Opinion: Lib Dems must change strategy if they are to regain electoral credibility

Nobody likes an apologist. So why are the Liberal Democrats apologising for every decision the Coalition takes? Continue on this road and the party is heading toward electoral annihilation.

This apologist outlook has stemmed from the strategy the Lib Dems have operated with since 1997, namely, attacking the government from the left. The strategy must be broadly viewed as a success. Only a month prior to the election the party were ahead in the polls, and although they suffered a net loss in regard to seats, the party gained a notoriety amongst the public not witnessed for over 80 years.

But the strategy is now an albatross around the party’s neck. The problem was that policies became points of principle, obscuring the true values of the party. The previous strategy provided a demarcation with the Labour Party, but it was one largely based on opportunity rather than philosophy. This led the party into its current perilous position, into having to make u-turns on promises they couldn’t possibly keep were power to come. However, all is not yet lost. Positive aspects of the previous strategy can be kept, but only the parts which were based upon the party’s core principles, not those opportunistically based on the public mood of the time.

The new strategy of the Liberal Democrats should be founded upon three points. Firstly, the majority of the public support deficit reduction and recognise it is necessary. This means the leadership should concentrate less of its focus on pandering to the minority who disagree with any public spending cuts – that battle is already won.

Secondly, the strategy should be based on principle, not populist policies. A clear demarcation from the two other parties can be built upon the party’s commitment to civil liberties and freedom. It should not break from its pledges in this regard. It should vote for the removal of control orders, and continue its progress on removing unnecessary state interference into the lives of its citizens. People support politicians who trust them.

Thirdly, it should plough on with political reform. It is untrue that this is not a ‘vote winner’, as the more crass politicians put it. More than half of the population live in ‘safe seat’ constituencies, if the party wins the argument that it has removed the entrenchment of MPs, it will gain a lot of support and can truly be considered a reformist party.

The crucial point to the strategy is the focus on civil liberties. This provides a clear dividing line from Labour and highlights the Liberal Democrat role in the Coalition. It will attract the voters from the left, if more is done to repeal Labour’s stifling legislation, such as the Digital Economy Act, support currently lost to the Labour Party will return. At a time when China is on the rise, and the internet becoming the main forum for political dissent people will not stand for attacks upon their freedom in these new spheres. Simon Hughes should not be arguing in favour of an unchecked housing benefit budget to speak for the ‘soul of the party’, he should be speaking out for the party’s grounding in the principle of freedom for the individual from the state. If the majority of the public links the party to individual freedom and the drawing back of the invidious state, it will be able to see the party’s guiding philosophy in the coalition. It will recapture the party’s identity.

This strategy will, initially, be hard, but in the long run it will provide the carrot to party activists to stay with the party, and remind them why the Liberal Democrats are a party of principle. The reforming force for good and freedom in UK politics.

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32 Comments

  • The first step to stop being apologists is by accepting where you are wrong or have wronged. Vince Cable take note. Make apologies where required allowing you to move on.

    The second step would be to stop pandering to the Tories, stop trying to put on a constant united front and to show where the differences in the parties lie. This would of course be easier if the differences between the parties was reflected in the cabinet where Clegg, Cable and Alexander seem to move to the right further with each proclamation. This should be an uneasy arranged marriage not a love at first sight couple jumping into bed at every opportunity.

    Thridly, withdraw support from bills which were not in the coalition agreement and which fundamentaly illiberal.

    A few specifics to your post:

    “Firstly, the majority of the public support deficit reduction and recognise it is necessary.”
    True, but the majority wanted a slower pace as they voted for two parties whose manifesto’s committed them to this.

    “Simon Hughes should not be arguing in favour of an unchecked housing benefit budget ”
    Agreed, but he should be campainging against punitive reductions due to unemployment (where the individual has been trying to find work) and should look to move the rental allowance to be based upon the mean rent not the “meanest” rent.

    If Lib Dem policy has previously been “largely based on opportunity rather than philosophy” they cannot decry Labour for following suit.

    If you base your campaign on “no more broken promises” you lose support and the appearence of integrity as soon as you start to break them.

  • Simon McGrath 21st Nov '10 - 10:56am

    Excellent article

  • Terry Gilbert 21st Nov '10 - 10:58am

    Hear, hear!

  • I am afraid if that is the strategy we will shrink back to a party with predominantly middle class support in a few areas. To advocate a focus on civil liberties and electoral reform alongside deficit reduction is a sure fire vote loser in much of the country. As colleagues will know these are not ‘doorstep’ issues in most areas however much we might like them to be. If we have a future it is as a centrist party unencumbered by narrow ideology bringing forward long term, fair and practical solutions to economic, social and environmental issues.

    In many constituencies people are really fearful and we have contributed to this fear. Opinion polls show that a majority are worried that the cuts are too fat and too deep. Many also see ideological motives. Our MPs and Ministers need to decide which issues they are prepared to stick on and gain at least one real result. The Pupil Premium looks either insubstantial or bogus. The AV referendum is an unsatisfactory end point whatever the outcome. The civil liberties gains are useful but not distinctive. On housing, HE and the NHS we have policies which I suspect are supported by very few of our members yet they will affect the lives of millions. If we had any authentic moderating impact all of those would have been revised in some way.

    To help those of us who campaign locally we need less attempts to explain not more. Cable and Clegg in particular need to recognise that they need quietly rebuild hugely damaged reputations. MPs like Julian Huppert need to learn to say much, much less. Those in key ministries pursuing the most ideologically driven policies e.g. schools, need to show some influence or get out.

  • Dave Mc Cormick 21st Nov '10 - 11:32am

    “But the strategy is now an albatross around the party’s neck. ”

    That’s the secod albatross in as many weeks.

    “The new strategy of the Liberal Democrats should be founded upon three points.”

    I think the strategic issues are far more fundamental than the three you’ve mentioned. Lets start with simple ones.

    1. When we make a manifesto commitment – we try our hardest to make it happen
    2. When we make a personal pledge we stick to it.

    Of course this doesn’t apply only to the libdems. But I voted for them on the grounds that they at least appeared to have better moral boundaries than the rest. This stuff, “and remind them why the Liberal Democrats are a party of principle. The reforming force for good and freedom in UK politics.”

    Unfortunately you’ll just be reminding us that the liberal democrats *were* a party of principle.

  • Where on earth did you get this “party of principle” rubbish from. I voted LibDem and I consider that to have been a dreadful mistake. Never Again. Unprincipled, untruthful, power-hungry, second-rate Tories.

  • It seems to me the matter of strategy simply turns on whether you believe, firstly, if the Coalition will be successful with its plan to substantially reduce the National debt [high risk and highly doubtful] and should it be so, will the Party be given its due credit for the success.

    I believe that Osborne is seen as the architect of the spending cuts program and any success will be credited to him and the Tories – the Lib/Dems are simply viewed as out of their depth.

    Surely it is a far safer strategy to consider the actions of the Coalition separately from the Party and to act accordingly. Any austerity program is going to be unpopular with the electorate and unlikely to raise the popularity of the parties instigating the measures. By taking this line, it provides an opportunity for the remainder of the Party to start working on a new manifesto, which must be required because circumstances have and will have changed so much since the last was produced, and to develop policies which will have increasing appeal as the next GE approaches.

    Having said that, the Party’s popularity pales into insignificance compared to the looming inherent dangers if the proposed Public Bodies Bill is passed into law in its present form.

  • patrick murray 21st Nov '10 - 12:30pm

    interesting article. i have to say though that i fundamentally disagree with the premise that since 97 we have been attacking from the left not out of principle, but out of opportunity. the liberal party of gladstone, of campbell-bannerman, of asquith, of lloyd george, of beveridge and of keynes has always been a progressive party. to eschew our beliefs, from mill to hobhouse, is wrong.

    but we do need to change our current apologist tack. we need to be far more aggressive with labour, whose record over the last 13 years is about as far from progressive as you can get. within the coalition we need to drive a harder bargain on stuff outside the coalition agreement – im not sure if we have got anything outside that through, yet the tories have pushed ahead with an awful lot that wasnt in there. appreciate its not easy, but it needs to happen when we’re being forced into positions we never signed up to. that said, personally i think some of the compromises are actually better than what was in our manifesto so its not all bad (eg nuclear power)

    we need to get sharper at communicating our message too, and not be afraid to say that some of the stuff that is happening is not our policy and we would not usually support, but coalition requires compromise. repeatedly saying that everything that comes out is the fairest thing ever makes us look ridiculous.

    the housing benefit stuff is difficult – it is the fault of successive governments for not building housing with lower rents and instead subsidising buy-to-let through hb. i don’t think simon is wrong to raise this – it will affect many many people in poorer areas. someone else pointed out that we can’t just be a party of the middle class, and it is these kind of issues that we need to get a firmer grip on if we want to win seats from labour. in my view one the reasons we didnt quite make it in many seats against labour is that our messages on housing, in particular, were extraordinarily weak. this predates the coalition, and is sad because we have previously fought on very strong policies in this area. there are other issues too, but i think it was our weakest point, and an important one for many poorer voters.

  • TheContinentalOp 21st Nov '10 - 2:39pm

    Interesting and thought provoking article which whether you agree with the contents or not should be applauded for it’s honesty.

    I can’t speak for Lib Dems but I would say that the party members I do know would fiercely defend their promises as being based on priciples rather than opportunity.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 21st Nov '10 - 3:01pm

    “When facing such a huge deficit, I think it would be impossible for any government to be progressive.”

    Nonsense.

    You know all those little bar charts we’ve argued over so often – the ones showing which groups in society will be better off and which will be worse off? The government has to power to determine which of those little bars get longer and which get shorter. Whatever is happening is _absolutely_ happening because the government is choosing for it to happen this way.

    The Lib Dems have chosen to be part of that process, and they should have the honesty to take responsibility for the choices that are being made, rather than hiding behind the lame excuse that there’s “no alternative.” Surely you remember what Nick Clegg told us in May – “Don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be different” …

  • David Allen 21st Nov '10 - 3:32pm

    This is pro-Cleggism masquerading as anti-Cleggism. It amounts to proposing that we reduce our scope to that of a lobby group for civil liberties which is firmly anchored within the Greater Conservative Party. Just what Clegg wants. I’m pleased to see that so many, including qualified supporters of coalition like George Kendall, can see what is wrong with it.

  • @Sean McHale

    Firstly, the majority of the public support deficit reduction and recognise it is necessary. This means the leadership should concentrate less of its focus on pandering to the minority who disagree with any public spending cuts – that battle is already won.

    Public support is somewhat abstract. At the moment, being against any form of deficit reduction is akin to being against motherhood and apple pie. The support is without context. Already we see support for the coalition’s policies, for tackling the deficit, falling sharply. In a recent ComRes poll 51% of respondents said the scale of the cuts planned are too severe and too fast. 65% expect to be worse off as a result. 56% believe the cuts are unfair because they will be felt more by the poor than by wealthier households.

    So to say the battle has been won is a bit premature.

    Secondly, the strategy should be based on principle, not populist policies. A clear demarcation from the two other parties can be built upon the party’s commitment to civil liberties and freedom. It should not break from its pledges in this regard. It should vote for the removal of control orders, and continue its progress on removing unnecessary state interference into the lives of its citizens. People support politicians who trust them.

    In the ideal world, principle would always trump populism. Being in government is far from being in an ideal world. What were/are the populist policy positions that you think the party have indulged in? Ultimately, if you were to make civil liberties and freedom the one true LibDem principle, the reality of government will ensure that you will not fail to disappoint. The fact that child detention is still in operation, over six months after Clegg said it would be abolished is a case in point. The fact that the coalition are proposing that HMRC should have access to all of our finacial information is a case in point. The fact the coalition are proposing that private credit rating agencies be allowed to analyse the spending patterns of benefit claimants on behalf of the DWP is a case in point.

    Thirdly, it should plough on with political reform. It is untrue that this is not a ‘vote winner’, as the more crass politicians put it. More than half of the population live in ‘safe seat’ constituencies, if the party wins the argument that it has removed the entrenchment of MPs, it will gain a lot of support and can truly be considered a reformist party.

    I believe that to get true political reform, we must have true voting reform first. Anything else is just tinkering around at the edges. The current model of coalition government is not a popular one. And unless that perception changes between now and the referendum, I can’t see the ‘Yes’ campaign being very successful. If that is the case, then voting reform will be off the table for a generation at least.

    I do agree though that for the LibDems to have any credibility at the next GE, a change of strategy is essential.

  • @ Sean McHale

    “This apologist outlook has stemmed from the strategy the Lib Dems have operated with since 1997, namely, attacking the government from the left. . . .But the strategy is now an albatross around the party’s neck. The problem was that policies became points of principle, obscuring the true values of the party . . .However, all is not yet lost. Positive aspects of the previous strategy can be kept, but only the parts which were based upon the party’s core principles, not those opportunistically based on the public mood of the time.”

    I think I get it. You seem to be saying that at the time of the General Election you cynically proposed rash, left wing but popular policies (such as pledging to oppose any increase in tuition fees, taking the long view on deficit reduction,opposing VAT bombshells ) because you didn’t expect to be in government but now that you are in government these policies can safely be dumped because they were only points of principle and not core principles. I am a socialist. For socialists our policies enshrine our core principles. Your policies do not enshrine any principles — they are simply cynical attachments for garnering populist votes which can be discarded when they stand in the way of power. Your core principles have equally been exposed as cynically opportunistic. You promise anything to get elected secure in the knowledge that you won’t anyway but can still occupy the moral high ground without the inconvenience of doing anything about it. Nauseating! And extremely damaging to our democracy. But the temptation of power for power’s sake on just 23% of the popular vote was too much and now you have been found out. That’s the reason that you are so reviled by the public Because you are perceived to be totally unprincipled. The only way out of your mess is for you to adopt the dictum that you will only be respected when you do what you say you will do on the tin. A huge rebellion by your MPs against the raising of tuition fees would do you more good than any of the pusillanimous propositions in this thread. Deeds not words are required. Otherwise you will simply go on demonstrating your unfitness to rule.

    “Firstly, the majority of the public support deficit reduction and recognise it is necessary.”

    I wouldn’t put too much reliance on that if I were you. The latest Ipsos Mori poll shows that only 35% of people are satisfied with the way the government is running the country. 55% are dissatisfied. If there were a general election tomorrow 39% would vote Labour, 36% would vote Tory and only 14% would vote for you. And these unnecessary deep, fast cuts haven’t even taken effect yet. Ireland here we come!

  • David Allen 21st Nov '10 - 5:37pm

    Matt,

    I accept quite a lot of what you say. However:

    “I just do not believe Liberal democrats are prepared to face the truth, the party is not yet ready to admit that they had been duped by the Tories.”

    Not just by the Tories, I’m afraid.

    “What I think would benefit the country the most and the Liberal Democrat party for that matter as well, is for a new election, and in the event of another hung parliament scenario, For the Liberal democrats to be in a position to negotiate a new coalition deal, where the parties members are allowed to make informed decisions on the agreement, rather than the rushed ill-informed scaremongering tactics that where used last time.”

    I’m afraid I think the country needs fresh elections like a hole in the head. Labour might scrape a lead, but they are quite unready to govern. The Tories would, of course, intensify their over-hyping of the financial “crisis”. The Lib Dems would be slaughtered for a messed-up coalition followed by a messed-up election.

    What I think would benefit the country the most and the Liberal Democrat party as well, would be a renegotiation of the basis on which we can maintain stable government led by Cameron for at least the next two years. That could be called a confidence and supply deal, or a medium term coalition deal. We would lose the chance of an AV referendum (not a big loss, since the nation is in no mood to vote for AV), and of course all those ministerial jobs. We would stop Cameron governing as if he had won a landslide and dismantling state education, health and welfare services. We would regain our self-respect.

  • @Matt
    I think your suggestion of another election now would potentially wipe out the Party at Westminster.

    I do agree with you that a deal with Labour is not the automatic answer, but neither is effectively ruling one out in the future which is the effect of the current Tory love in.

    This was the chance to show multi party politics can work and the leadership have blown it. Labour were a discredited and spent force so a deal with them would probably have been wrong. but the deal with the Tories has played right into their hands. They are keeping the majority of their supporters happy (or at least blaming the Lib Dems for things that make them unhappy) while Clegg and co alienate more voters.

    I think the best hope is a change of leader and a differnet form of coalition – it’s the manner more than the framework. However watch Clegg switch parties if he loses a leadership election (probably joined by some of the other Orange book brigade). If this happens soon enough the party will have 3 years plus to regain trust…

  • I am starting to see a refreshing honesty coming from some of the LD activists who seem to be be doubting the approach being taken by the leadership.

    It would be great if they can follow this through and rediscuver their principles – not just accepting the Tory-dominated coalition view

    A change of approach now could be harmful in the short term but long-term may be the right thing to do.

    I am an ex-LD voter but can still be persuaded to vote for the party again as long as we see the back of Clegg and a more sceptical approach to Tory dogma.

    The alternative of the Labour Party is still not attractive but the danger for the LD is that before 2015 they fill the vacuum left by the abandonment of liberal centre-left policies. If Labour can throw off some of their ‘control-freakery’ and also manage to draw a final line under the disaster that was Iraq then it will become difficult for the LD in the future. It is a big if but it remains a danger

  • I think it is very wishful thinking to think that Clegg & Co will voluntarily give up power and that’s what another GE would bring about. In an early GE, LibDem electoral support would collapse and it would be a straight fight between Labour and the Tories but I really don’t think either of these two want an early election.

    They want the gamble to run a bit further – the Tories want time to show that their solutions will work and Labour want the time to show that the Tories are only interested in the wealthy and their chums in big business. It’s also important that Labour have a breathing space to reform and also rehabilitate themselves a bit but this job will be much easier with Blair and Brown gone from the scene. It also makes political sense for Labour to see the LibDems further damaged in the coalition mincer on the basis that they would pick up more LibDem seats than the Tories whenever a GE is called.

    The Liberals are currently useful to the Tories but I have never ever thought their coalition would get much beyond around three years. That’s probably the earliest the Tories could start to claim that things were starting to turn the corner economically and they would want to start putting clear water between them and their ertswhile coalition partners to ensure that all credit for any recovery goes to Osborne and Cameron. When they have their pre-election giveaway budget they won’t want any LibDems standing in the wings basking in reflected glory.

    The Tories don’t want to give up FPTP and it might be the AV referendum campaign that provides the flashpoint for a coalition rupture. If that were the case the Tories would ensure that the LibDems carried the can and they are obviously so much more skilled at this kind of wheeling and dealing than Clegg’s crew who look slightly bemused and lost as the Tories stitch them up. No way does Cameron want to govern in coalition – he wants sole power and to be fair, so does Labour. The LibDems can never achieve power on their own and really I doubt that they will be of any import in the numbers game after the AV referendum is defeated.

    When the dust settles the LibDem Party will never be the same again – Clegg et alia will probably find a home with the Tories as it’s oh so difficult to escape that heady addiction that comes with power. I don’t say that Clegg is a bad man – unprincipled yes but bad probably not. He is just a human being with all the weaknesses and capacity for self-delusion that flow from it. He will rationalise that a move to the Tories will be the best opportunity to carry out his mission whatever that might actually be.

    Of course, perhaps the LibDem party will just grit its teeth and throw its silent support behind the Leadership – doubt if that will cut any ice with the voting public and there’s always the peoblem that there’s still plenty of Tory ideology to be inflicted on the poorer and more vulnerable sections of society and this may cause the LibDem ranks to finally cut and run.

    But the real beauty of politics is that no one can actually tell what will happen. But it isn’t a game and a lot of my people are going to be hurt by the Tories with their draconian policies – for some – and manic drive to reduce the state.

    If LibDem members had courage in enough numbers they might yet not only save their party but save its soul as well. But that is a big ASK as it means restructuring the coalition agreement which in reality means removing Clegg and his apologist pro-Tory clique. Are their enough prin ipled people going to be left in the LibDems to carry out what will be a very bloody palace revolution.

  • Anyone who thinks there is room on the right for a civil liberties based Tory Party ‘lite’ is delusional.
    Any Conservatives dissatisfied with Cameron already have the U.K. Independence Party and no matter how nice Nick is to Cameron Conservative voters will never trust him or vote for him as the polls clearly show.

  • The article stated ” People support politicians who trust them.”
    No
    People support politicians they can trust!

    Trust to honour Signed pledges!

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