Lord Tony Greaves writes… Where now for the Liberal Democrats? Part 1: Where we are

The morning after another disastrous General Election for the Liberal Democrats, the party’s press office issued a statement which started with the breath-taking words: “It has been a good night for the Liberal Democrats.”

It went on to say: “We hoped to hold our ground but instead we have increased our number of MPs by 50%. We welcome back big hitters to our ranks in Jo Swinson, Vince Cable and Ed Davey, who all regained their seats with emphatic majorities. We have won stunning victories in Eastbourne, Bath, Edinburgh West, Caithness and Oxford West & Abingdon.”

Well yes, and I cheered every one of them. But we lost five of the nine seats we were defending including four which had been held at the calamitous election in 2015. Many more seats that we recently held or which were strong targets fell back badly so that the number of possible winnable seats has shrunk to levels not seen for decades. We lost 375 deposits and it was clear that the basic Liberal Democrat vote in large parts of the country was still close to zero and that the much-vaunted fight-back in many areas had simply not happened at the Westminster level.

So let’s start again. It was a disastrous night for the Liberal Democrats. The best that can be said is that in an election when the very presence of the party in the House of Commons was in danger, we survived. The increase from eight seats in 2015 to 12 this time is welcome but only gets us back to the position in 1966. The truth is that over much of the country hardly anyone voted for us. The countrywide core vote we had been building up in the first decade of the 2000s has gone and shows no signs of coming back.

So what’s to be done? Before answering that, we need to recognise a few things that are different now.

First, while the toxicity of the Coalition is still there in many places (not least when stirred up by the nasty elements in the Labour Party) it is far less potent than it was two years ago. As time goes by it will fade further. Tuition fees remain the most dangerous thing for us, as we saw again this time, but even that complaint will in the course of time become the preserve of leftwing eccentrics.

Second, it is clear that the “old Liberal vote” has gone for good. There used to be a steady vote of around 10% for any Liberal Democrat candidate in all but the most unfavourable circumstances. That has gone. Our base vote now, in the absence of strong reasons to vote for us which overcome the reasons to vote for other candidates, is 2-3%. That has been clear in Council elections in the past year though the party’s publicists (and perhaps too many wishful thinkers in higher reaches in the party) have masked that fact by over-stressing the string of successes where the “strong reasons to vote for us” test has been achieved.

Third, in the absence of favourable conditions, we cannot build our vote in a particular seat in the four or five weeks of an election campaign. We can break through but it needs hard work for many months and years before the election campaign. It’s campaigning that builds strength and on that score we are still going backwards.

Fourth, people are now more flexible in their political choices than ever before. The movement in this General Election was very real and the overall figures mask ever greater churn within them. The people who are fixed in their votes for a lifetime – or even from election to election – are fewer than ever. And more and more people will vote for different parties in different kinds of elections – even in the same ballot boxes on the same day, or just a few weeks apart as we saw this time in many places.

Fifth, each election result (like opinion polls) is no more than a snap-shot in time. The result indicates the views of the people who voted in that area, on that day, at the time they voted. Those views may be deeply held and longstanding; increasingly they may be neither. And while the result in a particular area often has an effect on the conditions in which the next election in that same area takes place, but it is only one factor.

Of course the national tide may come in again for us, probably due to circumstances over which we have only reactive control. But tides that come in go out again and sometimes faster. If it does happen, it’s still important that we are prepared for it.

I will explore what we do about all of this in my next piece which will appear tomorrow.

* Tony Greaves is a backbench Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.

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  • Apparently, the main goal for some is the leader’s head on a pike. This ignores the wider issues bedeviling the party: a lack of a deep and coherant philosophical basis amongst its grass-roots membership – more like a collection of independents united by love for PR – and the rise of an anti-establishment politics where libdems are seen as an firmly entrenched part of the political establishment

  • Very clear and compelling diagnosis by Tony Greaves as always. Can’t wait for his proposals tomorrow.

    In the meantime I will share two interesting and also rather compelling comments that Shaun Roberts, Head of Campaigns, made at the WM Regional Conference a few weeks ago:
    • Research nationally is showing that about 4 in 10 share our liberal values but only about 1 in 20 really know what we as a Party stand for, so getting our message to those 4 out of 10 is crucial
    • The most likely group to support us are the young professionals and we need to be more active in recruiting and canvassing them if we know where they are most likely to live

  • Joseph Bourke 14th Jun '17 - 3:22pm

    That’s a good commentary, Tony. Particularly with respect to the withering of the concept of a core vote and the high level of churn that we have seen in recent years.

    No party has an automatic right to exist or to presume a core vote. Votes have to be earned at each election and voters need a good reason to cast their ballot in favour of a smaller party. Liberal philosophy and values play a part in people’s minds but ultimately it is the bread and butter issues and the potential to deliver that determine the outcome.

    As a national party, we have to be able to put forward credible and distinctive solutions to the local and national problems that are engaging the electorate at any point in time. Solutions that will stand the test of critical review by the general public. Without that distinctive policy base firmly rooted in addressing common problems, no amount of energetic campaigning will make any difference to the Party’s position in the long-term.

    I look forward to your next piece.

  • David Crichton 14th Jun '17 - 3:34pm

    I suspect that Tony will remind us of what has always been clear to me – we cannot trust the Labour Party to do anything but support itself. The illusion of a Progressive Alliance has been well and truly demolished by Lord Ashcroft’s analysis of voting patterns showing a large LibDem tactical vote for Labour but almost none from them to us. The irony is that cost us at the very least St Ives and Richmond Park and probably a significant number of others and in so doing gave the Tories enough seats to pretend that they can stiil run things with the NI dinosaurs! The parable of The Ass and The Scorpion comes to mind… What is a rather bitter irony is that Labour have now saddled themselves with exactly the policy that cost us dear; the difference is that they can pretend for now that they would actually scrap tuition fees if in government.

  • paul holmes 14th Jun '17 - 3:35pm

    Excellent analysis. Along with John Pugh’s on the Southport result it should be a wake up call to those who believe that, in a FPTP system, we can win by pitching ourselves as a niche urban, educated, middle class Party.

  • LibDemDavid 14th Jun '17 - 3:48pm

    There are neglected areas eg Pitsea in Essex which are crying out for change and improvement, but no liberal democrat campaigning to be seen. All the other parties deliver leaflets, the Lib Dems don’t and no wonder the vote goes down to 2/3 %. Why not put out a focus type leaflet on what we will do locally eg on crime, the environment, local services/local issues – youth provision is hardly ever mentioned and then nationally eg on the NHS, Education, the Elderly, Transport, Jobs, Young People… That’s what’s needed effective messages and more communication with people in the areas where they live.

  • What, exactly, do people think the lost ‘core vote’ thought were our core values?

  • paul barker 14th Jun '17 - 4:01pm

    Everthing in the article above is true I think. The decline in core vote shares affects all Parties & goes back seven Decades. The flipside of that decline is that the number of floating Voters has seen a steady increase, making Political “Tides” bigger & faster. We have to look for ways to ride those Tides ourselves.
    That requires that we sharpen our image, as The Party that will always :
    oppose Brexit all the way,
    support Freedom &
    back The Poor & weak.
    While all the negatives about us are real, there are plenty of real problems for The Big Parties too, both are badly divided & both are committed to some version of a Brexit which will be a disaster. The Wheel hasnt stop turning.

  • @ David Crichton

    Prior to the coalition huge numbers of Labour voters gave tactical votes for the Lib Dems.
    Coalition with the Conservatives killed that stone dead. I voted Lib Dem at every GE between 1979-1997.

    The consequences of that period in government with the Tories is far reaching, it hollowed out the party resulting in the frankly underwhelming Tim Farron as leader. Prior to 2010 the election of Corbyn as Labour leader would have given the Lib Dems every chance of becoming the second largest party in vote terms – it could have been 1983 all over again against Foot. As it is the party has largely become an irrelevance, it will be a very hard slog indeed to come back from here

  • Paul Pettinger 14th Jun '17 - 4:03pm

    As things stand, tuition fees are going to remain a dead weight around our and many people’s neck. People will be continually reminded of their debt for decades of pay checks to come. In many cases the debts are to worsen as people are now being charged interest of 3% + the RPI inflation rate. We didn’t increase the interest charge by an additional 3%, but we will be remembered for helping create a HE funding system where people were burdened with this much debt in the first place. I hope you won’t dismiss all those negatively affected as ‘eccentrics ‘ – this is a major analytical flaw.

  • Stephen Howse 14th Jun '17 - 4:03pm

    “Third, in the absence of favourable conditions, we cannot build our vote in a particular seat in the four or five weeks of an election campaign.”

    So let’s turn this on its head. What can we as a party do to generate ‘favourable conditions’ so that we don’t need to spend decades painstakingly building our vote street by street before we have a shot at winning a seat?

    Good piece, though.

  • On the core vote point the Ashcroft polling suggests that half the Lib Dem vote in 2010 went elsewhere. That puts the core vote at 4%.

  • Bill le Breton 14th Jun '17 - 4:13pm

    Of course, it will be very interesting to read Tony’s piece tomorrow.

    But is was also interesting to learn from John above that “Shaun Roberts, Head of Campaigns, made (the following comments) at the WM Regional Conference a few weeks ago:
    • Research nationally is showing that about 4 in 10 share our liberal values but only about 1 in 20 really know what we as a Party stand for, so getting our message to those 4 out of 10 is crucial …”

    Could he or someone in the know share some of this with us here, please. What are these values? Are they distinct to us or are they shared with other Parties. Were we true to them in 2010 to 2015 and in what way. Howe did we demonstrate them in the 2015 – 17 Parliament?

    There is only one way to get a message across about ‘values’ that is by living them, acting on them, celebrating them, but talking about them or putting them in abstract on pieces of paper (including electronically) doesn’t wash.

    Tony may be correct to say that the effects of what we did in the time of the Coalition is fading, but the fact that we did them then means that there was a willingness to do them (actually a zeal to do them), and unless something changes radically, there is therefore t]the likelihood that we shall do them again. The fingers from YouGov on the lack of trust that remains in us by those who voted for us in 2010 and the ability to restore our relationship with those people relates to this.

    That is why I’d like to have a check list of those values, please.

  • Bill le Breton 14th Jun '17 - 4:16pm

    “Fingers” and other typos – sorry but hope you get the drift

  • Tony Greaves: what common sense, rational reasoning which brings everything into realistic focus. More please.

  • OllyT 14th Jun ’17 – 4:01pm…At 73 I’d voted Lib(Dem) in every election (apart from1997), in which I was eligible, up to 2010…Then I found my vote wasn’t wanted in the ‘new, improved’ LibDems…There are many, many like me…Have we learned anything? sometimes I wonder, when I read some comments on here…

    I’ll join the chorus in asking “What are our core values?” as, between 2010-15 they made up some 75% of the coalition’s agenda…

    I, too, look forward to Tony’s next contribution…

  • Tristan Ward 14th Jun '17 - 4:45pm

    Mark Pak’s blog has some thoughts on what Liberal democrats believe here: http://www.markpack.org.uk/libdem-beliefs/

    Mark has some ideas about how to rebuild that can be picked up through this blog post: http://www.markpack.org.uk/142853/targeting-plus-rebuild-liberal-democrats/

    I am afraid I cannot quickly track don the policy paper he lifts the lengthy quotation from.

    Here is access to Mark’s (and David Howarth’s) thoughts about building a core vote: http://www.markpack.org.uk/building-a-core-vote-for-the-liberal-democrats-the-20-strategy/

  • Eddie Sammon 14th Jun '17 - 5:07pm

    The problem with the uber-liberal core vote strategy is it says to the majority of seats in the country: “We’re not interested in winning here”.

    I agree that the result was bad. The party shouldn’t have lost five seats out of nine, even if it gained eight.

  • Michael Berridge 14th Jun '17 - 5:21pm

    Sorry not to enter the wider debate, I’ll wait till I have finished reading David Laws’s “Coalition” (first 100 pages were fascinating) … but as a translator, whose business is words, how could our result have been “disastrous”? I quote:
    “So let’s start again. It was a disastrous night for the Liberal Democrats. The best that can be said is that in an election when the very presence of the party in the House of Commons was in danger, we survived.”
    Let’s agree: It was a disappointing result. It was a very poor result, after all the council seats we’d gained. But if you call it disastrous – what you do say if you’re left with just one Westminster seat, or none at all, as seemed possible right up to 10 o’clock on election night? Apocalyptic?

  • I believe that the party must have a written charter to rule out any coalition with Tories permanently. Also, the Orange Book must be publicly thrown away and right/far-right elements (e.g. “Liberal Conservatives”) must be eliminated from the party policy-making.

    Tristan Ward – I mean, let’s delete or at least downplay the word “economic liberalism”. In other words, liberalism must be defined based on Keynes and Beveridge. Hayek, Friedman and Co must be stoned. This means that no matter how the Liberals govern, they must campaign from the left (like in Canada).

  • An outstanding article.

    I wonder how much of our success in recent decades was really down to the political analogue of continental drift creating a wide chasm between the major tectonic plates of Conservativism and Socialism and thereby creating the space for a small party to survive in a FPTP world.

    To the extent that continental drift was a factor then the future will largely depend on whether ‘Corbyn Labour’ tracks back to ‘Old Labour’ or morphs into ‘Reinvented Labour’.

    If the former then the tectonic plates will remain far apart as the Labour project again collapses into failure allowing the familiar niche to survive. However, my early guess is the latter – for now at least Corbyn has succeeded in building a coalition between the UKIP-leaning ‘left behind’ of the rust belt and the tech savvy young.

    That’s a stunningly important strategic victory for him but to for it to endure (especially bearing in mind how volatile allegiances now are) he has to show that he knows how to run the country. That’s a tough ask but he has assembled an impressive group of economic advisors and the internal warfare will abate freeing up much energy for more useful ends.

    The thing is that the knowing how to run the country amounts to adopting what I see as a modern understanding of liberalism or, as james80pk puts it (first comment) “a deep and coherent philosophical basis amongst its grass-roots membership…”. And that opens a window of opportunity for us; it’s something we need to do whatever happens to others.

  • Wise words, I look forward to tomorrow although I suspect that the resignation of Tim may somewhat overshadow it..

  • Stevan Rose 14th Jun '17 - 7:38pm

    When a party cannot even rely on its own members to vote for it then it is in deep trouble. Labour wrote the manifesto that should have been written by the Lib Dems. Like Teresa May denying the blooming obvious, Tim tried to sell a second referendum that cannot be anything but a re-run of the original and attempted to claim it wasn’t. And then the silly cannabis legalisation policy. The Lib Dem campaign was an embarrassment and for that Tim should have resigned. I don’t think his religious beliefs matter to many outside the political elites trying to score points. The only thing that will improve the party’s fortunes is an inspirational leader, Macron style. Is that person amongst the 11 potential candidates? Introducing democracy, Corbyn style, wouldn’t hurt.

  • David Allen 14th Jun '17 - 7:40pm

    Mostly wise words. I would quibble with “the toxicity of the Coalition … is far less potent than it was two years ago.” That is something we would all like to believe, but, ask the voters, and actually, they haven’t forgotten yet.

    Tim chose the least bad option when he ruled out a coalition, because that reduced the “toxicity” damage. We then suffered because we looked irrelevant. Had we not ruled out coalition, the Labour-favouring opinion polls in the last week (which of course we now know were accurate!) would have prompted a shift of media attention toward the Lib Dems, and a helpful flood of publicity and questions about “which side will you pick?” We couldn’t seek that publicity, because we necessarily had to hide away from our own past. I suspect that only time can heal.

  • The reality is that ruling out a coalition with anyone also gives no or little incentive for tactical voting amongst progressives. There is a progressive majority in so many seats in the south west yet progressives win no seats. Just as in Hallam where people voted Tory and got labour, in the southwest people voted labour and get Tory. Until voters learn (or can be educated) not to waste their votes then partisan ideologues will continue to dominate against centrists of all political persuasion

  • Robin Grayson 14th Jun '17 - 9:22pm

    One factor that stalled our efforts, was the use of templates for literature, crafted in Party HQ, that I think appeared first in the Manchester Gorton By-Election “the one that never was” and then imposed on many constituencies up and down the country in the General Election. These templates include more square inches devoted to rubbishing May-Corbyn-Farage-Brexit on leaflet after leaflet. Next to nothing about other issues, and nothing to inspire anyone to vote for us. Never again p-l-e-a-s-e!

  • Clare Fielding 15th Jun '17 - 6:01am

    I’ve voted LD (inc Alliance) in every election since 87, but have never seen the hoped for breakthrough and I am not sure I will ever see it come in a FPTP electoral system. This time I transferred my vote to Labour, to try and oust the sitting Con MP. Had the LDs stood down here (Cities of London and Westminster) the Labour candidate might have won. Mirror image of Richmond Park. Although my vote was tactical, I’m slowly coming to see the Inconvenient logic that the only way to consolidate the progressive strand in U.K. Politics, and set it effectively against the conservative one, is for us to come together behind the largest of the progressive parties, which is Labour.

  • Roll on Part Two.

  • Stephen Howse 15th Jun '17 - 8:22am

    “Also, the Orange Book must be publicly thrown away…”

    The public don’t know what the Orange Book is and nor do most of our members, I’d wager.

  • Interesting reading. I’m no expert, believe me (probably not too difficult), but it seems to me that where the Lib Dems are up against Labour, they’re doomed. Cambridge, Bermondsey, Sheffield Hallam, Leeds NW… I’m pretty sure we’re not going to see a resurgence in any of these places unless Labour has a nightmare. Possible, of course, but it’s more likely the Tories will struggle.

    So the Lib Dems are, in the current political climate, competing against Conservatives and/or Nationalists where Labour are weak. A reasonable next election might see a bit of a comeback in SW England, more seats in Scotland (though will the Tories continue to thrive? we’d better hope not), steady progress in London and the SE.

    In other words, nowhere to be seen in the English north and midlands and arguably appealing only to those who find Labour a bit too scarily left-wing and urban. Not a promising basis for renewal.

    I don’t have detailed answers, but I’d like to see the party properly drop this idea that we represent the political centre. I think traditional left/right divisions are weaker than they’ve ever been and there’s not much appetite for being a moderate or a centrist: it just sounds a bit wet and passionless. So let’s go for playing up liberalism and what it means in a humane, personal context (more social, less economic, I’d argue).

    Also, the party needs to stop appearing to be obsessed with Brexit above all else. It’s not a vote-winner. Pragmatically pro-European and internationalist, and respectful towards those who think differently.

    Will any of the above win votes? I have no idea. But I think it would make me feel a bit more passionate and proud of the party. We might still struggle but at least what we stand for might be clearer, and then it’s a case of winning arguments rather than still trying to make people understand why we even exist.

  • Galen Milne 16th Jun '17 - 9:11pm

    Tony Greaves was my mentor via The (weekly) Liberal News back page that he wrote about community politics. He is right, our core Liberal vote has been eroded. Too much emphasis on short term targeting instead of a steady growth strategy.
    For those of a younger generation. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the LibDems won’t be rebuilt by the strategy now in place.

  • @ Galen “Rome wasn’t built in a day”.

    Greavsie is three weeks older than me – and we can’t afford to wait too long.

  • John Littler 18th Jun '17 - 3:01pm

    “Also, the Orange Book must be publicly thrown away…”

    There is almost no political space left on the Centre right Liberal side of British politics and those who try to, are likely to get crushed by the power of the overwhelming Tories. That could work as a small, intellectual party under PR voting, as there are 2-3 liberal parties in some continental countries such as Netherlands and Denmark, but not here under FPTP now.

    But what works for the LibDems is as a party of radicalism, some aspects of protest, pro business but accepting of trade unions, with distinctive ideas which will help the poor to middling, but do not squash individual liberty. We should be pragmatic about public ownership.

    Where there is room to build a distinctive message on the economy where we should be looking at co-operative capitalism, as works for Germany and aspects of Scandinavia, but with greater flexibility and support for entrepreneurs and small and micro business, which often gets pushed out and restricted in Germany. This ties in with education, training, R&D, Science, export promotion, industrial finance, reshoring of industries from the far east and eastern Europe, support of firms and staff during recession, mentoring of small business, regional policy and infrastructure.

    This policy can be done distinctly from McDonell and without trying to spend £500bn on inflating the economy, over borrowing and sucking in impossible numbers of workers.

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