A few years ago, I had the great honour of chairing a fringe meeting, put on by the Social Democrat Group at a Lib Dem federal Conference. The event asked, ‘How does the Centre Left reach the Left Behind’?
It was an interesting discussion with a great panel, which included former Labour cabinet minister John Denham and former Coalition minister Norman Lamb. Something John Denham said has stuck with me: ‘we mustn’t patronise the communities who think and vote differently to us.’
I am paraphrasing here, but I think it absolutely central the Liberal Democrats face up to this reality, especially after last year’s general election and its recent internal review.
That general election campaign was one fought for Lib Dem members, and not the larger population. The ‘Revoke’ policy played very well in the party, but absolutely catastrophically beyond the conference walls.
We patted Leave voters on the head and said ‘you didn’t really know what you were voting for. We know better than you, will ignore your vote and overturn it. Now, please, go and vote for us.’
Funnily enough, our voteres didn’t take very kindly to that; and gave their vote to others.
There should have been a way to retain our pro-European principles without having alienated pretty much all Leave voters and a good number of Remainers too.
In short, we’d become the mirror opposite of the Brexit Party or UKIP: Pro European zealots.
You know what some people called us? The Illiberal Undemocrats.
How did we end up in such a position?
When did we stop listening to ordinary voters? What of their hopes and fears? What of voters in the North and the Midlands; in Scotland and Wales? What of our villages and towns and rural Britain? When did we become the party of the urbane professional, of the university city, of London and the South?
We chose not to address a country where many work hard, but often struggle to put food on the table. We ignored people who are patriotic, hold traditional values and are open minded and willing to help others in need.
We did not engage with the industrial heartlands that built this great nation, but were then left to rot and told to just ‘get used to it’ when globalisation saw the factories shut down and left ghost towns in their wake.
I fear we Liberal Democrats have focused increasingly on a narrower pool of potential voters who believe exactly as we do on a range of preordained issues. This is why our party consistently sits in the low single digits of opinion polls.
We Social Democrats believe it’s time to re-read the Liberal Democrats constitution; fused, as it is, with Liberal and Social Democratic foundations. Of course we should champion the individual’s right to freedom, but let’s celebrate a community and a state which never forgets those most in need. We do after all, believe in ‘society’.
We want the Liberal Democrats to re-focus on the people’s priorities. These are health, education, the economy, transport and law and order. We should help enable our communities to thrive with hubs, libraries, post offices, children’s centres, and effective youth services.
We want Liberal Democrat MPs and spokespeople to speak with the same level of enthusiasm on these issues and to these communities as they do to doctors and teachers in London and the South West.
We are a national party or we are nothing.
We need to wake up to that reality and act to change it, before it’s too late.
Mathew Hulbert is co-founder of Liberal Democrats for the Heart of England. He is also a Liberal Democrat parish councillor for Barwell, Leicestershire and an executive member of the Social Democrat Group. He Tweets @HulbertMathew.