More out of Hope than Love

I rejoined the Liberal Democrats this weekend.

I left some 18 months ago, agreeing with many that the party had lost its way over Europe. Our MPs voted for a referendum and then we denied its legitimacy.  It was a fair call to demand any deal be put back to the British people – but it was not fair to block and obfuscate at any attempt to ensure that deal kept us close to our European friends. I felt really angry that values we all shared had been eroded for short term political convenience.

In the end the party became a single issue Revoke campaign that appealed to absolutely nobody. We have ultimately failed to stop or lessen what amounts to a Hard Brexit. Combined, this is a crushing defeat.

So why rejoin?

This time for me, it’s more out of hope than love. I had a go at being part of something new, but as the last few years have shown, all these movements have been beset by the problems of ego and insular thinking. I came to the conclusion that the most likely way to create the country I’d like to see is by being part of changing our party from the inside. I don’t think it will be easy. Nor do I think there will be much point hanging around if, after a terrible election campaign, the party fails to listen and adapt.

Having had the chance to look from the outside and analyse our rivals, it’s quite clear the Lib Dems have lost their way as a campaigning force. As a former organiser I know how heretical it is to question our field campaigns – where simply slogging it out and dumping tonnes of paper through doors, regardless of what it says, will lead to ultimate victory. It hasn’t and it won’t.

We’ve been sussed out and undone. It’s as though, looking back at the mistakes made by Theresa May’s Conservatives in 2017, the Lib Dems said in 2019: “Let’s do that. Only more so!”

We need to be more agile, to take the battle to different places and to use evidence and intellectual rigour to develop strategies and tactics to win.

We seem to lack an ethical code too. Trying to be all things to all people, throwing out bar charts that are misleading at best, down right lies at worst. We try to be too clever by half in our leaflet design, complicating matters far more than we need to. Take heed at what our opponents do, they’ve left the campaign of 2005 behind.

The idea that our vote is “always squeezed at an election” is nonsense and unsubstantiated spin too. Our vote was only seriously squeezed at election time before now in 2017 and 1987. Other than that it remained flat in 2015 went up during every other election campaign. This is a sign the air war of our campaign is now lacking, we simply do not keep up with our opponents and drive out our message nationally. We’ve regressed since the referendum in to an inward looking group talking only to those people who will listen like lap dogs. It’s not time to look for excuses, blaming the media and others for our dismal results, it’s instead time to find and test new ways to get around these problems.

But the main reason I rejoined is because I think we now face a great opportunity to reshape British politics – if we react correctly. If we realise the battle over Europe is now lost, that the metropolitan vote we courted for three years is very soft and will more than likely vote Labour anyway, we can return to creating a Liberal movement for the whole country. The Labour Party will not elect a moderate leader, we have to fill that void.

The Conservative Party has spent the last 20 years first breaking the South West “Orange Block” over successive elections in 2010 and 2015. They’ve then gone after the “Red Wall” of safe Labour seats that were taken for granted. With Labour distracted at winning those back and retaining what it has, the battleground of the next 15 years for us, has to be those “safe” Tory seats in its traditional heartlands – and not just in the South East. These are the market towns and coastal communities that gave birth to our liberal movement in the 19th century.

People in these communities are not Conservatives. There is no emotional tie to a party that, much like the Labour party in the North East, uses these constituencies as a place to dump Special Advisors who “deserve” a seat. Many MPs in these areas may be great national performers, holding high ministerial office, but they do little for the people in their communities. These people are forgotten.

I can tell you from the polling and research I did in my time outside of the party, investigating the likely space for a new political movement, these are exactly the sort of areas that with work and patience a renewed third party can win.

I’d like the party, in its soul searching, to question how our values could appeal to voters in these areas. How a Liberal Britain could help them, the voiceless who voted to be heard in 2016. It means not ignoring the difficult questions.

What answers do we have about people’s views on local challenges caused by immigration other than calling them racists? What do we have to say to people who voted for Brexit with conviction, other than calling them idiots who were tricked? What is the Liberal answer to the economic challenges we face since 2008 other than forcing people to take three precarious jobs and being happy with it?

Trying to find a quick fix to our woes hasn’t worked. It’s going to be a long game and it’s going to take more than one election. Let’s get it right, the clock’s ticking.

* Michael Kitching is a Liberal Democrat Member, previously from 2005-2018, rejoining after the 2019 General Election - @mwkitching

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • If the LibDems go “LibKIP”, well, you won’t keep the support of Remainers like me who lent our votes and support to the party purely to oppose Brexit. 2015 will seem like a high watermark in retrospect if you abandon Remainers.

  • “… we can return to creating a Liberal movement for the whole country.”
    Peace, Economy, and Reform
    Temperance and Free Church.
    Regarding the economy we must remember Europe is a big market upon which the prosperity of Britain depends so we need this country to remain aligned with Europe as part of the EEA. Politically the EU remains committed to liberal democracy.
    In the next few years England will experience an erosion of democracy so we must be at the forefront of defending civil liberties.

  • I searched in vain through this article for an idea of Liberalism or anything that even reflects the preamble to the Party’s constitution.

    I think it would be good to retain the support of André and others of his ilk.

  • We are seeing increasingly that the age of the loyal voter is over. We are all floating voters now. That involves weighing up politicians, policies, parties, priorities, what is badly wanted and what must be avoided. For some, this might be a systematic analysis, for others, a gut feeling. Voting according to ideology will wither for all but the most dedicated.
    I would suggest that in this election, all Leavers and an increasing number of Remainers, simply wanted to get Brexit done so they voted for Boris. Voters rejected Labour because the party betrayed the Leavers while not resolving anything for the Remainers. Then there was the Corbyn factor.
    It would be interesting to weigh up the pros and cons of this party. I get the impression that the party policies are strongly influenced by the perceived values and virtues in the minds of the members and these may not coincide with the interests and priorities of the voters.
    It comes down to what is the purpose? Is it a club of like minded people who get a buzz from having policies that reflect their passions or is it a party determined to deliver the top priority needs of the voters? The clever trick is to manage to combine both of these.

  • Julian Tisi 17th Dec '19 - 2:30pm

    Lots of questions and berating what we’ve done in the past. Not much in the way of practical suggestions, except that we should apparently write off the metropolitan vote who are “more likely to vote Labour anyway” and go after safe Tory seats. Have I missed something?

  • We were of course, very seriously squeezed in the 2010 campaign. After the somewhat unrealistic Cleggmania period, the sainted Nick got hammered in the second TV debate, after the press and their political allies realised there was real danger to the right. Had the campaign gone on a couple of days longer, we would have finished up at a lower vote share than we started the campaign.

  • André
    The LibKIPs in Cornwall in fact got few votes (former UKIP members who stood as the Liberal Party) You are right it is not the way to go.

  • Michael Kitching 17th Dec '19 - 3:15pm

    Hi folks. I haven’t said turn the Lib Dems in to UKIP. I’m saying we should be fighting for the voiceless and marginalised in society. Not hiding from the issues they face, but coming up with answers routed in liberalism to help them. These are the same people that founded out party over a hundred years ago and that actually need help today, not people worrying about whether they can afford a third land rover for the city school run or not. To reach them we have to get out of our cushy comfort zone and actually do some thinking. At the moment all I see is a bit of a sect. Ta!

  • Completely agree that we need to move on from Europe and that Rome won’t be built in a day, but Just a factual correction: our MPs didn’t vote for the 2015 referendum bill. The 2015 referendum bill was supported by most of the Conservative party, the DUP, and a solitary Labour MP.

    Also, we got 4% more votes in 2019 than in 2017 so it has been a success to some extent.

  • grumpyhereagain 17th Dec '19 - 4:22pm

    “fighting for the voiceless and marginalised in society.”

    Like all those in Leave-voting areas who felt the EU was a threat to their communities ( all these immigrants not speaking english) and their jobs ( people doing what they would do , but for a pittance ?

    And how have the LibDems stidd up for these in the last 3 years ?

  • Paul Murray 17th Dec '19 - 4:35pm

    @Adam Penny – you may be able to direct me to some other source that contains the data you mention, but according to the House of Commons record 544 MPs voted in favour of the 2nd reading of the Referendum Bill, including the entire Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party with the exception of Nick Clegg.

  • If the Liberal Democrats become an “all Brexiteers now” party, I walk. We have to stick to our principles and do what is right. What point would there be in our continuing to exist if we did not? The idea that we are somehow obliged to support something because it is popular, or because it can be held to have some kind of electoral mandate, is dangerous indeed. That is a justification for capital and corporal punishment, and potentially much else besides, like war and the persecution of minorities. It is also an argument for letting the right walk all over us (while waving the “will of the people” at those who complain). Johnson is planning an all-out attack on human rights and is seeking the removal of legal checks on his power. What is the party going to do to stop him? Well, not a lot, if the defeatists have their way. The right will tell us that human rights are about nasty foreigners imposing their rules on us, and that unelected judges shouldn’t tell politicians what to do. And the left will sneer at “bourgeois rights” and “legal fetishism”. The “all Brexiteers now” lot will probably tell us that we have to go along with all this, because it is the “will of the people”. In the near future, the Tories will probably set about dismantling the NHS. The NHS is a much harder nut for the right to crack than human right and the rule of law. It affects a lot of people very directly. It is also more difficult for the defeatists. Prepare for a sustained media barrage of negative stories about hospitals, doctors and nurses.

  • Grumpyhereagain

    Not sure whether you are being ironic?
    Point 1 – Not many EU migrants don’t speak English. Some family members of others – although declining numbers, I think, don’t. It seems to me people object to people speaking non-English languages to their friends and family, which strikes me as being intolerant. Go overseas, and just listen to British expats!

    Point 2 – Surely those of us standing up for proper and equal workers’ rights etc should be applauded if this is an issue, not Tories who have systematically undermined trades unions and employment rights?

  • Panicos Georgiou 17th Dec '19 - 6:33pm

    The party will look where we wrong. I think we need to be realistic in terms of target seats. In my local seat we spent a lot of energy and whilst the vote went up, we finished 3rd and had we worked with Labour they would have beaten Theresa Villiers and we could have got Luciana Berger elected. We need to focus on these type of local “alliances”

    We need a policy to retake the Orange Block in the south west and they needs unique regional policies. Brexit will harm the fishing industry and farming as well as tourism in the south west and that is where we need to have policies to give these people an alternative to the Tories

  • nigel hunter 17th Dec '19 - 7:09pm

    there was a comment on the news re workers rights (BBC 6.30), fleeting, easily missed, about no guarantees about them. Get Brexit done was what people voted for. I do not think they realise that Johnson has a mandate until 2024 where he can ‘do a Trump’ and change the country to its detriment. Being so we will have a lot to do. We must start now.

  • Paul Holmes 17th Dec '19 - 7:31pm

    ‘Sesenco’ I don’t understand how a single thing you mention relates to simply accepting the fact that Brexit is now going to happen -and soon. We had a democratic election, we lost (as in 2017 and in the Referendum). Boris has a majority of 80 and for the next 4 or 5 years will put more or less what he wants through Parliament.

    Short of launching a violent overthrow of the Government I don’t see how you or anyone else thinks you can stop this?

    Continuing to argue the case for Human Rights, or the NHS, or pointing out the economic consequences of whatever trade deals the Tories do or don’t negotiate, is not in anyway precluded by accepting the fact that leaving the EU is now, very soon, a done deal. Just as, in the face of large Parliamentary majorities held by Thatcher and Blair, we continued to put our alternative view forward. With, it has to be said rather more subsequent electoral success than current strategy has produced.

  • Nigel, If I understand correctly, you are concerned that workers’ rights are under threat. First, it is important to understand that I am not some mouthpiece or supporter of Johnson. I am simply an ex-employer in the UK.

    I see no reason for the government to change existing worker’s rights. They seem to be reasonably fair. Most employers want a satisfied work force. I suspect that concerns about rights are Left wing fear mongering with no real basis.

    I can understand that the UK wants to be free from EU regulatory control. We cannot be a separate country with our own sovereignty if we remain subservient to all EU regulation. That would mean being free from EU employment law and much else.

    But that does not mean there is a plan to change employment law. We just want to return decisions on regulation to the UK people and not have it contracted out to the EU. If we agree to retain all EU law, we might as well not leave the EU. What would be the point?

    If we return the right to make our own laws, that means we can leave them the same or change them for the better or worse. Unless there is good reason to change them, we should leave them the same but just take back control of them. There may be a time in the future when we are glad that our laws are not set by the EU.

  • @Sesenco – To be brutally honest, your comment is rather concerning. You seem to reject democracy, which is the cornerstone of our civilisation.

  • Paul Holmes:

    “I don’t understand how a single thing you mention relates to simply accepting the fact that Brexit is now going to happen -and soon”

    On the contrary, I consider that they relate very closely to shifting our position from opposition to Brexit to “acceptance” (ie, support). The purpose of Brexit has always been to reshape our economy and society to one where the rich are much richer, and those on middle and low incomes are either poorer or stay pretty much where they are. It will be very difficult to oppose the things I list without pointing out why they are happening. Human rights, workers’ rights, environmental and consumer protection, cannot be deleted while Britain remains a member of the EU. Dismantling the NHS would probably require the creation of a state apparatus and the suppression of internal opposition that would be contrary to EU law and would not be tolerated by our partners. All that will be in place before Johnson lays too many fingers on the NHS.

    We need to appreciate that “acceptance” is what brought us Brexit. Politicians from our party, and from the Labour Party, kept silent while the EU was lambasted in the tabloids, day in, day out, year after year. They stayed silent because they were afraid of upsetting the kind of people who are your neighbours in Chesterfield and very nearly elected a Tory MP last Thursday. Charles Kennedy called this approach “do not acknowledge”. I am as guilty as any. Years ago when I was actively involved in politics I recall standing silent while people expressed the most appalling political views. I stood silent, because I wanted their votes. I drew the line with capital punishment and racism, but I was slow to defend Europe. The Labour Party is much more guilty. The Labour Party should have been leading public opinion on Europe. The Labour Party should have been making sure that their traditional supporters voted Remain to protect workers’ rights and jobs. Yes, Brexit is going to happen, but it is still uncertain how it will happen. My position is that we should continue to promote the case for belonging to the EU and point to the disaster that leaving will visit upon us (most of us), and it should be our policy to rejoin. If anyone thinks that the EU or the Americans have the slightest incentive to give us a favourable trade deal then we have to question their connection to reality. Johnson only cares about the unproductive money men who hire and fund him.

  • Peter:

    How can I be against democracy when I favour a Peoples’ Vote? I am against manipulated plebiscites (a technique deployed by the likes of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin). I also believe that electoral mandates do not necessarily have to be honoured, which is the position that was taken by the Court of Appeal and House of Lords in Bromley v GLC (the Tories and the tabloids lambasted the Labour Party for criticising unelected judges in that case).

  • Paul Holmes 17th Dec '19 - 9:23pm

    I assure you I have never stood silent when people express views or behave in ways I don’t agree with -much to the disquiet of some [including Lib Dems) at times. It’s got me into trouble more than once but I have always followed my principles regardless.

    I still don’t see what any of that has to do with accepting the, democratic fact, that the Brexit battle is lost and we need to get on with being more than a single issue pressure group -especially now the decision has been made. Acceptance of fact does not mean support.

  • Brexit is about taking back control and that means ending EU control of our domestic and international arrangements. It does not mean making the rich richer.

    The EU has no direct influence over management of the NHS so there will be no change in policy. Having said that, the EU does control employee rights such as Doctors’ working hours, Pharmaceuticals, drug testing protocols, implants specifications and testing, equipment specifications, manufacture and test procedures, labels, labeling and procedures, and a multitude of other regulations that impinge directly and indirectly on how we conduct our health care.

    It may worry you that we shall be abandoning all these EU regulations. It is a matter of rejoicing to me. I want our NHS to be as excellent as possible. I do not want EU or any other regulations to prevent us from having the best practice, best protocols and best procedures anywhere in the world. We cannot set our own standards if we are are regulated by others.

    If you think that our UK regulations are inferior, you can lobby to change that within our democratic system. If you think that EU regulations need changing, then good luck with that.

  • Michael Sammon 17th Dec '19 - 10:27pm

    I like this message of going out of our comfort zone Michael. We have to if we are to govern and not be reduced to a protest movement. I like the sound of the core vote strategy too and no more dodgy leaflets and squeeze excuses. We need our own identity.

  • “If you think that EU regulations need changing, then good luck with that.” – if anyone want to change EU regulations, they can lobby to change them at EU level, much like domestic lobbying applies for domestic legislation.

    Of course, after Brexit, the EU countries will probably laugh their heads off when British firms try lobbying them about EU legislation and we’ll probably end up having to accept that legislation via post-Brexit treaties.

  • Sesenco – we never lost control for it to be brought back, we simply agree(d) a set of rules with 27 other nations. I

  • A well written and well argued piece. But it sums up why I never rejoined and have just cancelled my Registered Supporter status.

  • Sopwith Morley 18th Dec '19 - 10:16am

    @ Martin

    “I think it would be good to retain the support of André and others of his ilk.”

    The sort of people who call anybody who disagrees with them racists and xenophobes. If you think you need people that follow that Labour tactic of using vile accusations against anybody that disagrees with their world view, then as a party you are in more trouble than I thought. Perhaps you are more similar to Labour than different.

  • @ Martin. Please explain:

    Following the democratic GE last week a clear and large Parliamentary majority is going to ensure we Leave the EU in Jan.

    How does accepting that simple factual and democratically arrived at reality mean “.. accepting that the less privileged should know their place …….accepting the foregoing of liberty, equality and community …….accepting enslavement….”

    It just doesn’t.

    And I say that as someone who has spent every spare moment of time for the last couple of months writing, printing and delivering leaflets on behalf of our excellent local Lib Dem candidate Emily Coy and some time campaigning for our excellent candidate Laura Gordon in Sheffield Hallam. I have been fighting against this outcome since I first voted Remain in the 1975 Referendum. But it does not remotely mean the things you claim.

  • Language is important. Regulations for trade or other things are written by people. Up to now they have been written by a democratic European Union with the consent of the U.K. government – or by the democratic U.K. government. In either case no-one asks me.
    We are members of a host of organisations as a country. They produce various regulations which are not even mentioned in the main. We are forced to live in an inter-dependent world. There is no other to live in.
    Take back control has the advantage of sounding nice, but means little.
    We really need to be talking about poverty and the environmental degradation that threatens our civilisation.

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