On the 27th August, the new Lib Dem leader will be announced. They’ll face a major challenge. With a poll rating that is often as little as 6% and only eleven MPs, we will continue to receive little media coverage.
In the short term, this is unlikely to change. The media coverage of UK politics is dominated by two stories: the pandemic, and Keir Starmer’s efforts to make the Labour party more electable.
By the end of the year, the Brexit issue will, for a while, become a major issue. Some Lib Dems hope this provide an opportunity for the party to take centre-stage again. I think this is very unlikely. Last December, we received nine MPs and 11.6% of the vote. But that was at a time when Remain was seen to be a viable option and the Labour leadership was widely believed to be unreliable on the issue, and when election rules ensured we received media coverage. That won’t be true this December.
Until we slowly regain our credibility by winning by-elections, and achieving creditable results in the local elections next May and in following years, we will continue to be ignored, almost no matter what our leadership do.
However, we should not despair. We have been here before. From 1988, after the traumas of merger, our poll rating was abysmal. In the 1989 European elections, we received only 5.9% of the vote, coming fourth behind the Greens. It wasn’t until July 1990, that we broke 10% in the polls.
The first thing the new leader needs to lower expectations of a quick recovery. They might do well to repeat Paddy Ashdown’s statement that we should ignore not just short-term bad news, but also short-term good news. We have the strength on the ground in many parts of the country to make gains in local elections, and provide the foundation for gains at the next election. But this will take time. The danger of raising expectation too high too early is that failing to meet them will damage morale, and damage the credibility of the leader.
Second, the new leader must pivot away from talking to the membership, and put far more energy into to listening to the wider public, and especially the coalition of voters in our target seats who we need to win over, in order to make gains at the next election.
All of us, as members, have causes we passionately believe in, but which have no resonance with most voters. For myself, probably the most important issue in politics is electoral reform, in order to mend our political system. But if we talk about that to the general public, the reaction of most is negative. Some will simply think, if they care so much about that issue, the things I care about are probably very low on their priority list. Others think that all we are interested in is the selfish political advantage we could gain from a new electoral system. I certainly want it to be in our manifesto. But if we talk about it in the few media opportunities we get, we’ll just alienate voters.
This isn’t just a problem with electoral reform, it’s true of a myriad of other issues. As the party’s 2019 Election Review said: “we have become very good at talking to ourselves about the things we like to talk about. This has come at the expense of constantly thinking about what ‘normal’ people care about and building everything we do around trying to help them.”
We are all tempted to think that the issues we care most about are exceptions, which the wider public do care about. We might point to polls which show a majority in favour of electoral reform, while glossing over the fact that the issue is way, way down the priority list of the voting public. The same is true of many of the issues Lib Dems most passionately care about.
If our new leader is to be successful in reconnecting with the wider public, they need to talk less about issues we passionately care about. That doesn’t mean these issues won’t be in our manifesto. But we may not hear them mentioned in an election broadcast.
Third, our leader needs to give a much lower priority to listening to social media. While many voters do have social media accounts, it’s a tiny minority who actively engage in political debate there. In a leadership election during a pandemic, when in-person meetings are impossible, it’s inevitable that the internet and social media will be a major platform for the party’s internal debate. But if they want to reach out to the wider voting public, our leader mustn’t allow their impression of the mood of the public to be based on the relatively small number who spend many hours discussing politics online.
Finally, in order to increase our number of seats at the next election, we need to increase the number of seats where we have the largest number of votes. That is far more important than raising our total vote in the election. If gaining voting share alienates part of the electoral coalition we need to take seats off the Tories, we will end up with fewer seats. And we have a moral imperative to take those seats. If we campaign well over the next four years, it’s possible we could take a significant number of seats off the Tories, even on a relatively low vote (as happened in 1997). If we can do that, we may be able to end Tory rule. If not, it’s almost inevitable that the Tories will remain in power, however well Labour do.
And to take those seats, we’ll need to win votes from the Tories. Remember, every vote we take from the Tories in a LibDem-Tory marginal takes one off their vote, and adds one to ours. That means a vote from the Tories is worth two votes we squeeze from the Labour candidate.
Does that mean we have to compromise our values to win? Does it mean we have to tilt to the right in order to win soft Tory votes? I don’t think so. Few voters are genuinely Tory. Most are open to voting for another party, as long as they feel their concerns are being listened to. And most of these voters care passionately about Health, Education, and other bread and butter issues which we too care about. We just have to show that we do, by talking about these issues, and doing so in a way that resonates with these voters.
George Kendall is the acting chair of the Social Democrat Group of the Liberal Democrats. He writes in a personal capacity.