Why it’s perception that matters


There has been plenty of analysis and commentary on the Liberal Democrats at the 2017 election. There were significant positives from some great seat gains.  But it is difficult not to be disappointed by the low vote share nationally.

Much has already been said as to why, which I won’t repeat here. I’d like to instead focus on three specific areas which pose – the third especially – a broader long-term question for the party.  Namely that of how the public perceive us, and what they think we are truly “for”.

The first point concerns increasing polarisation. Of course there is still a centre ground. However, it’s clear that an increasingly large number of people do support the Conservatives’ hard-Brexit, continued austerity and increasingly nationalistic swing to the right. Likewise there’s an increase in those in favour of Jeremy Corbyn’s brand of socialism and high public-service spending, funded by significant tax hikes to higher earners and UK businesses.

Secondly, it seems many more “moderate” voters voted against who they didn’t want in power – rather than for who they did. On doorsteps, many voters told me they were terrified of Corbyn at No.10, while others were furious at Teresa May’s government. Unfortunately, except in target seats where we stood a real chance, nationally this simply pushed more anti-Corbyn votes to the Tories, and anti-conservative votes to Labour.

But the third point is what I really want us to stop and think about. We all know long-standing moderate, pro EU conservative voters who were angry at the government. And we all know traditional Labour voters who are unhappy about Labour’s current direction. Many liked what the Lib Dems had to say – but ultimately most held their nose and voted as they always do, rather than switching.

There are many reasons why (including the “anti-voting” above). But I believe a large part of this is the historic, wider perception of what the Conservatives and Labour are “for”. For many decades, the Tories have been portrayed as “the party of business and entrepreneurs”, and the party who look after the older generations and keep the country safe. Those who follow politics can see that current Conservative actions and policies (e.g. leaving the single market, Dementia Tax, attitude to the Triple Lock) make that perception a nonsense. But across the country those ingrained perceptions remain.

The same is true for Labour. “The party for working people”. “Protecting workers rights”. “The party for the NHS and public services”.  The fact that Labour’s Brexit plans will be so damaging for those people and services, and that Lib Dem tax and spending plans were lauded as being fairer and more effective by experts, simply isn’t enough to shift those decades-old perceptions.

It’s good and right that we focus on the key policies of the day, and our Pro-European voice is much needed. We are rightly proud of our party’s beliefs and values.  But to rebuild longer-term success, we need a far larger core of voters who will vote Lib Dem election after election because of their perception of “what we are really for”.  We need to actively build that image and public perception.

* Greg Ardan joined the Liberal Democrats shortly after the 2015 General Election and is a member of Reigate Liberal Democrats, where he has stood as a local council candidate in 2016 and 2017.

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  • Russell Kent 3rd Jul '17 - 1:29pm

    Perception is all in politics. We are for the centre ground. As part of a coalition, we will either make sure Labour does not bankrupt the country and steal our grandchildren’s future or the Tories don’t make the UK a low tax haven for the rich and condemn generations to a minimum wage gig economy. We need to forcefully argue this on the doorstep, at events, at every opportunity., loudly and proudly proclaiming our position. We need to explain, with examples, to a young generation what has happened in the past when either the Tories or Labour are in absolute power. We need to show the example of Germany, The Netherlands when it comes to successful social and economic policies in a coalition government. If we don’t, we will forever be a small protest party, making noises but having no real power to make changes.

  • Peter Watson 3rd Jul '17 - 1:39pm

    @Russel Kent ” We are for the centre ground. As part of a coalition, we will either make sure …”
    But is it centrist to make sure none of those things happen or to make sure all of those things happen?
    The “centre ground” is often a meaningless term, or saturated with so many different meanings that it becomes one.

  • Thanks Greg. There’s a lot of realty interesting and thoughtful analyses appearing on this site at the moment, and this is another good example.
    I’ve been a member for over 30 years now, so I’ve seen good times as well as bad. I’ve also worked for 20 years in communications. And speaking from that joint perspective, to be honest, the party has /never/ really cracked this business of explaining to voters what we are for. I am very proud of being a Liberal, and I’m pretty sure I know what that means. Reading the preamble to the constitution still makes me feel quite gooey-eyed, even now. But communicating it in simple terms is a different matter. I’ve never been able to do it myself, and even if we could find a magic simple phrase that conveys it, let’s face it – message discipline has never been one of our strengths.

  • I fear at the moment however, we are still suffering from something that is going to be very difficult for us to erase, and that’s the toxic image from the coalition/Tuition Fees. I’ve thought about this a lot through the election and since. I know there are lots of other things that can be said to have hurt us, e.g. Tim didn’t have a great campaign (and I’m a fan of his, but he just didn’t). But I’m afraid the main problem is there are still too many voters out there who have voted for us in the past and who are inclined to support our policies etc, who still feel we need a bit more time in the dog house. People won’t express it in those terms, but its just a sense I have. So the answer? We just have to keep slogging away, doing the work at local level and yes absolutely developing a clear identity nationally. But I just think a lot of our natural voters out there need a bit more time before they’ll come back.

  • Jenny Barnes 3rd Jul '17 - 3:53pm

    There’s also a perception that the coalition was an opportunity to support Tory policies that we really agreed with, rather than a transactional arrangement whereby we got some things we wanted for the country as the price of keeping them in power. Proportional representation? and the tuition fee debacle is seen as part of that. There are different classes in this country – in terms of property and income relationships, rather than the rather meaningless a, b c1 c2 classification. Where do libdems stand on class relationships? Or are we just a none of the above sort of party?

  • @ TonyH and Jenny Barnes
    If we wanted to exorcise the coalition/tuition fees ghost why did we not say that we would stick to our 2010 pledge not to increase tuition fees and return them to the 2010 level. That would have put clear blue water between us and the Tories and given us the opportunity to disclaim some of the things done in coalition that were beyond our control.
    By sticking with current tuition fee levels we have effectively endorsed them and we deserve all the criticism.

  • Andrew McCaig 3rd Jul '17 - 4:54pm

    Hear hear!

  • This analysis sits largely in agreement with the post election ashcroft poll.

    Both with regards to tactical voting but also why others voted for Labour or Tory (ie for the NHS).


  • Sometimes reading these articles and comments is about as much of a turn-on as a wet weekend in Bognor Regis with Theresa May .

    @TonyH – thanks for raising the constitution. I am new to the party and that was a genuinely inspiring read. I want to hear more stuff like that and less BS about being middle of the road.

    I joined the party because of what I thought it stood for, and cast my postal vote before Corbyn (or, more likely, Momentum) really got into full swing. I am in a safely non-Tory seat so it didn’t matter, but I did have a twinge of regret at not being able to vote Labour later in the campaign.

    Pragmatism is so 2014. Who cares if we [annoy] wealthy people in Suffolk about inheritance tax, or ex-dockworkers in Sunderland about immigration? Stand FOR something, fight FOR something. They will follow or not but that doesn’t really matter.

  • Thanks all for comments – good to see some healthy discussion.

    The point about genuinely taking the “centre ground” of politics, and shouting that from the rooftops, is an interesting one. Even before the debate as to whether we “are” a centrist party (I would say I am a centrist myself, but we aren’t all), the problem with that is that a lot of people simply don’t care.

    Those who are interested in politics and follow it will, yes.

    But many who aren’t into politics just don’t think about “left” and “right”. Many I think vote for whoever their gut feel says, or what feels most comfortable. Which is where those perception pieces come in – often subliminally I think. People who aren’t particularly politically interested are more likely to vote for the party they associate (rightly or wrongly) with being strong, or compassionate, or pro business, or pro education, or pro workers rights etc that one they associate as being in the “left”, “right” or “centre”.

    For what it’s worth, I think we should really build ourselves as the party of business at the moment (as well as other things) – as I think the Tories have utterly lost their ability to claim that label. BUT at the moment, if you ask 2,000 random people which party is best for UK business, I can guarantee the majority will say the Tories – despite their current actions and policies. If we work hard, I think we can gain that mantle. But it will be a long hard slog

  • A Social Liberal 3rd Jul '17 - 10:03pm

    Greg said
    “we should build ourselves as the party of business”.

    No, we should be the party for everyone – those who have and those who have not, business and workers. In all we do we should keep in mind our liberal principles and not sacrifice them for the leavings of those with whom we do deals.

    And this brings me to my rebuttal of your points two and three. The voters didn’t choose to support the Lib Dems because they are still angry at our abandoning our principles and voting for some very very nasty laws. From TPim to raises in VAT to secret courts we allowed illiberal policies to be enacted and it is this – our selling out – which has informed the electorates distaste for our party.

    We will not see significant progress in our journey back to where we were for a generation. More if we once again sell out our liberal principles and move back to the centre right

  • Little Jackie Paper 3rd Jul '17 - 11:06pm

    ‘Those who follow politics can see that current Conservative actions and policies (e.g. leaving the single market, Dementia Tax, attitude to the Triple Lock)’

    Surely politics is not pickled in aspic? The triple lock was barely justifiable in 2010 – it’s nonsense now. On social care funding, there is a reasonable question to ask about house price wealth. I think you are assuming too little change here. Parties, all of them, aren’t fixed and society, views, politics, the class system and economics change.

    Interesting article though, even if I don’t agree with all of it.

  • Jenny Barnes 4th Jul '17 - 9:31am

    “If we wanted to exorcise the coalition/tuition fees ghost why did we not say that we would stick to our 2010 pledge not to increase tuition fees and return them to the 2010 level. ”

    Or get rid of them altogether, and pay for university education out of general taxation. Effectively the tuition fee loan scheme is a weird slightly regressive graduate tax – so just get rid of it. And let’s have universities that are actually about knowledge, not tickets for jobs.

  • Robin Grayson 4th Jul '17 - 9:35am

    The danger of being middle of the road, as any hedgehog will tell you, is that you get squeezed.

  • @BP I’m really pleased to have introduced you to the preamble to our constitution. It really is something that every member should read and know about (just the preamble, not the whole thing!). Sadly it doesn’t quite fit on a bumper sticker, but not everything can. 🙂 Spread the word. http://www.libdems.org.uk/constitution

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