The Liberal Democrats do not get a great deal of coverage these days. On the rare occasion they do it tends to be a hatchet piece about how far they have fallen and how lacking in relevance they have become. As such, it was interesting to read Professor Laura McAllister's write up on their fortunes and challenges. There is a kindness running though her writing on the topic but she still poses the essential tough questions as to what the party must do to return to electoral relevance. I thought I might have a go at answering some of the points Professor McAllister has raised.
Saturday, 30 January 2021
A path for the Lib Dems
Before addressing the future, it is necessary to consider the state of the party today. In many ways, the party is well placed for the future because it has a clean slate in terms of policy. Opposition to Brexit dominated all else in the Lib Dem campaigns since 2016. That issue is, in terms of a campaign issue at least, now closed. The Lib Dems have always been policy geeks and that lively discussion of solutions continues but it has not yet developed into a coherent narrative that other members are rowing in behind. A further challenge to the policy debate is that the party has narrowed in terms of the membership. One wonders if a Jeremy Browne or a David Laws would see the Lib Dems as the party for them if they were entering politics today. Layla Moran's leadership pitch was explicitly to the political left and while unsuccessful it did put down a marker as to where leading figures in the party regarded the positioning of the Lib Dems. This leads to the point that Prof McAllister raises regarding the lack of distinct identity if the Lib Dems are viewed as a mirror image of Keir Starmer's Labour Party. If that is all the party is then it will simply become the alternative vehicle to try and defeat the Tories in seats like Cheltenham and Bath rather an have a purpose in itself. The narrowing of the membership perspective is not simply a right versus left issue. The great liberal tradition of supporting the rights of the individual has come under pressure from those who'd prefer to view society as a series of identity groups.
To many people the problem for the Lib Dems is summed up with two words 'the coalition'. I agree with Prof McAllister that this is insufficient and I really welcome her inclusion of the phrase "the raison d’etre of parties is to be in government". I have heard Lib Dems wish they had not go into coalition as if they were happier in opposition with next-to-no power. What is the point of such an attitude? Any party who fields 50%+1 candidates in an election is in it to win it, no matter how unlikely that outcome may be. This is why, understandable as the post-election result mockery may have been, Jo Swinson was absolutely right to say she was seeking to become Prime Minister.
The mess over tuition fees was not a failure of the coalition, the flaw was in making an unsustainable election pledge prior to the 2010 election. I continually saw ways in which the Lib Dems had a positive contribution in terms of policy direction. For the most part, these dovetailed with the form of big tent Conservatism that David Cameron was seeking to pursue. Where the Lib Dems did get it wrong in the UK coalition was in the roles they took. This was especially the case with Nick Clegg. His focus on electoral reform in his portfolio was a choice to play to the Lib Dem membership rather than to govern for the country. Had he insisted, and he was in a strong position to insist, that he became Home Secretary he could have demonstrated that the Lib Dems could govern for the country beyond their party's own specific hot topic issues. Nonetheless, Lib Dems should look back on their time in UK Government with pride. Governing is tough. Governing in a coalition involves give and take and uncomfortable compromise, but it is worth it for the change you can make while in office.
Of course, the Lib Dems are also in coalition in Wales. Kirsty Williams' role in Welsh Government has been widely applauded. She is a very effective minister. Where the difficulty occurs is what is the role of the Welsh Lib Dems while Kirsty is in office? There does not appear to be clarity as to whether the party is in a position to speak out against Welsh Government policy where it disagrees. This awkwardness feeds into the narrative that there is little to distinguish the Lib Dems from Labour. I recall that Tim Farron did not show similar restraint when he felt the need to criticise the Conservatives within the UK coalition.
Neither left nor right
Let us look then to the future, what should the Lib Dems do next. In the first instance, they should stop worrying about their place on the political spectrum and instead rise above this outdated gauge of policy position. There should be a natural base for expanding their support among liberal and business-minded Conservative voters who are uncomfortable with the Tory parties ideological shift in the post-Cameron years. At present there is little sign of traction with these voters, but that should not be a surprise if the Lib Dems are seen as a mirror of a Labour Party such voters were never likely to back short of the unimaginable return of a Tony Blair like figure to the Labour helm. I am not saying that the party must pivot to being Tory-lite, but it should consider how each policy will be received by this sizable section of the electorate. There is nothing wrong with being a bit bolder in stating support for economic growth.
The Lib Dems took a principled stand in opposing Brexit, but in doing do they pitched themselves as opposed the outcome of largest democratic vote in British history. There is no way that is not awkward for a party called Liberal Democrats. Thus, they should recommit to a major reform programme prioritising democratic reform, and not just the traditional calls for proportional representation but support for directly elected mayoralties and where the role can not be combined with the mayoralty, police commissioners. There is nothing liberal or democratic about systems remote from the people making decisions without direct accountability. Indeed, that was one of the big reasons that the EU was rejected itself. This is not to advocate for more single issue referendums. Instead, it is to say that the people should be able to make an informed judgement on the performance of elected officials at election time based on their performance across their entire remit and have the power to boot them out if they say fit. There is also a role for citizen's assemblies. These have performed well when established and can help reduce polarisation. They are however not going to be a doorstep voter winning pledge.
A sense of place
One of the big internal debates of the Lib Dems at the moment is what should the party position be regarding future EU membership. There is no doubt there is a vast majority who favour re-joining the EU, the question is how stridently that point is made in the short-term. I think the answer to that question lies in how the party responds to the issues the motivated the vote to leave the EU. I've discussed the need for renewed democratic accountability above, but there is also a need to reflect on how liberal values can support a sense of place.
In a way, the unrelenting nature of a local Lib Dem campaign should help identify and provide some of these answers but it will not be easy to gel every local concern with a coherent national policy. Take the matter of planning and housing as an example. Nationally, we need to dramatically increase housing supply, both social and private. Locally, opposition to this becomes a very easy campaign as people are concerned about the changing nature of their town or village. To date, no political party has found a solution for this conflict, but surely the small steps taken to allow residents a greater say in the style and infrastructure associated with new development is a sign of the direction we need to travel to make this work. If a planning system is designed to be confrontational, the outcome will be minimum standard builds forced through because of necessity against local objections. Neither new or existing residents gain in such circumstances and while there might be a financial benefit to the developer for a 'boxes in fields' approach, the delays over the system of objection and appeal process are not in their interests either. Everyone loses. Planning might seem far removed from the issue of re-joining the EU, my argument would be that it is one of a number of place-related topics that should not be.
The future of work
Quite a few Lib Dems are very enthusiastic about universal basic income (UBI). There is though a risk that those three letters are presented as if they are a silver bullet solution. To start with there are numerous forms of UBI. Furthermore, there is the difficult balance of how such a system could be introduced without an invasive expansion of the state. That said, if we take UBI as the start of a discussion rather than the end point there is a logic to the proposal if it is rooted in a wider policy approach to the future of work. While the larger parties have to tailor their messages to the electoral cycle audience, the Lib Dems are able to look longer-term. The aim should be less to advocate UBI as a welfare proposal, and more a matter of identifying how both our economy and welfare state will operate in an era of rapidly growing automation and artificial general intelligence.
If there is a subject matter on which the Lib Dems have a real scope for leadership it is environmentalism and tackling climate change. The Green Party have a blinkered view of this and can only see it from a hard-line anti-capitalist stance. The Lib Dems are freer to offer pragmatic measures that grow the economy in a sustainable manner harnessing new technology and innovations that only the market will bring. However, the environmental movement can be its own worst enemy with its choice of discourse. "Global warming, climate change and climate emergency" all present an issue vastly beyond the scope of the individual to influence. In the worst instances this has led to fatalism. Of course, in reality every individual has their part to play but let us make the narrative about how we make environmental improvements on a human-scale basis which in turn tackles the global challenge. The society established to preserve the village green is part of this solution just as much as a Fridays for Future protest, though one could argue the objectives of the former are rather clearer. If the Lib Dems allow their environmentalism to be defined by cheering on the more eccentric actions of Extinction Rebellion, then they are missing a huge audience and a real opportunity to bring the people together in response to the climate challenge.
If there was ever territory which should be a natural issue for the Lib Dems it is that of championing liberalism in cyber space. Forgive my generalisation but the outlook of many in the tech sector would seem to be pro-market and socially liberal. Yet, at the same time there is a threat to liberalism posed by the widespread trawling of personal data by tech giants. This is surely territory made for the Lib Dems to establish policies that support tech innovation while maintaining personal ownership of data.
Labour are trying to shake off the baggage of hard-left Corbynism, and still have some way to go. The Conservatives have become uncharacteristically ideological in recent years. In the short-term this has been successful, but it is hard to see it ending well long-term. And so if people say of the Lib Dems that there is no reason to vote for them at the moment - that might not be the worst scenario as long as it is only a brief passing phase. It was natural that the party would have to rebuild and reinvent itself after Brexit. Above, I've made my pitch as to what that reinvention could look like, others will have their own views. Indeed, I think among members there are plenty of ideas. The battle for every party is to reinterpret their eternal values in a modern context. I think there is a little nervousness for the policy innovators in the Lib Dems to put their head above the parapet after recent election results, but they should seize this moment and shape what liberal democracy can be in 2021 and beyond.