There is an old political saying, ‘a campaign isn’t a fight over two answers of the same question, but it’s a fight over the question itself’. This is the idea that most voters do not sit and listen carefully to a debate to decide who to vote for. They have already got an understanding of where political parties stand on issues, formed from narratives that can stretch back years and years. So when it comes to the campaign, all parties try and do is increase the importance of their issues by ensuring the campaign conversation is about them. We saw this in action during the 2019 General Election, where the Conservatives successfully tried to make the election about Brexit and Labour failed to make it about protecting the NHS.
This strategy has also been adopted outside a formal campaign. With poll numbers continuing to drop for the Conservatives and Boris Johnson, the party has decided to bring Brexit back into the national conversation. Even though at the start of the year, they claimed Brexit is done and didn’t need to be mentioned again, they created a tension with the EU to bring it back into news cycle.
This has proven effective, as a recent YouGov poll dated 16th September had Brexit rising in importance to the British public at 51%, though still behind health and the economy at 53%. But unlike 2019, Labour now, have a much smarter response to the issue, with their ‘Get a deal done’ message and coupled with a pivoting back to the government’s weak handling of the COVID crisis.
Aside from this, the other parties are also trying to pivot the conversation to their own key questions. The SNP as always are turning the conversation back to Scottish independence and the Greens are focusing on the climate emergency, each score highly on these issues and will do well to steer the public conversation towards them.
And then we come to the Lib Dems, who right now have seemed to have lost their questions.
During the 2019 general election we fell for the Conservative trap and staked the campaign on Brexit. The party’s mistake is understandable. We had had a boost in the polls and a string of local/European election victories based on our Brexit opposition. But the Liberal Democrats severely misjudged the mood of the nation, and after being forced to change tact mid-election, there wasn’t any place for us to go. Even now the party has lurched from issue to issue, reacting to other party’s narrative whilst we still bring up Brexit. Can it be any surprise we are languishing at 6% in the polls. We need to find our questions.
This obviously needs to debate throughout the party, and its well above my paygrade to decide. Yet if I could choose our safe grounds, I would look into our past and the core issues that we have always scored highly on. First, it would be civil liberties and personal freedoms. We are seeing the authoritarian nature coming out in this Conservative government, with attacks on ‘activist lawyers’ and being asking to snoop on our neighbours who breaking COVID rules. This all goes against our personal freedom and goes to the core of who we are as a party. Second, I think the economy is up for grabs. With the United Kingdom heading towards a massive recession, our reasonable position of allowing free markets to run as long they act ethically, and unwedded to big nationalised industries, we are the same ideological position as most of the country. These two was and should always be our safe-grounds to pivot too.
Whatever our focus points become; I believe the most important thing we should do as a party is to be disciplined in their use. From the party machine to Twitter activists, we need to ensure we no longer play the other parties’ games. Too much of is at stake if we are to protect Liberal Britain.
Stuart is a columnist for Liberal Base and Tweets @stueybourne.