Opinion: No change please, we’re Liberal Democrats

There is an inherent predilection in our political culture towards continual reorganisation.  A culture that often holds us back and stops valuable reforms from maturing and embedding.

This frustrating desire to manifest difference via perpetual revolution may offer some cautionary tales for our own forthcoming leadership election.

I start by saying that I am genuinely open-minded about who it is that should go on to lead our party.  However, I am concerned that two issues risk becoming  incorrectly linked in the emerging campaigns.

That the Liberal Democrats in the last election adopted a ‘centring’ approach is clear.  That the Liberal Democrats suffered a huge electoral defeat is also beyond challenge.  The question is whether there is anything in ‘centring’ that is (almost by nature) politically hazardous or whether in fact the issue was implementation of this strategy.

Let me take you back to a new member evening that I attended only last week.  Speaking with lots of new members, the narrative behind their joining of the party was that they liked what we were as a political force.   A party that put pragmatism ahead of ideological obsession, did much good in government and that they felt had been unfairly punished in the recent General Election.

The pervading sense of togetherness for these new members was the shared incredulity that the electorate had been unable to see the good in our  party.  In short these new members joined because they liked what we had done over the last five years.  They weren’t as some have argued, joining the party post-election in an attempt to wrench it away from its recent history and alter our political course.

So, how is it possible to reconcile an electoral failure at the General Election with a widespread endorsement of our position by a significant set of new members?  The answer is that the centring  strategy was right (and can yet be electorally successful), but that the way this was done was clumsy and poorly articulated.

A successful pitch to the electorate should never be about splitting the difference between our two major opponents, whether in policy terms or in rhetoric.  Centring is not about providing political equidistance.  In addition, the Liberal Democrat voting proposition became an appeal to head over heart.  To put it simply, the Liberal Democrats didn’t offer an emotional call to action –  a reason to get out and vote – and perhaps more importantly a motive enduring enough to stand up to a fear-inducing campaign about the prospect of an SNP/Labour government.

Following the trials and tribulations of Coalition government it could be argued that it would just be a whole lot easier to ditch the centre ground and instead retrench to an outlier role.  While to some this looks a more radical proposition, I’m increasingly of the view that it does little more than offer a nostalgic comfort zone for some of the party’s more established membership.

New members are endorsing the path we’ve taken in recent years and this needs to be built upon, rather than razed to the ground.  The centre ground of politics is always the most populated by our opponents, but that is because it is also the most electorally fertile.  Off-centre positions may look vacant and thereby appealing, but they are vacant for good reason and offer little prospects of the Liberal Democrat resurgence that we so desperately need to see in the coming years.

* Alexander Ehmann is a Liberal Democrat Councillor and Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames. In the past, Alexander has been the Campaign Manager for a number of Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Candidates, including Duncan Hames, Paul Fox and Theo Butt-Philip. Alexander has worked in communications and public policy for a number of employers over the past 15 years, including the British Army, Institute of Directors and Tata.

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29 Comments

  • Alexander Ehmann 18th Jun '15 - 10:05am

    Alister,

    You make a a fair point about the audience being a group that would of course endorse the strategy that led them to join. However, what I think is significant is that these people are genuinely motivated and passionate about the type of party and government we provided and they want to build on this.

    Moreover, the issue for me is not how we simply remain in stasis with these new members and don’t progress, but rather how do we setup camp in the (non-equidistant) centre of British politics and extend our reach to new voters from there. The alternative is to reach for a false and polarising left/right choice and instantly alienate a portion of the population.

    When I refer to the centre, I’m not talking about any more than the starting place for our communication with voters. I’m also not saying that the centre is of itself the message, but rather the point from which this party should reach out. The way to do this is to assemble a constellation of policies which resonate with the electorate from a position of liberal thought, but not left-right ideological dogma.

  • “Following the trials and tribulations of Coalition government it could be argued that it would just be a whole lot easier to ditch the centre ground and instead retrench to an outlier role. While to some this looks a more radical proposition, I’m increasingly of the view that it does little more than offer a nostalgic comfort zone for some of the party’s more established membership.

    New members are endorsing the path we’ve taken in recent years and this needs to be built upon, rather than razed to the ground. The centre ground of politics is always the most populated by our opponents, but that is because it is also the most electorally fertile. Off-centre positions may look vacant and thereby appealing, but they are vacant for good reason and offer little prospects of the Liberal Democrat resurgence that we so desperately need to see in the coming years.”

    Wise words.

    Listening to Liz Kendall talking about a stronger economy and a fairer society yesterday was deeply worrying. We know this, because we know the baggage that Labour bring with them, illiberal to their core. But the electorate don’t necessarily.

  • i am not sure why anyone would take issue with the points made by Alexander and I am glad you explained that the centre is a starting point. The party has for my 50 years as a member adhered to ,varying degrees, to People First priorities. T o identify policies which enhance the security and quality of life of all society is a central plank of Liberalism. You will inevitably be able to run campaigns when that belief is challanged.The protest vote will follow. As Labour meanders to find a role we need to reach out to thoughtful Labour members and get Green supporters that a one trick pony is insufficient to create an environment which their supporters would like to aim for.The challenge is great but achievable

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Jun '15 - 10:24am

    What do you mean by “centre”? The problem is that these days it seems to be getting used in the same way that the Daily Mail used “middle” as in “middle England”.

  • The centre is to define that we dont attach a left/right label to the party which blurs our thinking. We need to adopt policies which are based on fact etc and whether these are deemed right .left or centre by the media et al is irrelevant but we must get away from these tags. Thats my view anyway

  • Sadly this sounds just too close to another attempt to justify the disaster that has gone on for the last five years and tell us we need more of it. While a lot of it sounds just good sense, expressions like “a more radical proposition … does little more than offer a nostalgic comfort zone for some of the party’s more established membership,” sounds just like more of the same managerial approach that failed last time and every time. Ultimately, the choice facing our great party is not just a swing to the left or “no change we’re Liberal Democrats,” but a more fundamental “Carry on declining,” or “Change and survive.” There are many things that could be done, but doing nothing while dismissing those who built our success prior to 2010 as needing a comfort zone is a recipe for disaster.

    While Alexander’s new members in general liked what we did in government, it is largely immaterial when it comes to restoring the party, as the electorate totally rejected it. It was Nick Clegg and his new direction that failed Liberal Democracy, ultimately because people didn’t trust him, and until those who supported him wholeheartedly realise that and change their views, we will continue to decline.

    I hope there is a change of direction. I hope those with a convincing understanding of both success and failure are listened to from now on, because if not, and we get no change, Well, I hope Norman and Tim get on well because five more years of “We did all right in government, didn’t we” will probably lead to them being the last two Lib Dem MPs left.

  • @David Evans “While Alexander’s new members in general liked what we did in government, it is largely immaterial when it comes to restoring the party”

    Comments like this make it clear that the fundamental split in the party is not between social and economic Liberals, but between the new and old generations of members. There will only ever be one winner in this battle, though.

  • The question of defining the centre has already been raised. It’s a good one, but I’d also like to question the idea that we should be explicitly staking out our core territory in this ‘centre’. It strikes me that it’s a bit like making camp in the middle of no man’s land, trying to set the tents up while hostile artillery barrages roll through every half an hour.

    I feel that it’s more important to establish ourselves in clear, well defined liberal territory and at the same time to effectively communicate to the centre the reason why liberals who believe in cooperation in government are the best choice. Being a liberal party that makes a strong pitch to the centre rather than a centre party that presents itself as the least worst option to liberals means that we can build up a core vote that will improve our performance in proportional elections like next year’s devolved assembly elections, at the same time as we appeal to swing voters in the Westminster marginals.

  • Sadly TCO your argument has been proved wrong since it started. Nick’s new generation squandered the work of forty years and now the party’s very existence is at risk, but still you promote a strategy of failure. If you persuade the new generation of members of what you want, the only loser will be Liberal Democracy and it might even be gone in five years as a parliamentary party, because it is the voters not the members who have decided.

    Until you can answer one question you will get us nowhere, and that question is “If you don’t offer them change why should they even think of changing their vote?”

  • Thanks for the article Alexander! I’m a “new” member and I disagree; I feel this article reduces politics to a one dimensional, left/centre/right spectrum and that was one of the election mistakes. Too much effort went into owning the centre ground, not enough time spent showing people how we can maximise their liberty to give them a better life, make sure they’re safe, employed, educated, help their kids, look after Gran, etc.

    I think the centre ground is a moving spot depending on where Lab/Con pitch their policies. This article and subsequent comments from last year was a pretty good one on this topic : https://www.libdemvoice.org/good-news-voters-places-themselves-and-the-lib-dems-in-the-centre-bad-news-that-doesnt-mean-theyre-liberals-41800.html . If all major politicians defines themselves as centrist, what does the term mean? The model on which we’re hinging the discussion doesn’t make a lot of sense and misleads, as you said new members liked “a party that put pragmatism ahead of ideological obsession”. Despite this, you sound as if you’re defining yourself as a happy centre right Lib Dem that doesn’t want the party to lurch to the left, it doesn’t help your argument. In the comments you mention you think we should “assemble a constellation of policies which resonate with the electorate from a position of liberal thought, but not left-right ideological dogma”, which sounds very much like what I’m saying, yet you’ve consistently empowered the L/C/R analogy of politics; it’s very confusing.

    I’ve rejoined because of the mess the party is in, I want to help restore and rebuild, but if it fails to change I won’t stick around. It’s contrary to the nature of politics, which has to be reactive to changes in our society to remain relevant. I don’t care if you liked Thatcher more than Kinnock, I want detailed policies that explain how we intend to improve life for citizens.

  • The new members who liked what we did in coalition are obviously politically aware and able to understand and value why we entered coalition . I think that ‘s very important because they are the ones who can explain how we made a difference to the voters after we have started to win back those who deserted us in the last five years. At the moment I don’t think they want to hear a bout it at all.
    I am dismayed by Alexander’s promotion of centring for the party. Surely after a debacle like the one we have suffered we need to go back to our core beliefs , translate them into practical policies and then persuade the electorate to vote for them. There is nothing centrist in a belief that there should be equal opportunities for all.
    Watching the rather dismal first Labour hustings last night I realised that they are carrying on in the same old way trying to use smooth presentation to cover an enormous hole in their beliefs. It is my fervent hope that we decide not to adopt this tactic and instead find the fire in our bellies that is our Liberal and democratic beliefs and see where that takes us.
    Once we have lit that fire, voters will be interested in us and then we can tell them what we achieved in power and why it was important to us.
    When the party refused to vote to invade Iraq it wasn’t because we wanted to position ourselves in the left, right or centre we did it because our MPs knew in their Liberal core that it was the wrong thing to do. I hope that this spirit is still alive and well. If it is we can emerge in an exciting place which is ours alone, not left or right or centre but maybe , just maybe, above.

  • @Geoffrey Payne ” However Labour lurched to the right under Blair and by default Charles led the party to the left of Labour without particularly changing his views.
    Very successfully too.”

    Remind me which party won the 400 seat plus landslide and which party got barely 10% of that number of seats. Oh yes, the one with the leader who “lurched to the right”.

  • Simon Gilbert 18th Jun '15 - 3:06pm

    Why not learn from UKIP? They had a set of policies that many scorned yet it was obvious what they were offering, and millions voted for then as a result.
    Perhaps if the Lib Dems focus on Liberal policies, and champion them loudly without embarressment, they will be respected and voted for.

    To be absolutely clear this is not an endorsement of UKIP, but I don’t think their vote was only one of protest.

    Policies matter.

  • @Simon Gilbert in theory that’s a good idea. In practice, however, enough Liberal policies are filched by the Big Two that we just don’t have a distinctive voice in the way that UKIP do. UKIP had “their” territory largely left alone; on th
    other side of the spectrum there was a crowded space.

  • Eddie Sammon 18th Jun '15 - 4:24pm

    Good article. I think the party should stick to the centre-ground strategy, but it is not just pandering to the prejudices of the electorate.

    How to make it work? I thought before the election that the manifesto came out left wing, possibly due to the lack of one-member-one-vote on policy in the run up to the election, but that has now been resolved.

    I also felt that Clegg’s position on the EU of “always fighting to stay in” among other things harmed the party.

    Finally, local electoral pacts are going to be essential. The party shouldn’t have stood against people like Sarah Wollaston, Chukka Umunna, Douglas Alexander, Jim Murphy, Ken Clarke etc.

    The party also needs to reach out to SNP types and get rid of the idea that federalism always means Scotland staying in the UK.

  • Of course candidates want votes so the ‘centre’ (whatever that means), “the most electorally fertile”, has a siren call to those seeking political office. But it is a siren call because, if overly focussed on, it will lure unwary candidates onto the rocks as we have just seen. Apart from candidates’ mothers and a tiny vote that’s purely tribal voters aren’t particularly invested in the success of a particular party.

    What voters primarily want is good government even though there is little agreement about how to achieve that. So candidates would do better thinking about that, analysing what’s going wrong, coming up with sensible proposals for how they will improve it and then persuading the electorate of the good sense of their position. If their position is well founded they may still loose but will still be able to mount an effective opposition.

    Consider for instance the outcome of the recent GE. The Lib Dems standing on a ‘centrist’ platform got massacred. The parties standing on ‘extreme’ (or if you prefer ‘principled’) platforms of on sort or another did very well. Hence the SNP nearly swept the board in Scotland and will greatly complicate Cameron’s next five years. Similarly UKIP may have got only one MP but their vote share is way up and they established many good second place springboards for future action. In many ways, especially with regard to Europe, they are jerking the Conservatives about and controlling the agenda. And even the Greens, despite being at the tadpole stage (still forming, no legs yet) greatly increased their strength and credibility.

    And what if, as I expect, the economy falls into a pit in the nearish future? The policies that led to that will have Lib Dem fingerprints all over them and it will do no good to bleat “we were only junior partners”. Where is the record of opposition, of pointing out the errors?

    Canadian blogger Ian Welsh explains the choices.

    http://www.ianwelsh.net/the-control-of-parties-and-the-rise-and-fall-of-ideologies/

  • Tony Dawson 18th Jun '15 - 7:42pm

    “That the Liberal Democrats in the last election adopted a ‘centring’ approach is clear. That the Liberal Democrats suffered a huge electoral defeat is also beyond challenge. ”

    The election debacle was nothing at all to do with the campaign ‘ ‘centring’ approach or not. The Lib Dems made no progress whatsoever during he campaign, forwards or backwards. The election was lost by the failure to do anything during four whole years to repair the damage done to the Party in 2011, 2012, 2013 – and let’s not forget a rather poorish result in 2010. The Party was seen to be without obvious role, purpose or trustworthiness. Who says the electorate at large were wrong?

  • Peter Watson 18th Jun '15 - 8:19pm

    @TCO “Remind me which party won the 400 seat plus landslide and which party got barely 10% of that number of seats. Oh yes, the one with the leader who “lurched to the right”.”
    And which approach to leading the Lib Dems delivered 62 seats and which delivered 8.
    If number of seats is the measure of success, why do you want to endorse and stick with a strategy that delivered such a disaster?

  • Richard Underhill 18th Jun '15 - 8:39pm

    “The centre ground of politics is always the most populated by our opponents, but that is because it is also the most electorally fertile. ” Not always Alexander.
    In 1983 The Conservatives were led by a right-wing radical called Margaret Thatcher and Labour by the leftist (but well read) Michael Foot (“one of three left feet “).
    The Liberal-SDP Alliance got about 25% of the vote, going for first place on a broad front and choosing gold as our colour. The first past the post system gave the Tories a large majority of MPs on a minority vote. We had an extremely disproportionate and unfertile number of MPs. Labour lost 119 deposits, but continued to hold hundreds of seats.

    Printers note: the colour is still Pantine Gold, also used by the Nepalese Liberal Democrats. Yellow is abuse from Tories.

  • Lester Holloway 19th Jun '15 - 7:26am

    The ‘centre ground’ in British politics is an ever-moving-Rightwards a very small space indeed, often non-existent, between Labour the the Tories in varying degrees of austerity, clamping down on migrants, welfare ‘reform’ and freeing business of ‘red tape’. Polls (admittedly not entirely reliable these days) showed massive support for the Greens when the public were asked the question (I paraphrase) ‘If the x party had a serious chance of winning who would you vote for?’ Pre-2010 past polls have shown a much higher degree of Lib Dem support by the same measure. A consistent desire among a large section of the electorate for an alternative; a truly social and progressive programme of making life demonstrably better for the poorer sections of society, rejecting the suffocating consensus that we need to balance the books, restrict migrants, cut benefits and let the free market have free reign. The Lib Dems have traditionally stood against this centerist / Rightwing consensus. I believe many Lib Dems still do, and tried to during government but were subsumed by the more powerful force of our senior partners, the Tories. The last thing we need is to become permanently squeezed in the small space between the two bigger parties. Freedom lies outside this space, a space largely unoccupied due to the inability of the Greens to compete effectively under FPTP and their comparative lack of detail of their policies.

    As we remember Charles Kennedy it’s also worth remembering that our most recent high water mark was as a progressive alternative to the two conservative parties. Today, with UKIP on the Right, there is no future in drifting with the ‘centrist’ crowd following UKIP’s lead. Today, with many inside and outside Labour questioning their very reason for existing given their own centrist tenancies, now is not the time to give up appealing to a wider section of progressive Britain by aping their mistakes. If some new LD members want us to be an establishment party without power proposing only moderate tweaks to the platforms of the big two I suggest they may not be coming from the backgrounds that are most in pain and are not seeing the extent of disadvantage or grasping the extent of radicalism needed to make serious progress tackling it.

  • Lester Holloway 19th Jun '15 - 7:51am

    @Simon Gilbert – I don’t think we’ve got anything to learn from UKIP. It’s easy to be a populist party playing on peoples’ fears. If UKIP were on the Left (hard to imagine, I know, but stay with me for a minute!) and they were making the case for the economic benefits of immigration and the benefits of staying in Europe, even the blokey beer & fag style of Nigel Farage would have trouble making tracks. UKIP are no different from Rightwing popularists across the European continent, sticking anti-establishment sentiment together with easy solutions to peoples’ prejudices. If you took the UKIP policies out of UKIP and replaced them with Lib Dem ones their style wouldn’t get them any further than us at the moment.

    If we are to learn from anyone (you’ll laugh at first, I know!) it is Jeremy Corbyn. Why? Because even though most LibDems are somewhat removed from Labour Campaign Group socialism, the lesson from Corbyn is that even the most unlikely and patently unelectable leadership candidate – someone who my his own admission is only carrying the red flag because it is ‘his turn’ after Diane Abbott and John McDonnell – is attracting a significant amount of enthusiasm, so much so that a LabourList poll of CLPs put Corbyn in first place! Labour will pick a smart and moderate candidate of course, but there is a large slice of the Left that are crying out, absolutely desperate, for an alternative… even the bearded Corbyn. What’s the relevance of Labour’s left to us? Well, don’t you think that if a smart, professional and businesslike party (as is our image) carried the hopes of progressiveness in the country that would be a recipe for success? I can certainly see large slices of the disillusioned Left pealing off and supporting us if we matched some of their values with our reputation and image.

  • John Tilley 19th Jun '15 - 8:49am

    Lester Holloway 19th Jun ’15 – 7:26am
    “…The ‘centre ground’ in British politics is an ever-moving-Rightwards a very small space indeed, often non-existent, ”

    “…. A consistent desire among a large section of the electorate for an alternative; a … .. programme of making life demonstrably better for the poorer sections of society, rejecting the suffocating consensus …”

    “…The Lib Dems have traditionally stood against this centerist / Rightwing consensus. ”

    “…The last thing we need is to become permanently squeezed in the small space between the two bigger parties. Freedom lies outside this space, a space largely unoccupied due to the inability of the Greens to compete effectively …”

    You have hit several nails on the head with great accuracy, Lester.
    For 150 years Liberals and Radicals have struggled against what you describe as the “suffocating consensus”. Often we have been successful in so doing. Certainly more successful than the miserable 8% that the “more of the same” tendency condemned us to in last month’s General Election.

  • I’ve always seen Liberals as being towards one point in a triangle of principles [Labour and Conservative towards the other two points]. If we campaign for the liberal ideals we will be quite distinct from the other major parties – because of our liberal stance. We know we can be a major party because at times over the last decades we have reached towards a similar vote share to theirs or gone even higher. Same for UKIP more recently but they don’t stay located in one place long enough, on general policies, to know where they are in the ‘triangle of principles’.

    Like many of you, I was aghast when we started to define our policies in terms of the other two. We need to move back to our own point in the triangle and show we are distinctly different. Positioning in the centre of a triangle, or for that matter along a straight line between two other major parties, leaves our party vulnerable to temporary changes in the public perceptions. When the fear factor was included in an electoral tussle, we needed to speak loudly and clearly about how liberalism is different and not how it is equidistant and centrist. Liberalism is different – our policies must show how it is different. If we cannot define how we are just that – different and liberal – there will no point in being a Liberal at all.

  • Phil Rimmer 19th Jun '15 - 9:52am

    No, Alexander, some of us aren’t confusing two things. We are very clearly saying that both the “centring approach” and the organisation of our national campaigning, over more than 5 years, were a complete disaster for Liberalism.

    We are in grave danger of allowing pragmatism to kill off Liberal philosophy. The choice you present, between “ideological obsession” and “pragmatism” is a fake one. We must again start to use our Liberal philosophy as the yardstick by which we measure our approach and policies. Liberals do not easily slip into ideological obsession, we tend to have too many doubts and uncertainties for that. Frankly, I find this element of your argument disappointing.

    Other than that, I would simply agree with Messrs Holloway and Tilley.

  • “Remind me which party won the 400 seat plus landslide and which party got barely 10% of that number of seats. Oh yes, the one with the leader who “lurched to the right”.”

    Clegg lurched to the right. The result was a loss of 87% of Lib Dem seats.

  • Kevin Manley 19th Jun '15 - 1:34pm

    @ Lester Holloway Here here!!

  • Right, so when we weren’t deliberately trying to position ourselves in the centre ground, under Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy, we had our best results, but obviously that’s a bad strategy and we should be clinging to the centre ground, wherever it happens to be, so if an Attlee or a Thatcher comes along, we need to shift fast to reflect the new centre.

    But the centre of what? Certainly there will be some important issues where the natural position of a Liberal will be between Labour and Conservatives: less trusting of the state than Labour, for example, but less hostile to it than the Conservatives; likely to spend more than the Conservatives but less than Labour. But there are many issues where the natural Liberal position is on one extreme compared to those two parties, on civil liberties, devolution and the environment for example. It is absolutely toxic for us to be afraid of taking brave and distinctive positions, and cowardly if we aren’t prepared to get out on a limb on some issues where our position is currently unpopular.

    What I hardly see at all in Alexander’s discussion is an appreciation that we should not decide things always on the basis of what will bring in the most votes, but on the basis of what we believe to be right, mediated by an awareness of what is politically possible.

    Alexander’s remarks about the new members have some truth, but I’ve found most of them are not just people who liked the last five years, but people whose basic Liberalism goes back further (if they were old enough) but who needed the shock of the last election result to conclude that they personally had a duty to support the party. One of ours was inclined to us for a long time, but voted Green in May and then regretted it!

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