The greater forces behind our election defeat

The long awaited General Election review has been published. It talks about many of the points disgruntled Lib Dem activists have been making for the last six months (the revoke policy, the ‘I can be your next PM’ message, the over ambitious targeting) and also looks in much more detail at the structural and staffing problems which were haunting the party.

It’s a good read, which makes many important points. I think activists find it comforting, in a weird way, to look at the short and long-term mistakes we made and think – ‘if only we had done a few things differently, it could have all been different’. I’m not sure it’s so simple.

“Who were we trying to kid?” Many angry activists said in pubs around the country after the election result, “no one believed that Swinson would be the next Prime Minister!” But don’t we remember 2017 when the opposite point was being made? “It was ridiculous to start out the campaign saying that it was a foregone conclusion,” we all grumbled, “that’s admitting defeat before we’d begun!” I have similar feelings about the anger at the Revoke policy. Yes it went down badly in some parts of the country (including my constituency where we lost Tom Brake). But that doesn’t mean we would have done better if we’d stuck with the People’s Vote policy. I fear that it would have gone even worse, because our position would have been indistinguishable from Labour’s. And besides, the Revoke policy was the right thing to do. We have to stand by our principles right?

Whether these decisions were right or wrong, I suspect the demoralizing reality is that the decisions which the Liberal Democrats made accounted for about 10% of our bad result in the General Election. The other 90% was due to factors outside our control. The biggest one, in my opinion, was that the two main parties were so far apart. Think of our emotional message during Cleggmania. ‘These two parties are the same, vote for us for a break from tired politics’. But we couldn’t claim this about Johnson and Corbyn. The average voter saw the story of the election as a battle between those two, starkly different options. The Lib Dems don’t fit in the story. And when the main parties are so divisive, voting Lib Dem is a risk many people won’t take. ‘The Lib Dems will just let Corbyn in!” “The Lib Dems will just let Johnson in!” It is a failure of FPTP which we would always struggle to overcome.

And there is an even bigger picture here too. Social Democrat parties, internationalist parties, centrist parties… they’ve had a really bad decade around the world. Of course there are exceptions, but broadly speaking, the global mood is lurching towards the extremes – encouraged by a style of media and political engagement which simplifies issues and encourages populism. As tragic as this is, I just don’t think our ideology is stylish right now.

Of course it’s possible that these problems were surmountable. Maybe if the Lib Dems had played a perfect game of chess with 20/20 foresight, we could have navigated an electoral breakthrough. And many of the short and long term mistakes which we made may well have cost us a valuable number of seats. But if we look at the big picture, we are a small force inside a tornado of much more influential political activity. The biggest reasons behind our bad result were reasons outside our control. I think that this is the most frustrating thing about supporting a small party in an FPTP system.

* Ben is a Councillor in Sutton, and the Vice Chair of the Environment & Transport Committee at Sutton Council. He has been a member of the party since the 2015 election, and used to work for the Sutton Liberal Democrats as a volunteer organiser. Ben now works for a charity promoting the greater use of Restorative Justice in the criminal justice system.

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  • Sadly I am not sure it was beyond our control. yes we get buffeted by the other parties. But elections are about coming up with a proposition that people will “spend” their vote “buying” at the ballot box and we didn’t and haven’t for some time.

  • This is a very interesting contribution to the discussion in the party.
    My comment is that more attention needs to be paid to the views of the members of the party and the affect these views had on their enthusiasm and therefore their campaigning during the election. I realise that there were resources given to the party, but the real issue is that we do not have the resources to run an election without the enthusiasm from our members who will need to work together to get a good result.
    In fact the only party to have the resources really needed to run a centrally driven campaign was the party which won. Perhaps we need to focus on the behaviour of the other parties as well as our own. If the winning party was limited to the resources we had, what would the result have been?

  • Actually, the Labour Party had quite a lot – money, yes, but especially volunteer enthusiasm and organisation. What the Tories had, was, of course, the backing of the right wing media (circulation of which is much greater than anything left of centre) qand especially this time, as Brexit was the rich free marketeers’ project having the unflinching backing of that same right wing media. The other point is that the more “left wing” the Labour leader of the time is perceived to be, the more traction that media gets in its attacks. It is interesting that in 2017, when the Labour Party admittedly with Corbyn as leader, did not have such a full throated quasi 1945 policy it did well against a less full-on Brexit Tory Party under May.

    In the majority of elections, if Labour flops, we flop, if Labour flies, we fly. Compare as examples 1970, 1979, 1987, 2015 Tory wins, Lib Dem or Liberal Democrat losses, 1st election 1974, 1997, 2001 Labour wins, Liberal and Lib Dem gains.

  • Paul Barker 19th May '20 - 9:44pm

    This piece makes a very good point & it is a cause of hope that Labour at least seem to fixed on a course back to The Centre.

    However, the Elephant in the room here is The Coalition, we have barely begun to recover from that. While there is nothing quick we can do to speed up that recovery we can make the long term changes called for in The Report & begin to build a Core Vote so that we can weather future storms better.

    There is no prospect of a Breakthrough unless we can build our support at least enough to come second in Vote Share while resisting the Temptation to grab the shiny baubles that labour or The Tories may offer us.

    No Coalition without Proportional Representation !

  • Peter Martin 20th May '20 - 4:41am

    “I suspect the demoralizing reality is that the decisions which the Liberal Democrats made accounted for about 10% of our bad result in the General Election. The other 90% was due to factors outside our control.”

    I don’t know about that. Unlike in 2017 the 2019 election was nearly all about Brexit. The “demoralising reality” is that both the Lib Dems and Labour Party managed to lose many of their previous Leave supporters to the Tories but they struggled to gain their Remain supporters. That’s why Labour’s red wall in the North is no longer there. The same is true of the former Lib Dem yellow West Country wall.

    This was all a matter of choice. The 2016 referendum was supposed to answer the question of whether we should be members of the EU. Instead of accepting the result and working towards the best kind of Brexit both parties gambled “all or nothing” on revoke. The Labour policy was to all intents and purposes revoke too. There is no way that the Leave side would have participated in the kind of referendum on offer by Labour.

  • Absurd to suggest that Revoke was the right policy.

    It’s really very simple.

    If something has been decided by a national referendum, it can only be undecided by another referendum.

    And certainly not by the outcome of an election using a voting system that the party has spent its entire history castigating as delivering unjustifiable majority power to minority opinion.

  • Douglas beckley 20th May '20 - 7:16am

    A little before the 2015 Campaign, I was researching a political controversy which had a bearing on the LibDems and one of the LD-declared activists involved in the controversy ran their own political weblog; I clicked on to see if there was a greater depth of coverage in what I was researching.

    I found something quite unexpected. There were both LD activists and Labour activists discussing Labour’s EU policy at the time. In plain language, hidden in plain sight on a blog few would ever bother to click on was an open excoriating debate that Douglas Alexander – Labour’s Campaign strategist – had suppressed any mention of the EU in the entire Campaign ‘so as not to put off potential voters’. In fact, the only identifiable policy Miliband ran with, with only the briefest mention, was that the 2011 Referendum Lock legislation would ‘not be repealed, but any such poll would take place as an In\Out vote’.

    In 2016 I voted to Leave as I would again tomorrow. But I had no problem with Swinson’s ‘Revoke, Rejoin, Remain’. If the LibDems had won a GE with a majority with that openly pre-declared policy, then I might not agree with it, but it’s legitimately arrived at. I can respect the honesty.

    So I was more than disturbed to see the policy displaced mid-campaign. It seemed to me a repeat of Alexander’s Labour policy of suppression. To my eyes, the current LD stance on the EU is this:- That you’re in a garden you hate, eying the fence longingly in preparation for a jump tot the adjoining EU garden hoping nobody notices.

    Sorry. No. Have a policy and declare it. Clearly, and in advance of a GE.

    If you are defeated on a pro-EU manifesto, I would suggest you take the lesson from that. It would not be that the party ‘didn’t get it’s message across’. It would be the electorate rejecting it. In principle you ought to accept that. But you can’t evade and avoid the central point for much longer. Are you, or are you not a Pro-EU membership party? Tell people, and tell them on the record.

  • Agree with Ian. I genuinely wonder whether people who claim that ‘Revoke’ wasn’t a factor in our poor performance talked to any electors during the election. The message was clear: for the Tories, “Get Brexit Done”; for the Liberal Democrats, “How can you claim to be Democrats?”

  • Richard Underhill 20th May '20 - 8:57am

    Ben Andrew 20th May ’20 – 8:36am
    “Stop Brexit was our best shot.” and the right policy for the euro-elections and the local elections leading up to the euros. The euros also produced a brilliant result for a liberal:
    Naomi Long APNI elected for the whole constituency of Northern Ireland.

  • Peter Martin 20th May '20 - 10:29am

    ‘ “Stop Brexit” was our best shot” ‘

    There was really no chance that this shot, ie outright revoke, would ever hit the target.

    “Calling for a second referendum would make us indistinguishable from Labour”

    Labour’s policy was effectively revoke too. IF Labour had won they would have presented a choice between a leave deal that no-one supported and Remain. The Leave side would have boycotted. Easy win for Remain. But….

    The “best shot” for both parties was obviously to accept the 2016 result and try to shape the best possible Brexit. What was the problem? How is what we have now better than what we could have had?

    But it’s all too late, isn’t it?

  • @Ben Andrew: “Sticking with a People’s Vote would have drawn most of the same criticisms – “you don’t like the result so you’re asking again” – while also making us indistinguishable from Labour.”

    Well, that would have been true if Labour had adopted a clear policy of “We support a peoples’ vote, and we would campaign for a Remain vote.” But, under Corbyn’s leadership, that was clearly unlikely.

    So, if we had stuck with our position that we would support a People’s Vote and a Remain vote, we would still have been the only UK-wide pro-remain party: a very strong position to be in.

    The position of supporting a confirmatory vote – “now that there’s a deal, you can vote to implement it (or not)” – was also, imho, far more defensible than the Revoke position.

    Those people who would still have accused us of being anti-democratic for campaigning in favour of a democratic vote, were never going to vote for us anyway – and their argument was not going to persuade many other voters.

  • Dilettante Eye 20th May '20 - 11:03am

    “Think of our emotional message during Cleggmania. ‘These two parties are the same, vote for us for a break from tired politics’.”

    A few threads ago, I proposed the theory that populism is not some outlier event which occasionally comes onto the political stage, but that populism is in fact the default driver of all political change.

    The above recognition of Cleggmania is a perfect fit for that argument.

    The ‘mood’ which is a precursor to populism was indeed ‘These two parties are the same’, and Clegg (whether realising it or not), delved into that populist mood with both hands:

    ‘Let’s change politics for good’
    ‘Lets have a REAL referendum on our EU membership’
    ‘No more broken promises’

    So he tapped into that populist mood, in (2008 to 2010) which felt that politics was full of deceit, broken promises and a general disgust in the politics on offer in 2010.

    So as my theory advocates, Clegg did very well in 2010 simply by ‘courting’ that mood of populism. Of course within weeks of supporting Clegg, the populist vote realised angrily that Clegg was just like the rest. And populism isn’t pacified by feeble excuses like,… ‘but we were in coalition.’

    And that is where the story gets really interesting, because populism is not just the default politics, but is brutal with any political entity that deceives, fails, or wilfully reneges on its populist promises. So as this theory suggests, that having been deceived by Clegg, a disgruntled populism had to wait until 2015 for pay back? And it did pay back.
    Oh,.. and populism scorned, has a very, very long memory.

  • I don’t agree that it required “20/20 hindsight” to realise the mistakes that were being made. In October last year my family had a get together to celebrate a happy event. My two brothers and their partners were there. They were all enthusiastic Remainers who went on every pro-Remain march etc but they shook their heads in disbelief at the Revoke policy saying it was anti-democratic and that Remain would comfortably win a second referendum. If the central policy of the party’s general election campaign was enough to dissuade them from supporting the party (they enthusiastically voted Lib Dem in the European elections) then it seemed obvious to me that it was a non-starter.

    And in terms of targeting I would note that I live in Wokingham. This was a high profile seat with a Conservative defector from the neighbouring constituency parachuted in as candidate. There was a large meeting where Ed Davey gave an overview of the party’s ambitions for the general election. He mentioned a target of 100 seats and – as I commented on this site at the time – I looked out the window fully expecting to see pigs floating gracefully by. Of course the Conservatives held Wokingham quite comfortably – but I have sometimes wondered what might have happened if the party had not presented itself as the militant wing of Remainerism.

  • The comments above are correct. Revoke was a bad policy and damaged the party. The counter arguments are flawed and Revoke had no justification.

    A referendum is a specific vote seeking a binary result on a single issue that requires a decision by the people. It makes a democratic decision and settles the matter. Parliament agreed to respect the result and act on it.

    It should not be compared with an election vote. This party was wrong to demand a second referendum because it disliked the result of the first. Another flawed argument is to claim that the party was exercising its democratic right. The purpose of the first referendum was to settle the matter. This party showed contempt for democracy by refusing to accept that the matter was settled by a democratic vote. The revoke policy was just a disgrace and a blight on the party.

    The correct response by the party would have been to accept the Brexit result gracefully. It is free to canvass to join the EU in the future and build a partnership with other parties of similar intention. In that way the party would at least have retained some integrity.

  • Forgive me if I have a final word on the Revoke issue. Paddy Ashdown was clear about respecting the referendum vote. He was a supporter of democracy and he was prepared to accept the result of the people even if it was not the result he wished for.

    Paddy Ashdown was highly respected as an honourable man. I don’t know the details of who approved or opposed the Revoke policy, but clearly the standards have slipped.

    We cannot have a party that shows contempt for the long standing conventions of our parliamentary democracy and the trust between parliament and the people that underpins our political process. This party has trashed that tradition and those involved in that terrible decision should not be represented in any future leadership.

  • I have no doubt that those many people (from both sides of the European Union referendum argument) who complain that having another referendum would be anti democratic would have won the day had we remained with the People’s Vote policy, and we would not have done much, if any, better.

    My view is that it was our (and other pro-Europeans’ complete failure to deal with that highly tenuous contention that stopped any follow through from the Euro election results earlier in the year. There were so many reasons why another referendum was highly democratic:
    1 The content of any agreement would be known, whereas in 2016 the detail was vague. This in turn allowed an argument to be had in purely emotional terms, which could always be lost because of a hard core of prejudice along with heavy media support among high circulation newspapers.

    2 Many of the Leave side’s arguments were dubious to say the least, and the more public discussion could be had the more some of that was exposed.

    3 The electorate was pitched to maximise support for Brexit and minimise it for the EU

    4 THe Leave side in particular cheated the rules, and no-one sanctioned them for it, by for instance declaring the result void.

    And these are just some of the more obvious reasons.

  • John Littler 21st May '20 - 6:13pm

    All this argument about process misses the core issue. Despite long detailed policy documents sufficient to build bonfires, few even LibDem activists can give much of an account now as to what this party stands for and sometimes what comes out is worthy of obscure academic publication, but would be a complete anathema to ordinary people.

    The gig economy has been promoted by a contributor in these pages, when it offers workers nothing more than often a phony flexibility based on earning nothing and risking the contract continuance. It offers the unscrupulous employer a means of covering any fleeting labour requirements at lowest possible cost while putting nothing back into the workforce or community in terms of stable income, rights, training , benefits, job security or the ability to put down roots and pay a mortgage.

    After the recession and austerity, followed by Corona and a looming deeper recession from Brexit, the last the public will be looking for is a more doctrinaire version of Tory extreme free markets policy. It is time the party dug back down into it’s SDP traditions.

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