Last year I left the Liberal Democrats. Here’s how a new leader could win me back

It’s never easy leaving home. Prior to last year I had been a Lib Dem my entire adult life, but I made the decision to leave the party following changes I had seen build up over a long time. We used to advocate radical ideas, but we had become too comfortable with campaigning to uphold the status quo.

However, my vote is still winnable for the Lib Dems. And frankly, left-leaning young people like myself are going to need to vote for the party again if it is ever going to build an electorally viable voting base. The experiment over the past decade of trying to attract liberal, ‘small c’ Conservatives has proven to be an unmitigated disaster, as well as having blunted the party’s radical edge.

So, what kind of policies and ideas could a new leader bring in to broaden the party’s appeal? For my money, there are three key targets which need to be hit in order to make the party an electorally desirable entity across the centre-left. I know these may make for uncomfortable reading for some in the party – but when your comfort zone is three disastrous elections back-to-back, a little discomfort can go a long way.

Universal Basic Income

Encouragingly there have been positive noises coming from various wings of the party on this issue. I’ve written on this website in the past about how UBI needs to be reframed less as heavy-handed state interference in people’s lives and more as an empowering, liberal idea which would give millions of people the security and freedom to live their lives to the full.

And it’s not just the inherent value of the policy which should appeal to us. Adopting the policy would send a clear signal that the Lib Dems are once again the home of radical, bold thinking that is interested in the best ideas whether they come from left or right. We can’t put a price on that.

A clear willingness to collaborate with other parties

One of my enduring memories of campaigning for the Liberal Democrats over the past two elections has been in-depth debate with politically engaged voters who couldn’t work out why the Lib Dems and other progressive parties wouldn’t put their differences aside. As a campaigner, it was quite difficult to on the one hand argue that we thought Brexit was an impending national catastrophe, but on the other hand explain how it wasn’t quite important enough for us to bury the hatchet with Labour in order to avoid it.

I am fully aware of opposition within the party to electoral pacts. It’s undemocratic, the argument goes, to deprive voters of a Liberal Democrat candidate to vote for. Unfortunately, this amounts to a self-damaging, puritanical desire to be democratic within a deeply undemocratic system. The result of us giving that option to an increasingly small number of voters across the country is depriving Britain of formidable progressive representation in parliament.

There are ways for smart political parties to cooperate without resorting to outright pacts, as Duncan Brack brilliantly outlines in Layla Moran’s Build Back Better document. Increasingly, voters understand the need for progressives to work together. And it is, bluntly, not a good look for a party that governed alongside the Conservatives for five years to rule it out.

A Liberal argument for state intervention in the climate crisis

On this, the Liberal Democrats have a record of which the party can be justifiably proud. One of its leadership candidates, Sir Ed Davey, presided over some of the UK’s most forward-thinking policies with regard to the climate crisis. However, in 2020 advocating for radical climate policy is, rightly or wrongly, seen as the preserve of the left. But this issue is far too important to be left to the Labour Party in Britain.

The task for the Liberal Democrats, then, is to make the case for state-led intervention in the climate crisis through the form of subsidies and green investment. Liberals champion the power and freedom of the individual, not the state – so let us empower future generations to live on a planet which can sustain that freedom. There is a balance to be found between championing a free market and wanting a state with the power to keep that market fair and clean. The future of the Liberal Democrats, and perhaps our planet, depends on that balance being struck.

There are millions of voters such as myself who are very much in-play for the Liberal Democrats. In a way, the tragedy for the party is that self-described liberals are less likely to swear ideological loyalty to one party or another when compared to socialists and conservatives. But that is a good thing. Liberals question the status quo, and show ambition and imagination when it comes to building a better world. What we need is a party that does the same.

* Adam Bennett is a former Liberal Democrat member & employee. He was Vice-Chairman of the Hertford and Stortford Liberal Democrats and worked as part of Sir Nick Clegg's communications team during his time as Deputy Prime Minister.

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25 Comments

  • Lorenzo Cherin 23rd Jun '20 - 2:42pm

    This is a very interesting and confusing piece. That is not because it is not well put, it is because it is. It is so convincing, I am convinced Adam should return to our party as i agree with his piece !

    Why he left is the unknown.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 23rd Jun '20 - 2:58pm

    And perhaps Adam , might come back……

  • Paul Barker 23rd Jun '20 - 3:06pm

    This is a very clear & uninteresting piece. Some suggestion of how many new Voters a move to the Left would attract would be useful, combined with some estimates of how many Voters it would lose.
    The Tories have lost 10% from their Polling average over the last 3 Months, I would expect them to lose a lot more. Most will go to Labour, we need to find arguments that divert some of those to The Libdems.
    There is a balance to be struck between praising other Parties when we agree with them & pointing out where we disagree, I cant see this article has anything useful to say about how we strike that balance.

  • Chris Bertram 23rd Jun '20 - 3:22pm

    “As a campaigner, it was quite difficult to on the one hand argue that we thought Brexit was an impending national catastrophe, but on the other hand explain how it wasn’t quite important enough for us to bury the hatchet with Labour in order to avoid it. ”

    It takes two to bury the hatchet. Labour has never shown the slightest inclination to stand aside for us anywhere in national elections – indeed, their stated position is that they are a national party, and hence must stand everywhere. They are a very tribal party from left to right – in fact, the right are arguably even more tribal than the left, even though there may be more obvious policy overlap.

    So when people ask us why we can’t do a deal with Labour, we must not be afraid to explain that you can’t do a deal with people who dont actually want to do a deal. And that’s a shame.

  • Adam Bennett 23rd Jun '20 - 3:45pm

    Paul – thank you for the feedback, which I cannot fault for honesty! This is by no means my own original thought, but I found this piece today from Nick Barlow really enlightening on the subject of the electoral costs and benefits of tacking to the left: https://medium.com/@nick.barlow/on-liberal-democrats-equidistance-working-with-others-and-electoral-success-5ea6a5be0ba2

    The gist is that where publically moving closer to Labour has worked for us in the past, it has been because our target seats tended to be Tory-facing, the Tories in govt were unpopular, and perhaps most importantly the Labour party had moved closer to the centre which allowed our implied support to appear credible and genuine.

    To rip a quote straight from that piece: “The important thing to consider, and this is what was on Paddy Ashdown’s mind in 1992, is not how things are today, but how do we expect them to be by the time the next election comes around? What he realised then was that it was ridiculous to imagine the Liberal Democrats supporting a fifth Tory term whenever that election came around, and so the party needed to commit to being part of a broader anti-Tory grouping.”

    My view is that is broadly where we are right now. I hope that provides more information on how the party can strike the balance you identified. Furthermore, as I said in the piece, Duncan Brack’s short essay in the Build Back Better document is also right on the money in my opinion.

  • Adam Bennett 23rd Jun '20 - 3:51pm

    Lorenzo – perhaps that could be the topic for another piece (though possibly quite a self indulgent one not suited to this site!). My intention to this piece was to look to the future rather than pick over the past (much as what the party should be doing…). But thanks in any case for your kind comment!

  • Adam Bennett 23rd Jun '20 - 3:59pm

    Chris – it takes two to bury the hatchet, but it does only take one to extend an olive branch.

    If that absurdly mixed metaphor doesn’t do it for you, what I am trying to say here is that, at the risk of repeating myself, there are ways to work together beyond outright pacts. The Labour party absolutely are tribal – but they also act ferociously in their own self-interest. As was the case in 1997, they can align themselves closer to the LDs when it suits them. My view is that the current political climate does suit them and us in terms of cooperation. As I said in my comment to Paul, I found this piece by Nick Barlow really enlightening on the subject (and it’s very well written, which is always a bonus). https://medium.com/@nick.barlow/on-liberal-democrats-equidistance-working-with-others-and-electoral-success-5ea6a5be0ba2

  • Chris Bertram 23rd Jun '20 - 4:59pm

    @Adam – there was never any chance of Labour accepting an olive branch from us under Jeremy Corbyn – the left was still ranting and raving about the Coalition, after all. We would simply have looked foolish as they rebuffed us in very short order.

    Now Keir Starmer may – I say may – be inclined to be more collegiate, but he will still have to face his party down. I detect little appetite within Labour for that at this stage, there are still a lot of people there who think that they could win a majority under FPTP, and also many who would love to wipe us out entirely. And it took someone with the clout of Paddy to get Tony Blair even interested in thinking about it back in 1997, which I must remind you was 23 years ago (I feel old). Now our new leader, whoever it turns out to be, may surprise us and be able to charm Starmer and those around him into cooperation, but we have to plan for that not to happen. And point out where the blame lies for the non-cooperation, when that comes to pass.

  • Adam Bennett 23rd Jun '20 - 5:10pm

    @ Chris – totally agreed. In any reality where the LDs and Labour do begin to cooperate/align, it will be because the Labour party has decided that it is in its own electoral self-interest to do so and that self-interest outweighs its instinctive disdain for the LDs. And, quite frankly, the reverse should be true of the LDs. There is a high chance that this reality will never come to pass.

    However my feeling is that, with all things taken into consideration, a majority of LD members and voters would sooner have Starmer in No10 than Johnson given a straight choice between the two. The LDs can’t pretend that isn’t the case. In order to accurately reflect the people the party represents, the LDs must work, where feasible, to ensure that is the case. I am not suggesting a merger or even a pact – simply that the LDs move with the times and reflect the political will of their own supporters.

  • Jane Leaper 23rd Jun '20 - 6:22pm

    I also left the party last year. Nothing suggested in this article would convince me to rejoin, or even vote for the LDs again. In particular, I don’t see UBI as a vote winner. It would result in people on middle incomes paying more tax, without any return in the form of improved public services. It is a vote loser, IMO.

  • @Chris Bertram: “… Now our new leader … may … be able to charm Starmer and those around him into cooperation, but we have to plan for that not to happen. And point out where the blame lies for the non-cooperation, when that comes to pass.”

    Your scepticism may prove to be justified, Chris – but, in the meantime, let’s be a little more optimistic and open-minded. Perhaps, in your concluding sentence, therefore replace “when” with “if”?

    After all, given that Scotland is (for now at least) a virtually a no-win zone for any party other than the SNP, the harsh electoral arithmetic is likely to push the realists, and any political pluralists, within Labour towards some form of cooperation (or, at least, a cessation of hostilities) with the Lib Dems – and our price for any “arrangement”, above all else, should be an unambiguous commitment by Labour to implement Proportional Representation for future General Elections (together with broader electoral and political reforms) within the first term of any new “progressive” Government.

  • Paul Barker 23rd Jun '20 - 6:23pm

    We are a Left/Centre-Left Party but we represent a very different strand of the Left from Labour which has always focused on The Self-organisation of The Working Class. Labour see Groups, moving as Groups; we see Individuals working together. Labour have never had much of an interest in Values which is why they have always been such a “Broad Church”.

    The Libdems are a Democratic Party, Leaders Lead from The Front but they dont decide Policy on their own. That is another big difference with Labour.

    Currently there are few places, even in The “North” where we are in direct competition with Labour, mostly we & Labour are both facing Tories, that is the basis for a sort of Non-Agression Pact if Labour are sensible but it hardly counts as a “Progressive Alliance”.

    The Single Factor that decides how many Councillors & MPs we get is the the size of the Difference between Our Vote & The Tories Vote. In 2019 that Difference was 33%; in 2010 it was 12%. The Tories seem to be doing their best to piss off as many Voters as they can so if we can continue to slowly Rebuild we can be cautiously optimistic about the next Decade. I dont see the need for a sudden jump to The “Left”.

  • I have stopped asking why UBI is better than properly delivered help to those who need it because clearly no one can explain why taxpayers should lavish extra money on those who do not need it.

    Cooperating with other parties is fine, but the party seems to be horrified at the thought of a coalition. This is strange, given the obsession with electoral reform leading to a system which usually leads to coalitions.

    I will vote for any party that introduces an independent scientific enquiry into the flawed climate models that underpin the climate alarmism. The models have been in use for several decades now and show that they are predicting much higher temperatures than occur in reality. the whole scientific farce has become a gravy train for the moneymen at taxpayers’ and consumers’ expense.

    The consequences are dire for the energy industry, the economy and fuel poverty.

  • In all this consideration of “tacking to the left” or otherwise could we please consider tacking toward liberalism ?

  • Alex Macfie 23rd Jun '20 - 9:27pm

    I could not countenance any unilateral extending of olive branches to either big party. Last time we did this was when we unilaterally stood aside for the Tory candidate in the Haltemprice & Howden by-election, and the main effect this had was to stroke David Davis’ ego and shore him up in what was then a target seat for us.

  • Andrew Peter Southgate 23rd Jun '20 - 9:42pm

    An interesting argument by Adam Bennett. Let me try and mount a case for the defence.

    Unfortunately, Britain is a small C Conservative country. If it wasn’t, then why have the Conservatives ( in one form or the other been in power for 40 of the last 75 years since the war.) Writing off 40% of the electorate before chasing after at best 35% of the rest of the electorate is not a smart move.

    26 of a possible 30 target seats for a 2024 elections are Conservative held. Rushing to ape AOC and her crowd is not going to appeal to them.
    Starmer also knows that he faces a mountain to climb if Labour are to get back into power or more likely become the largest party. Unlike all previous Labour Prime Ministers, he can no longer rely on 40 Scottish Labour MP’s. He knows that the best chance of ousting the Tories from power will be if the Labour and the Liberal Democrats find sensible ways of working together and if the Liberal Democrats come back with a vengeance. For example, near where I live is Sutton and Cheam constituency where Labour have not got a cat in hell’s chance of winning. Labour should stand down their candidate and we should do the same in places like Bury North and Bridgend which we will never win in a month of Sundays. Keir Starmer (like all good lawyers) also has the annoying trait which will become more apparent as time passes of never having a clear position on any policy position (witness the Bristol Statue non answer.) If the Conservatives do lose (which happily is becoming more and more likely, then hopefully the One Nation crowd in the Tories will rise from the dead

    Be sensible. Don’t proclaim yourself as the next Prime Minister when your Party has twelve seats in the House of Common. Don’t revoke with one signature, a referendum of 17 million. Try to under promise and over deliver rather than do the opposite which lead to such disaster in 2015.

    By the way, UBI is not a sensible idea. I would much rather prefer an aggressive Job Creation Scheme backed by some serious hardcore Keynesianism
    If we are ever going to return to our pre 2010 pomp, then we must be realistic, focused and targeted.

  • Adam states very clearly that the party must move to the left. It is a view often expressed on LDV these days and it may well come to pass. While I respect the views of all in our party, can I just point out that for those who wish to see a focus on public services and greater equality of outcomes there is a party that has been in existence for over 100 years that has always espoused those values. I was once a member of that party myself so I make the suggestion without animosity or ill feeling.
    I do not see how there is room in a FPTP electoral system for two parties of the left. Do you actually think that you will replace the Labour Party as the first choice of those who hold center left views ? And why would a Labour Government grant us PR and remove any possibility that they could govern on their own again ? At best, a move to the left would prepare the ground for a future Labour/Lib Dem merger. Some of you are no doubt protesting at this point that Labour is authoritarian and you could never be a part of that. If you expect the average voter to appreciate such policy nuances, well good luck with that one.
    As others have pointed out, most of the seats that we have a chance of winning are Conservative seats. You may take the view that our attempt to win over “soft” Tories has been an “unmitigated disaster”. Is it remotely possible that soft Tories were so terrified by the prospect of a Corbyn government that they felt a vote for us was a risk they could not afford to take ?
    And where does all this leave people like Sam Gyimah and Sarah Wollaston, politicians of great talent and integrity who may soon find themselves left high and dry by parties falling over themselves to vacate the center ground of British politics. Some, like Adam, may claim that they will join the party if we become a nice version of the Labour party, Momentum without the malice. Others may decide it’s time to fold the tent, and quietly steal away.

  • Is it remotely possible that soft Tories were so terrified by the prospect of a Corbyn government that they felt a vote for us was a risk they could not afford to take ?

    Yes, that is EXACTLY what happened, both in 2017 and 2019.
    “Momentum without the malice” is an oxymoron. Part of the definition of the Momentum hard left ideology is the intolerant approach to politics. This is the antithesis of liberalism, so even if the Lib Dems tack towards the ‘left’, we could never be like Momentum, because it’s the approach to politics that defines the hard left much more than policies. And this also means that soft Tories are not likely to be put off by a “left-wing” Lib Dem party. However left-wing we are, we would still not be Momentum, we would still not be the Labour hard left.
    And for this reason, pacts are a very silly idea. The idea of a pact between Lib Dems and Labour was rejected even at the height of collaboration between Paddy and Tony. It was understood by both that Lib Dems can reach voters that Labour can’t, and any formal pact between the two parties would nullify this advantage that the Lib Dems in seats where we are strong against the Tories.

  • Peter Martin 24th Jun '20 - 9:47am

    There are several proposals to implement a UBI. The latest one I’ve seen comes from Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP.

    Let me make a prediction. None of them will work. The income from a UBI will very likely be small and inconsequential. It won’t be enough to remove anyone from poverty. At the same time there will be macroeconomic drawbacks. A larger UBI will be both unaffordable, in conventional thinking, and have even larger negative macroeconomic impacts which proponents of a UBI don’t bother to consider.

    They will not “give millions of people the security and freedom to live their lives to the full.”

    https://www.thenational.scot/news/18450831.snp-consider-ubi-bid-build-fairer-independent-scotland/

  • John Marriott 24th Jun '20 - 10:03am

    Mr Southgate is stating the bleeding obvious, as I have been doing for the past few years on LDV and elsewhere. Britain IS a small C Conservative country, with, I might add, a significant large C core.

    So, yes, you have got to tailor your campaigns towards the middle ground. The place to start may indeed be once again one the ground’. I really got involved in politics (my family might prefer the past participle “obsessed”) in the early 1980s and was fortunate to be living in a moribund Conservative voting community in desperate need of some new ideas. After the 1983 election, I and a small group of ‘activists’ concentrated our efforts at local government level, with regular Focus newsletters and campaigns.

    Well, we virtually swept the board. From our first successes at Town and District Councils in 1987, as the ‘Alliance Party’, by the turn of the century, as Lib Dem’s, we had a majority on the Town Council, all five District Council seats and one of the two County Council seats (we eventually won the other in 2009). And now, zero. Why? Because ‘pavement politics’ can only take you so far. People get old, they sadly die and, because we were spending so much of our time sitting on councils, and, in many cases, trying to hold down jobs or keeping our families together, we failed to recruit. I have used the analogy before. Campaigning as a Liberal Democrat is a bit like weeding your garden. It’s fine when you have the energy to keep the weeds (aka Tories) at bay; but, if you slacken your efforts, they just keep growing back. Yes, Andrew, we really do live in a small C country.

    So, how DO you break through again? Could what we did over 30 years ago do the trick again? Only if those who try start at the grass roots and are, in some cases, prepared to sacrifice career prospects and personal relationships for the cause. Above all, they need to STICK AT IT! In a fertile area this can still lead to parliamentary success; but not everywhere as we discovered in ‘true blue’ Lincolnshire. How often did we hear on the doorstep; “Yes, I will vote for you in local elections; but not in a General Election”? Now, that’s were a minority party often comes unstuck. How you change that is the $64,000 question.

  • I left. Now In Labour. swinson was a totalk disaster, No plans in coming back any time soon!

  • It’s helpful to see the exchange of views. Attracting new members is an interesting side issue but is a short term view and cannot genuinely be first priority. Look at the huge rise in membership over Remain. Where are they now? Look to build up the core through a permanent credible strategy that is not obsessed with the next GE but with the next 5 instead – or more. It would be nice to know who is willing to make that energetic sustained commitment.

  • Peter: ” …the party seems to be horrified at the thought of a coalition. This is strange, given the obsession with electoral reform leading to a system which usually leads to coalitions.”

    It is all about context. Previously, the LibDems went naively into coalition with the Tories under FPTP, where the number of votes won were not so very different, but where the Tories had the numbers in Parliament to be able to control all the main levers of power and almost all ministries, including the ones that largely control the others, Number 10 and the Treasury. That made the LibDems an inconvenient adjunct to largely Tory rule and the achievements that were made were largely not recognised by the public due to inadequate publicity and a hostile press from both political directions.

    Quite frankly, the Tories turned on their LibDem coalition partners as thoroughly as they did with their much closer bedfellows in Ulster and we would be literally insane to repeat that mistake after such a short period.

    The LibDem main aim should be to achieve constitutional reform and to offer no more than “Confidence & Supply” to achieve it, realistically only via Labour, with Starmer offering the best possibility of reform since Blair’s first term. OK, yes that pact was ratted on by Brown, Prescott and the Labour left, but they are mostly gone. Meanwhile, other LibDem policies should be promoted on the basis of the more MP’s achieved, the more could be enacted

    Even John McDonnell admits that in the amount of time the Tories are in (unwarranted) power in between Labour governments, far too much damage is done to Industry, the unions, public services and Labour supporting communities. Labour may well be ready for voting reform and they had better get it in before Scotland potentially leaves (54% for the exit today) or what is left of the UK might as well call itself a one party state

  • ” ….the party seems to be horrified at the thought of a coalition. This is strange, given the obsession with electoral reform leading to a system which usually leads to coalitions.” Peter

    It is all about context. Previously, the LibDems went naively into coalition with the Tories under FPTP, where the number of votes won were not so very different, but where the Tories had the numbers in Parliament to be able to control all the main levers of power and almost all ministries, including the ones that largely control the others, Number 10 and the Treasury. That made the LibDems an inconvenient adjunct to largely Tory rule and the achievements that were made were largely not recognised by the public due to inadequate publicity and a hostile press from both political directions

    Quite frankly, the Tories turned on their LibDem coalition partners as thoroughly as they did with their much closer bedfellows in Ulster & we would be foolish to repeat that mistake after such a short period

    The LibDem main aim should be to achieve constitutional reform & to offer no more than “Confidence & Supply” to achieve it, realistically only via Labour, with Starmer offering the best possibility of reform since Blair’s first term. OK, yes the pact terms were denied on by Brown, Prescott & the Labour left, but they are mostly gone. Meanwhile, other LibDem policies should be promoted on the basis of the more MP’s achieved, the more could be enacted.

    Even John McDonnell admits that in the amount of time the Tories are in (unwarranted) power in between Labour governments, far too much damage is done to Industry, the unions, public services and Labour supporting communities. Labour may well be ready for voting reform and they had better get it in before Scotland potentially leaves (54% for separation) or what is left of the UK might as well call itself a 1 party state.

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