – we just need to avoid acquiring any – and then weave a convincing narrative with the stuff we choose to focus on)

  • Great article. Not sure I agre with all, but I like your style. We should be more optimistic about our future.

  • Phil Wainewright 13th Nov '15 - 12:30am

    ‘Optimistic about our future?’
    How is second place in 20 years time optimistic on any measure? Sometimes the lack of ambition held by this party is mind-numbing. And electorally suicidal. No one votes for their choice to come second. It may be a tactical improvement on coming third, fourth, fifth or worse, but it should never be the target .
    However unrealistic it feels, we have to campaign to win, and to show why a Liberal Democrat government is best for Britain. Similarly at every election, from Westminster through Holyrood and London all the way down to each borough, town and ward. Not in twenty years time but now. (And not because we want society to be ‘fairer’ or economically ‘stronger’ but because we believe it should be more Liberal, which is quite adequately defined in the preamble to the party constitution: we aim to disperse power, foster diversity and nurture creativity by fighting poverty, ignorance and conformity and upholding the values of liberty, equality and community).
    If we do not believe in ourselves as winners, we are not going to win the support of voters. Liberals love to compromise and see the other person’s point of view but if we simply lie down and concede victory before we even start then we are never going to achieve the kind of society we aspire to.

  • Phil, of course we will campaign to win but considering there hasn’t been a (purely) Liberal government in Britian for a hundred years, let’s bit slightly realistic, considering becoming the opposition by 2035 would mean we would need to be gaining at least 50 seats each general election.

    While this was purely an intellectual excersise, one thing I didn’t mentioned was that any success would rest on the development of a (much enlarged) membership and activist base. While there is a potential chicken and egg issue here (electoral success leading to increased support and membership leading to electoral success), having some form of long term strategy is always useful.

    I’ll offer to eat my hat if we became the official opposition in four general elections time – if only to temp fate.

  • Jenny Barnes 13th Nov '15 - 9:00am

    The op seems to be completely ignoring what happened over the last 5 years. Activists and voters were convinced that the LDs offered an alternative, more honest and inclusive approach to politics. And were betrayed. I didn’t deliver thousands of leaflets for the pleasure of hearing Danny Alexander on the today programme heralding the latest bit of Tory nonsense as great policy. 2035 is optimistic, IMAO. It’ll take a generation or more for what the LDs did 2005 to 2010 to fade. Think of how the Tories are viewed after their attempt at destruction of the organised working class in the 80s. Yes, they are still the “nasty party” . But a lot of their voters think that’s great. Being a nasty party enabler when you have sold yourself as something else – that’s some serious reputational damage.

  • J George SMID 13th Nov '15 - 9:39am

    Wherever possible I am looking for a symmetry which will balance things to equilibrium. It took us five years to lost all MPs bar ‘magnificent 8’. We should concentrate on #fightback to get back in the same time-frame.

    We should not even contemplate a 20 year future. Twenty years predictions are meaningless: nobody predicted smart phones even 10 years ago, no party strategies (of any party) envisaged SNP 5 years ago, Corbin was written off as irrelevant 1 year ago. Planning for a return in 20 years time is the surest way to turn the voter off. “Electorally suicidal” as Phil Wainewright neatly put it. Or irrelevant bar the ‘under 30’ members: “In 2035, God willing, I’ll be 85” mused Mick Taylor.

    What we need is a responsive party to public concerns, inspiring thoughts on the future and a narrative to which the voters will listen. Yes, we need Agenda (goal three) but why not to be revolutionary? (Goal two). The economy is in a mess and revolutionary thoughts (Piketty, Syriza) do resonate with public.

  • Alan Balcombe 13th Nov '15 - 11:42am

    The centre ground is where its all won and lost. So a centrist alternative to the Tories. Be clearer on policy, ie, an actual immigration policy would help, for example. Defend the poor, support public services (but be flexible in their manner of funding and delivery) and have a clear economic strategy, clear and vocal in supporting business including a lightly regulated big business as this is what creates jobs.

  • @ J George SMID

    Completely agree – especially about Piketty…. but precious sign that the Party is taking any note of it….. too busy rehabilitating a noble Lord.

  • paul barker 13th Nov '15 - 4:19pm

    The thing thats hard to get our heads round is just how much has changed below the surface. Both Labour & Tories are attempting a “managed split”. The Tories will probably be able to come together again, after the Referendum but Labours divisions go much deeper. The only thing holding Labours two halves together is that both want the Labour “Brand” & both think they can get it/get it back. The PLP are back to thinking about possible “Coups” , a measure of their desperation.
    We cant know whats going to come out of this but I see only 3 real possibilities, a formal Labour split, mass defections of Labour MPs or the 2 sides simply destroying their Party while fighting over it. The present “Phony War” wont last for ever.

  • @ Paul Barker “The thing that’s hard to get our heads round is just how much has changed below the surface”

    No mention of the Lib Dems there Paul,… only the Tories and Labour ………………..

    As someone who was a radical Liberal back in the sixties and paid a sub until 2012 (guess why) …. then rejoined post May 2015…………. it’s quite apparent to me based on postings on LDV that the 6% Lib Dem support is split 2% Orange Book and 4% traditional left of centre social Liberal. Not a happy prospect………….. and I don’t envy Tim’s job of healing and leading and keeping that over represented lot in the House of Lords in the real world.

  • Christopher Haigh 13th Nov '15 - 5:36pm

    If the SNP were to stand candidates in the north of England labour might be in trouble unless the two parties merge. If no merger the SNP could become the official opposition fairly soon.
    @David Raw-Town did well when the football market was regulated to give a level playing field for all clubs to compete. It is now a chaotic free market in which financial survival is the main priority for clubs like Town.

  • @ Christopher Haigh re HTAFC Absolutely right, Christopher. That’s yet another thing we can hang round the neck of the unregulated free marketeers and their chums in the Murdoch dominated media world. One thing I’ll concede to Tony Greaves is that he follows Bradford Park Avenue come rain, sun or snow.

  • David Evans 14th Nov '15 - 1:40pm

    John, I am the next in a long line of Liberals going back to who knows when. My mum and dad were Liberals in the 1950s when it was deeply unfashionable to be Liberal and we had just six MPs. The party had almost destroyed itself in coalition with half its members going with people like the National Liberals who ultimately joined the Conservatives. They knew there was no chance of government in their lifetime, but they knew progress could be made and the spark arrived with Jo Grimond and was further fuelled by an influx of good Social Democrats in the 1980s. Eventually we won council seats, councils, MPs, MEPs and more. We even got Elizabeth Shields in Ryedale, their local constituency.

    If they and many other liberals hadn’t done it there wouldn’t have been a Liberal Party for Jo Grimond to lead. No Liberal Party to help the SDP establish itself and ultimately merge with. No Liberal Party for David Penhaligon to inspire in Cornwall. And no Liberal Democrats for us to work within and fight for local people against the crushing bureaucracy so loved by Labour and Conservative authoritarians alike.

    They kept the faith so there was a Liberal party still there for a new generation to build on. It is a dark place we have been banished to now, and recovery will be hugely difficult, but we need to stick to the task so another generation can rebuild again from the ruins. If we fail there won’t be a liberal, democratic party in the UK. End of.

  • SIMON BANKS 16th Nov '15 - 9:20pm

    Since I have a History degree, I’m quite happy thinking long. In all likelihood I won’t be around in 2035, but then I wasn’t around in 1645 either (despite rumours to the contrary).

    Yes, the party might not exist in 20 years’ time, but then the U.K. might not either…there’s every reason to think a Liberal party will exist, this one or something based on it.

    I think Alex talks a lot of sense, none more so than in seeking a consistent and characteristically Liberal economic policy.

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