Seven questions for the next 25 years

This autumn I will reach 25 years as a member of the Liberal Democrats, which causes me to reflect on the last quarter century (I was 18 when I joined) and think about the next 25 years for the party (by when I shall by 68 and just eligible for my state pension). 

This reflection has led me to seven questions that are key to what our party’s future will look like.

I write this article knowing (in fact, intending) that some people may disagree with some of what I say.  I am interested in starting a debate about the future for the party and its long-term strategy. You cannot start a debate that leads to meaningful action by saying things that are easy, or which everyone will agree with. Debate drives progress.

I am immensely grateful for the opportunities the party has given me. Firstly, to meet hundreds of fascinating, inspiring people. Secondly, to give me the honour of representing the public briefly as a Member of the European Parliament and currently as a County Councillor, Group Leader and previously as Town Councillor.

In the last 25 years we have elected 1000s of councillors, 62 MPs at the 2005 peak, entering coalition government in 2010 and the achievements of all of those elected officeholders in their roles. 

Back in in 1998, I am sure I hoped that by the 2020s we would have more substantially closed the electoral gap with Labour and the Conservatives and possibly have regained our place as being one of the two main parties. We have not achieved that and we (as a party or as part of a broader liberal movement in the UK) have lost strategic political battles such as EU membership and not won significant progress on rebalancing power through constitutional reform. 

Some party members take the view that big electoral objectives are not a high priority and the most valuable role the party can play is influencing the debate, moving the Overton Window and contributing to better legislation and national policy in the long-term from Opposition. This is a respectable view, although I find it hard to identify a very long list of policies and laws we have influenced this way in recent years.  In the past we led the way on, for example, Common Market membership, opposition to Apartheid, legalising abortion, gay rights and acting against genocide in Bosnia which over time influenced other parties to move our way.

Right now, there is much to be cheerful about.  The last couple of years have seen phenomenal parliamentary by-election results and local election results. We are confident and determined. Next year’s general election should produce more Lib Dem MPs.

What comes after the General Election for the long term?

Past leaders have pursued different long-term strategies. Grimond, Steel and Ashdown spoke about a long-term goal of replacing Labour as the main alternative to the Conservatives, to use policy to build credibility with journalists and other people with influence, and of re-alignment, cooperation between Liberals and Labour to put the Conservatives out of office while excluding the hard left.  All three sought for the party to be seen as dynamic, imaginative and principled. Kennedy maintained the sense that the party for a dynamic, principled, progressive, centre-left force but saw less potential than his predecessor for working with Labour. Clegg orientated the party more to the centre than centre-left and spoke of growing the number of MPs to 100. He then created a coalition with the Conservatives.

Which past leader’s strategy was best is a debate for another time. My point is that each of these eras had a vision (albeit one that could be adapted over time) of what the party wanted to achieve and how.

These lead to my seven questions for the next 25 year of the Liberal Democrats.

  • Do we seriously aspire to become the first or second party in the UK? In other words, do we aspire to get our national share of the vote into 35+% and get >13 million votes in a General Election?
  • If “yes” to the above, which of Labour or the Conservatives will we supplant?
  • How will we do it and specifically, which people who currently vote Labour/Conservative will switch their support to the Liberal Democrats?
  • What are the policies/values/qualities that will persuade those people to switch to us?
  • Are we prepared to adopt those if we don’t already have them?
  • If we are, where (or from whom) and how can we get the resources (human/financial/other) to communicate those policies/values/attributes to enough people?
  • If we do not seriously aspire to become the first or second party in the UK, what will we deliver as a third party and are we doing so?

These are questions that Labour and Conservatives have addressed when they have improved their position.

For example, at the start of the 20th century Labour was a small party. By 1924 it formed its first government. Its actions clearly answered the questions above.

It did aim to become one of the larger parties by supplanting the Liberals. It identified a progressive social agenda and being on the side of the working class as its platform. It obtained the resources to fight from growing trade unions and local party branches full of members attracted by the policy platform. It identified people who gained the vote after 1918 as a particular source of votes and people who had previously voted Liberal for progressive reasons.

Labour’s rise was not overnight. Or a one-election effort. It was a project of decades.

Likewise, when Labour or Conservatives have aimed to go from second to first at any given election, questions 3-6 that are key to success or failure.

So, what do we Liberal Democrats look like in 25 years?  What do we really want to achieve and how to get there?

If we don’t have an idea of our future that then we risk others imposing on us their ideas for our future.

 

* Antony Hook was a Liberal Democrat MEP for South East England (2019) and has practised as a barrister since 2003. He is currently Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group on Kent County Council.

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20 Comments

  • jedibeeftrix 13th Sep '23 - 9:04am

    Thank you for this.

    I made the same argument back in 2011, arguing the opportunity existed to supplant labour as the official ‘pole’ of opposition to the tories.

    That seemed to be the ambition at least – until Richard Reeves was jetisoned, when the strategy appeared to change.

  • Steve Trevethan 13th Sep '23 - 9:13am

    Thank you for looking ahead!

    Might we undermine both currently leading parties helped by being, and being known, as THE party of equity, clarity, efficiency and open mindedness?

    Might we make it clear that we are not internationally classified as a full democracy but a partial democracy, with systems that favour right wingers, including the effective exclusion of many non-right inclined voters?

    Might we demonstrate that our tax systems are understaffed and favour the wealthy?

    Might we take “centre stage” in highlighting and producing remedies for these dangerous deficiencies?

  • @ Jedibeeftrix “I made the same argument back in 2011, arguing the opportunity existed to supplant labour as the official ‘pole’ of opposition to the tories”.

    Sorry Jedibeeftrix, back in 2011, entering a formal Coalition with an austerity pursuing Tory Party wasn’t the most obvious way in which to “supplant Labour as the official ‘pole’ of opposition to the Tories”.

  • Clearly the idea that we might supplant Labour in the next 20 Years is out but the prospects of overtaking The Tories look quite good.
    I have thought for Years now that our Recovery was a matter of Time, just as it has been for The Major Parties. The question is whether We can recover from The Coalition before The Tories recover from their present nadir. I don’t think its inevitable but it is possible.

    The crucial point is that we don’t repeat The Coalition mistake, with either of The Big Two Parties.

  • jedibeeftrix 13th Sep '23 - 4:03pm

    @ David Raw

    The coalition was an opportunity for the Lib-Dems to emerge from the shadows of our two party system

    My argument being that the previous hundred years have been dominated by the left-right battle between capitalism and socialism………… And the off-tangent lib-dems were quite frankly irrelevant to the great questions of the day. Two poles competing to attract the greatest mass of public opinion, locked in visceral and adversarial conflict with each other. This is the way the British public understand politics, and to ignore that is to become a pressure group.

    What Labour achieved one hundred years ago was convincing the public that they represented a better pole to oppose capitalism than liberal ideology could provide. By the time this change had occurred union membership had passed seven million, half way to its mid century peak. By the time the next election was to arrive union membership will have sunk to seven million as it’s ideas seem ever less relevant to 21st century problems.

    The question was; were the lib-dems determined to convince the public that they, once again, are the most effective polar opposite to the Tories?

    https://jedibeeftrix.wordpress.com/2011/04/27/compassionate-liberalism-just-deserts-escaping-the-paradox-of-the-lefts-social-authoritarianism/

    That question still stands.

  • @ jedibeeftrix, you say, “What Labour achieved one hundred years ago was convincing the public that they represented a better pole to oppose capitalism than liberal ideology could provide”‘

    Only up to a point, Jedi….. you don’t mention continuing internal divisions and visceral fall outs from the Asquith-Lloyd George spit beginning in 1916 but lingering on in different forms to the 1930’s. Labour took advantage of the vacuum left by the self-destructive squabbling Libs (and resentment at the treatment of the Irish in 1916 and by the LLG Coalition). Have you ever questioned why the LLG Coalition dropped PR from the 1918 Representation of the People Act ?

    In addition many ‘right wing’ Libs were subsumed into the Tory Party via anti-socialist pacts (see Scotland and West Yorkshire) whilst many more socially conscious Libs left to join the Labour Party (Haldane, Trevelyan, Ponsonby, Benn and E.D. Morel the best known). The ‘death’ of Liberalism was to a large self-inflicted.

    As to Labour ‘opposing capitalism’, I prefer opposing exploitation (and often cruelty).

  • I don’t think the Lib Dems should aim to be one of the 2 main parties. Where Liberal parties have done this they have lost some of their radicalism and resorted to populism e.g in Denmark and Holland where the centre right liberals have become tough on asylum etc. Radical Liberalism is best delivered as the 3rd party in a PR system.

  • Antony Hook Antony Hook 14th Sep '23 - 9:44am

    The question of whether we envisage the future being under FPTP or PR but even if there was a change to PR we need need to think about what kind of vote share we want to aim for. We see in Europe that parties with ~10% have limited influence. Parties with two or three times that level of support generally have a lot more influence.

  • Paul Reynolds 14th Sep '23 - 12:06pm

    Great, succinct, article Antony. Good to see these questions set out. (So they are not taboo, then, ha ha). More pointedly, whilst competitve tactics and strategy have their role, I believe that it is a grave mistake to frame the LD’s longer term approach primarily in relation to other parties. It is fashionable to focus on the word ‘progressive’, (which is hard to define), and thus generate a debate about competing or cooperating with other progressive parties. But I don’t believe the voting public slot so neatly into the pigeonholes made for them by psephologists and pundits. Establishing the problems that we wish to address on behalf of the public, and expending effort at addressing them, using our underlying philosophies, is likely to cultivate public support without anxiously second-guessing where such public support is likely to orginate from. If we don’t seek to address the nation’s grave prblems, who will ?

  • The question the will need to be answered is how does a party, that has tremendous support and success, but in limited geographical areas, translate that into wider success and support?

  • Peter Martin 15th Sep '23 - 10:37am

    @ David Raw,

    “In addition many ‘right wing’ Libs were subsumed into the Tory Party via anti-socialist pacts….”

    I wasn’t very old at the time but I remember asking my father why there wasn’t a Conservative candidate standing where we lived in the Bolton West constituency. I think it must have been the 1959 General Election.

    The answer was that the Tories were known as Liberals there. I wouldn’t have fully understood but perhaps that remark has influenced my political thinking ever since!

  • @Mike Sole

    Yes that is a key question.

    If we want to get from 10% to 35% over a long period that answer might be “do what we are doing” in a certain number of areas in more areas.

    We then need people to do that and the question that follows is “what attracts more people?”

  • @ Paul Reynolds

    A working definition of progressive might be “seeking to reduce the gaps in wealth and opportunity than now exist in our society.”

    I concur that identifying the problems we wish to cure would be helpful although it probably follows from that we will be hoping to win support from people who suffer from those problems.

  • @ Peter Martin Bolton interests me Peter because I happened to know the Bolton West Liberal MP, Arthur Holt, quite well. I can assure you he was a radical Grimond Liberal, indeed I remember him getting into trouble with the Speaker for dismissing the Tory MP for Cheadle in vigorously graphic terms which I’m sure wouldn’t get past the moderator on LDV. Arthur was no hidden Tory.

    The ‘pact’ (there was a mirror in Huddersfield) went back to 1950 and the friendship between Churchill and Violet Bonham-Carter (nee Asquith), so I can’t say with any certainty how much ‘anti-socialism’ applied to older members of the Bolton Liberal Association. The pact fell apart when Frank Byers contested a byelection in Bolton East in 1960, and Arthur knew then he was going to lose his seat in 1964.

    I have the very highest admiration for Arthur on a personal level. He was (twice decorated) and a POW on the Burmese railway in WW11. He was severely beaten up by his captors on several occasions for trying to protect his men from harsh and cruel treatment. He suffered from malaria and carried the scars of this for the rest of his life during retirement in Cumbria. I know Arthur would agree the Liberal Party would have been nothing if it wasn’t radical.

    PS If you’re interested in the Simonite ‘National Liberals’, Peter, do read Professor David Dutton’s excellent book, ‘Liberals in Schism’. There’s a bit about Bolton.

  • Not optimistic about our chances of replacing either. Labour and Conservatives both have huge “brand power” and simply change what’s under the packaging to suit the times. Most lib dem members seem closer to labour but we rely upon soft Tories at election time so their is a bit of uncomfortable cognative dissonance going on. If, for arguments sake, these soft Tories decided to join the party and become active it would clearly move the centre of gravity towards the centre right on a number of issues, or at the very least lead to a different type of liberalism. That would provoke an exodus on the progressive wing of the party, to labour or the greens. A relialignment, but would there be any net profit in exchange for all this blood letting ?
    Of course, all the main parties are coalitions, and under PR one could see the LDs fragmenting. We all know there are deep divisions, eg over our attitudes to capitalism, the roll and size of the state and what I am going to coyly call “the Roisin Murphy question” !

  • Peter Hirst 9th Oct '23 - 4:15pm

    We must have the right infrastructure in place to have any chance of overtaking either of the other two main parties. By this I mean electoral reform. Then our credibility will rise and it will be worth voting for us. At the moment replacing the Conservatives seems the best bet. If we could gain half the seats they gain at the coming GE we could build on that. It is not impossible that we could overtake them either in vote share or number of MPs if they continue in their current vein.

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