As the Liberal Democrat leadership contest rolls on, it is clear both Ed Davey and Layla Moran are eager to shift our policy platform to a greener and more radical position.
Let’s be clear. The election of a new figurehead will not in itself boost our standing in the opinion polls. Nor is it a matter of identifying the perfect policy combination to regain the seats lost since 2015. The internal reforms needed are urgent, wide-ranging and long-standing. There is no quick fix and we mustn’t expect our fortunes to change overnight.
Here, I set out a three stage process that I believe, will allow us to make best use of the time available to reflect on our current position and plan ahead.
First, we must establish our electoral objectives. Why are we on the national stage? What do we want to achieve and what is our measure of electoral success? I hope both candidates will take the time to set out their views on this more clearly.
Following this discussion, we must settle on a strong narrative for the country. This is not the same as policy, and nor is it a matter of reeling off our values as a tolerant, internationalist and democratic force in British politics. That much, we know. Instead, we must tell a story about the United Kingdom, its challenges and direction. Although Ed Davey has come out passionately in favour of a Green Revolution, and Layla Moran, in equal measure, for Universal Basic Income (UBI), both are policies and not narratives and this is an important distinction to make. ‘Stop Brexit’ in 2019 was just the same.
Finally, once this narrative has been fleshed out, the party must write itself into that story. This depends on what we agree to be our electoral objectives in the first stage.
So let us now address that first stage. Should the Liberal Democrats redirect our focus towards local government, and win control of as many councils and directly elected mayors/PCCs as possible? Or should we put our energies into Westminster and seek to jam the next parliament and force concessions from both parties? If so, how about a full coalition, or this time, commit to a confidence and supply arrangement?
Since the mid-2000s, the party has undergone a series of impressive and extensive identity transformations. First, we were an independent third force under Charles Kennedy, then a matured party of government, the leaders of the Remain cause and finally, an En Marche!-equivalent, vying to govern alone. Although this demonstrates the willingness and agility needed to stay relevant in a cramped political environment, these conditions can also disorientate and fatigue our membership. This comes as a result of having an almost non-existent core vote.
Once our party has more clearly defined its external objectives, we must then decide on how best to measure our performance. How about breaching the threshold of seven million votes at the next general election? Why not work towards electing four thousand councillors across the country? Again, I’d like both candidates to discuss this in greater detail. How do party members, activists and voters know we’re on track?
Since 2010, the Liberal Democrats have been unable to come out of a general election with MPs numbering even in the low teens. Today, we hold less than 2% of the House of Commons. This apparent lack of experience shields the fact our party currently runs over fifty councils in all the regions and nations.
With our electoral objectives and purpose in the political arena made clear, we can then proceed to build a distinct narrative of our country, its future and our role in the British political system to shape that future.
So far, the race has focused on whether to shift the party centre-right or centre-left. This is unhelpful, primarily because this is not the balance we need to strike. Take a look down our list of parliamentary target seats in 2024. Although our strength and resilience comes in part, from the geographic diversity of our support, our challenge is to build a compelling narrative of the country that can appeal to places like Dunbartonshire, Brecon, Wimbledon and Sheffield Hallam in equal measure. We should show concern not for ideological balance in our message, but for a story of relevance to both rural and urban areas.
If in the first stage, we choose to make our electoral goal another hung parliament, with the Liberal Democrats as confidence and supply kingmakers, then we could pitch ourselves as defenders of British Unionism and re-engage with liberal British patriotism. This would give us renewed purpose in Holyrood, as the main rivals to the SNP and in England, where we could expose the Conservative Party as having put the UK at risk.
We could pitch to level-up the regions and nations of the United Kingdom with particular focus on clean energy independence, improving transport infrastructure, balancing per-pupil funding across the country and better enabling entrepreneurship.
The Conservatives’ own positive levelling up agenda to ‘unleash Britain’s potential’, albeit a clunky phrase, spoke to millions in Wales, the Midlands and the North of England – areas where the Liberal Democrats have historically received significant support.
Today, the Conservatives are the only major party which actively engages with British identity in its narrative. This comes after years of subtle alterations to their practices. For example, the Conservative Party logo was redesigned to include a Union Jack, Theresa May stressed its longer name as the ‘Conservative and Unionist Party’ and Boris Johnson appointed himself ‘Minister of the Union’ – a ministerial role without ministerial responsibilities in July 2019.
Whilst I do not think it appropriate or desirable for the Liberal Democrats to simply ape these sentiments, there is no reason why our story should not focus on the creation of a stronger and fairer Union. The Conservative Party does not have a monopoly on patriotism. We must compete on that basis and put forward an alternative Liberal narrative of the country. Without this, we cannot hope to address the mood and challenges of the time.
Of course, this may not be the narrative we settle on, but it is essential we become more focused and effective at storytelling.
Finally, once our electoral objectives and narrative are set, we must tie ourselves into the story we have created. To do so, I believe we should make more of our record in local government. Though we may devise the most compelling narrative, we must also lock ourselves into that narrative and demonstrate why we are the best party to make our manuifesto offer come true.
This suggests that how we choose to package our offering and the story we tell is just as important as the policies due to fill our next manifesto. In acknowledgement of our bandwidth and typical national coverage, this new narrative must emerge over the long-term and not be rushed to presentation in a six week campaign. A media blitz can do wonders, but unless the party can set out in one sentence why it’s here and it’s core goal for the country, no single policy combination can get us out of this electoral rut.
One excellent example of political packaging can be attributed to former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang. Yang was the first candidate to make Universal Basic Income (UBI) the main feature of his campaign. To better appeal to moderates and conservative voters, Yang renamed UBI the ‘freedom dividend’. Though no different to UBI, this alternative packaging helped the Yang campaign play into electors’ emotional states and values.
At present, the Liberal Democrats are fighting to survive as a national force. We have one last shot at proving ourselves on the national stage. Our actions now will determine whether we are a truly national party, or limited to being a dominant force in local government.
This article is certainly not an exhaustive account of how we can build back again. But I hope it can serve as a useful blueprint for how we spend this immediate period to regroup and prepare for a mammoth set of elections next year.
I am incredibly optimistic for the Liberal Democrats’ future as a political force. But let us now discuss our electoral objectives and wider narrative, not policy specifics and our long-standing values.