Why Lib Dems should be proud

At Spring Conference last March, Tim Farron set the bar high – calling on us to replace Labour as the official opposition after the next election. With this in mind, I understand why some Lib Dem members may be angered by our performance last Thursday. It’s true that our national campaign failed to get off the ground, and that it added little value to our hard-fought local victories. But despite this, I think the party should be proud of how we fought hard, targeted well, and avoided a disastrous result.

We were never going to become a national force again on the back of a menu of carefully thought through policies on health, education and drug reform. With our Parliamentary team so diminished, we had no choice but to pile our chips against one defining issue, and hope that it would catch on. I think that we were right to make this cause our opposition to Brexit. Brexit is the biggest issue facing our country, our position on it is unique, and it is completely in line with our values as a party. It’s just unfortunate that when this snap election was called, opposing Brexit was not the main issue on voters’ minds. It’s been a year since the referendum, and leaving the EU hasn’t really affected most people’s lives at all. Compared with austerity and the decline of our public services, Brexit seemed like a side show. Corbyn’s vision was much more in line with the public mood – and he gained momentum at our expense.

It’s easy to blame the Lib Dems for not getting Brexit higher on people’s priority list, but there was only so much we could do. Parties with 9 MPs don’t get to shape the agenda. They can only respond to it, and capitalise on the public mood as much as possible to regain popularity. With the effects of Brexit still not being felt, it’s no surprise that most people were primarily concerned with other matters. 

Under those circumstances, I think we should be proud of how we responded. We set up camp in our winnable seats, and campaigned relentlessly in them. Members complain after every election that we didn’t target properly, but that’s just not true in this case. Our party grew by 3 MPs (and so nearly by 7) despite our national vote share going down. That is evidence of proper targeting and hard work, and we should be proud of it.

We’ve come through this election stronger rather than weaker – which is quite miraculous given how much we were sidelined by the circumstances of the election. Brexit wasn’t on most voters’ minds in this election, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t become relevant again. Brexit is the biggest issue to face this country in a generation, and it will rise up the electorate’s priority list once its effects are felt in the next few years. We need to stick to our guns, and maintain our brand as the Pro-European party in British politics. It will pay off.

* Ben has been a member of the party since the 2015 election, and used to work for the Sutton Lib Dems as a volunteer organiser. He now works for a charity focusing on poverty and inequality in London, and is running to be a Councillor in May. He is particularly interested in inequality, mental health, political reform and criminal justice.

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22 Comments

  • David Becket 14th Jun '17 - 9:07am

    There is little to be proud of. Nationally we fought a bad campaign, our main message was not welcome, we spent too much time attacking others, we did not spend enough time in promoting a Lib Dem vision. We missed an open door, at the start of the campaign were nowhere, but it was obvious that the more the public saw of May the more they realised she was not up to the job. We let Labour through that open door, with their unaffordable promises, and we slipped back. With the confidence of the revived Labour Party it will be very difficult to get that door to open again. It might turn out that Brexit is so bad that people will change their mind, but at the moment project fear telling them how bad it will be and offering a second referendum they do not want will get us nowhere. By all means stay a pro Europe party, but concentrate on the many national issues that are causing the disillusion.

  • John Chandler 14th Jun '17 - 9:10am

    Agree with Andrew. The post-election situation has highlighted what a disaster the Brexit negotiations are shaping up to be, and more people are questioning what will actually happen to the UK. I see Labour voters who back Remain suddenly realising they were duped (should’ve read the manifesto), and moderate Conservatives concerned about deals with the DUP.

    There’s a window of opportunity opening up. We were ahead of the game during the election, and now I see elements of the two main parties anxiously trying to navigate themselves to say the same message and survive the fallout from Brexit. We need people to know we knew the problems all along and called it out before the others.

  • John Chandler 14th Jun '17 - 9:13am

    Also, turnout was 68.7%: that’s a potential 31.3% of registered voters who currently feel so disillusioned, so disenfranchised, so fed up with current politics they didn’t even bother to spoil their ballot paper. How do we attract them to the cause?

  • Very good post, and I agree with most of the comments. With the Leave campaign facing possible prosecution for electoral fraud, and journalists describing Brexit as a miscarriage of justice, history will not judge it favourably. Clear and unambiguous opposition is the Lib Dem’s Unique Selling Point, which will be vindicated in the end.

  • John King: you really should watch Tim’s comments on Sky News:

    https://twitter.com/SkyNews/status/874653453871570944/video/1

    Opposition to brexit WAS our USP: Our Glorious Leader is busy throwing it away. He even used the “will of the people” line that brexiteers come out with. We are up the proverbial creek if he carries on like this. I hope someone supplies him a paddle forthwith…

  • Richard Underhill 14th Jun '17 - 9:35am

    I went to Eastbourne, but was sad at the loss of Richmond Park.
    David Cameron, speaking in Poland, has said that Theresa May should consult other parties on Brexit. According to yesterday’s Daily Torygraph she is already doing so with Labour. Labour managed to conceal their own divisions constituencies which voted to leave or remain by focussing on jobs. That puts them in line with business owners who are lobbying David Davis but are not getting substantive replies.
    Brexit and the economy are the same issue. Whenever anyone says the economy should be the main issue they are calling for a soft Brexit. Keep the pressure up, this issue will run and run.

  • Hopefully Tim will realise this, Jennie. No point in sitting on the fence and trying to have it both ways, you’ve got to nail your colours to the mast. On Ben’s point about Brexit not yet impacting people’s daily lives, the same is true of climate change. Yet we still managed to get the Paris agreement. Responsible people take the future seriously.

  • We have been told time and again by European politicians (and by some British experts) that the best “deal” is what we have now. I believe people are starting to change their minds, and if we do it early enough, the “let’s get on with it” frame of mind – which really acknowledges “it” to be not a really desirable thing – could be changed to a “if we’re not careful we have a disaster on our hands” frame. We are the only national party, along with the Greens, to argue this, so it is our responsibility so to do. By the way, I hope we don’t hear the thoughts of Vince Cable behind Tim Farron’s comments last night?

  • John: indeed. Hopefully this is just a blip.

  • Michael Tooth 14th Jun '17 - 10:04am

    While it is absolutely necessary to review a campaign and learn from it what we can, it is also worth noting that we were largely excluded from presenting ourselves in the media; until there was something negative to be said. The debates were the main platform we were granted and even they were diminished by the attendance records of the main two party leaders, where our opportunity to convert marginal voters was reduced. If you don’t think that would have made much of a difference ask Sarah Olney in Richmond Park who fought a valiant campaign to be pipped by a ridiculously small margin.

    We are a growing party, the largest we have ever been in terms of members, and while the election was maybe not as positive as we would have liked, we have an amazing platform going forward to rejuvenate British Politics. We have a number of very strong candidates who didn’t quite get the votes they deserve, and so I propose that rather than turn in on ourselves and struggle as the Labour Party have for the past two years, turn these candidates loose and promote them within their local communities so that their constituents see what a good job when they aren’t even an MP.

    At the first sign of trouble a new election will be fought, lets make sure we are truly ready for this next one and raise the profile of our best candidates prior to this happening.

  • @Richard Underhill
    ‘Brexit and the economy are the same issue.’
    Exactly the same mistake the Remain side made in the referendum. To me and many others, Brexit is about more than this.

  • Sue Sutherland 14th Jun '17 - 12:21pm

    Thank you for your measured and encouraging post Ben. I have been concerned that some of our newer members might give up in despair after the result reading some of the comments on LDV and we desperately need them to carry on fighting.
    I think if people know us at all they know we are pro Remain as a party, although some members disagree, so we could just stay quiet on Brexit for a bit, although I think Tim was right to call for an all party approach on it. People are beginning to realise that Brexit means less food for their money and inflation always causes problems for people struggling to make ends meet. We need to be in a strong position with alternative solutions to austerity when the penny finally drops.
    Our national politics is moving towards extreme polarisation between the two main political parties. The Tories are looking increasingly like Trump and Labour have been taken over by Marxists, responsible for Nick Clegg’s defeat, who are going to try to consolidate their position in the party against the Blairites. Of course we were going to get squeezed in this situation but we have increased the number of our MPs by 3 due to successful targeting.
    In this situation we need to consolidate, keep communicating with the membership and develop policies which address the social problems which austerity has caused. We will then be in a position to make a comeback for the general election after the inevitable horrors of Brexit.
    In the meantime we should start doorstep campaigning and social media campaigning as soon as possible in seats where we have the MP or are in second place. Momentum were given training from Bernie Sanders campaigners and used their large numbers to convert people on the doorstep. We don’t have those large numbers but if we start fairly soon and target well we can do it. Oh yes we can.

  • First of let me say that I did not vote for the Libdems in the election last week,although I have voted for you in the recent past.

    The Brexit vote and the Libdem response to the result

    This is how it came across to me and may I say to many others I know.

    Libdems ….Voted in parliament to support a referendum on UK membership of the EU,and to accept the result
    Response to the result…We accept the result inspite of the very narrow vote in favour of leaving the EU,BUT,we did not like the result and we think you have voted the wrong way and we would like another referendum,and for you to go back and think again,and next time try and vote the right way,namely to remain a full member of the EU.
    I need to say that I was a remain voter narrowly, on balance I thought the UK’s best interest was to remain a full member of the EU.
    And yes ,I do admire your party’s stance regarding full membership ,but I do not think it came across well with electorate,indeed it seemed your sole intent was to tell people that they did not know what they had voted for and that they were idiots to vote the way they did.
    I do understand that the Libdems are the party of Europe,but I think if you insist on going against the people you will suffer,or at least have difficulty in regaining your lost MP’s.
    I wish you the best of luck in future elections,we do need the voice of the Libdems

  • paul barker 14th Jun '17 - 1:06pm

    An excellent piece. What we need to now is sharpen up our opposition to Brexit, that is not incompatable with joining with others to fight fot a Soft Brexit but its hard to do both. Where we have a choice of sound-bites then our Anti-Brexit position has to come first. Can someone with Tims Ear make sure that he gets the message ?
    Voters need to make an automatic association : LibDems =Anti-Brexit.

  • Joseph Bourke 14th Jun '17 - 1:22pm

    Good Post Ben and the right conclusion in my opinion. Our position on Brexit was distinctive and clear and should remain so.

    As Sue Sutherland comments “Our national politics is moving towards extreme polarisation between the two main political parties.” This is most evident in economic policy with Tories still pursuing aggressive corporate tax cutting as a means of stimulating the economy and Labour ignoring Jim Callaghan’s prescient warning from the 1970s. The then labour Prime Minister said:

    “We used to think you could spend your way out of recession and increase employment by boosting government spending. I tell you, in all candour that that option no longer exists. And in so far as it ever did exist, it only worked on each occasion… by injecting a bigger dose of inflation into the economy, followed by a higher level of unemployment as the next step…”

    Responsible government requires balancing the sometimes conflicting aims of adequately financing high quality public services while minimising the deadweight effect of high levels of taxation on economic growth.. Post-Brexit policy development to address the social problems arising from the post-recession austerity measures needs to strike this balance in a careful and measured way. Any other approach only ends up hurting the very people you are trying to help.

  • Thanks for nice comments everyone 🙂 To reiterate, I am not thrilled that we only have 12 MPs, and have much bigger ambitions for the party than that! I just think that our tepid performance in this election was for reasons we couldn’t entirely control. Of course the campaign wasn’t perfect, but there were much bigger forces at play than that. Onwards and upwards!

  • Lorenzo Cherin 14th Jun '17 - 2:44pm

    Ben is basically saying we need to listen and learn and accept Brexit but continue to say we would not be for Brexit were it not for the fact the public voted for it!!!

    Most are saying as usual, we are nothing but opposition to Brexit.

    For the first time in over a decade , as an ex of many years, member of Labour, and way to the right of where they are at often, I feel Labour are offering more to the electorate and , are in the mainstream on the direction of the public mood, to concentrate on our own sense of community , in this country , against cuts , for togetherness, regardless of the EU or in it !

    Maybe I am on the right wing of the Corbynistas …?!

  • Dave Orbison 14th Jun '17 - 2:45pm

    I think anyone who plays a part in our democracy, apart from those that stoke hate, should be proud.

    That said this was a bad result for the LibDems. The party had a distinctive position on Europe and faced a divided Labour Party who had a leader who had been unmercifully vilified and ridiculed by the media for two years.

    Despite this the share of the vote fell. The LibDem leadership have wasted the last 2 years. They have failed to offer a distinctive message or offer a cohesive set of polices.

    People here are blaming Labour adopting popular policies and a low media profile. Are we really saying this came as a shock? Do you think this will be different next time around? By the way when Tim Farron had his moment under the spotlight he ruined his lines.

    I would like there to be a strong third party in the U.K. But on this showing it will be a long time before it is the LibDems.

  • Distraught about Tim’s resignation. If we are vapid on EU, and choose podgeball Davey, for sure I am heading out of the party!

  • Galen Milne 16th Jun '17 - 7:54am

    The Leader always carries the can. But who are the people behind the scenes deciding what the campaign emphasis will be. They need to stand up and be counted or we will continue to get our messagIng wrong wrong wrong. This was an election called on Brexit but in Scotland we were following the Torags into the opposition to an IndyRef2. The rest is history, certainly in Gordon and WAK.

  • Simon Banks 16th Jun '17 - 3:59pm

    I really can’t comment on the national campaign because I didn’t follow it. I wasn’t a candidate or an agent and the role I did have consisted of helping with a small amount of development activity in selected bits of our two non-target seats and going and encouraging others to go to target seats.

    We do need to explain why there was no boost at all in the polls from our low start: older members and even those around in the Kennedy years will recall we regularly used to start low, starved of media attention, and then pick up. However, our targeting was sensible and HQ definitely had a much better idea of what was actually happening than in 2015. The depressing things are that our overall poll rating ended up just where it was in 2015 despite all the new activists and a clearer sense of who we were; and that in many seats we held not long ago, we’re now in third place or otherwise so far behind we don’t look like contenders. I agree the main distinctive message had to be on Brexit, but as it became plain the NHS and social care were very big vote-determining issues, we may have been slow to adapt.

    As for the anti-Brexit versus soft, kind Brexit argument, there is no inconsistency in continuing to argue for membership of the EU while trying to knock out the worst aspects of a hard Brexit from what actually happens. The main thing is to continue to be seen as the most pro-EU party – but to remember, as I said when the election was called, that elections hardly ever stay on one issue. Think February 1974.

    Perhaps the most important thing long-term is to get better at showing how our policies link into a consistent approach (if they do, of course).

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