Thoughts on the election: Now is the time for radical liberalism

By George Potter – Radical Association executive member.

The outcome of the general election is one that few expected. The dust is still settling but here are some thoughts on what lessons the election result offers to liberalism:

1) There is a large anti-Tory vote in England.

Unfortunately, it overwhelmingly went to Labour. The higher turnout, especially amongst younger people, proves that there is immense appetite for an alternative to the Conservatives and the economic and social status quo in this country.

Many people will have voted Labour, despite reservations about Jeremy Corbyn, because they were desperate to vote against the Conservative government.

But this vote manifested itself in three ways:

  • In seats where Labour was one of the two front runners it overwhelmingly rallied behind Labour, including seats where the main opposition to Labour wasn’t Conservative. Examples: Lincoln, Kensington & Chelsea, Bristol West, Cambridge, Sheffield Hallam, Canterbury.

  • In seats where the perception was that nobody could beat the Tories, even ones traditionally held by the Liberal Democrats, anti-Tory voters just turned out to vote for Labour rather than voting tactically, presumably motivated by an election which seemed to boil down to a choice between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. Examples: Guildford, Eastleigh, Colchester, Watford, Harrogate & Knaresborough.

  • In seats where it was clearly a close choice between another (the Liberal Democrats or the Greens) and the Conservatives, anti-Tory voters largely successfully rallied behind the anti-Tory candidate and elected them (though a minority still voted Labour and meant that some of these seats stayed Conservative). Examples: Twickenham, Oxford West and Abingdon, Richmond Park, Bath, Lewes.

It is this in particular which has been behind both some of Labour’s most spectacular results and some of the Liberal Democrats’ most disappointing losses and near misses.

2) The Liberal Democrats should do better next time round…

There are now many more seats where the Liberal Democrats are in strong second places compared to 2015 and where good campaigns, with an emphasis on squeezing third place Labour vote shares, should be able to pick up seats.

This will especially be the case if we get to the next election with a Conservative minority government having made more misteps and a Labour party which has finally been seen to be supportive of Conservative plans on Brexit.

The hung parliament will also make Lib Dem votes on legislation and budgets much more important and give the party a fresh chance to draw attention to its policies and values.

The Liberal Democrats should also be helped thanks to the fact that they are once again the third party in terms of vote share even if they’re not in terms of seats. Last time the Lib Dems came fourth in vote share behind UKIP and fourth in seats behind the SNP. So regaining third place should at least mean that the Lib Dems get more airtime to get their views across than they have for the past two years.

Combined, these factors should put the Liberal Democrats in a position to gain some seats, especially some of the near misses, at the next election. Doubling the number of Lib Dem seats to 24 should at least be a comfortable target for the party leader at the next election.

3) …but the Liberal Democrat election machine needs a major overhaul

However, the fact that the Lib Dems failed to gain or hold at least half a dozen seats by relatively narrow margins points to the fact that the party’s ways of campaigning, both locally and nationally, are heavily out of date.

The fact that the law has allowed the Conservatives to obliterate expenses limits by targeting customised “national” Facebook adverts and mailshots to specific demographics in target seats hurt the Liberal Democrats badly in 2015 and has done the same this time round.

The Liberal Democrats might not have enough money to out-spend the Conservatives when it comes to this kind of campaigning but the fact that one estimate showed that at least 25% of UK Facebook users had seen at least one momentum video or graphic by election day, all entirely through ‘organic’ shares rather than paid adverts, shows that it’s still possible to out-compete the Conservatives when it comes to social media and mailshots with the right message and a good grasp of how to do it. This is something the Lib Dems need to learn urgently.

But, just like 2015, this election result was also a failure of targeting by the Liberal Democrats. Seats like Richmond Park and St Ives should not have been lost by such narrow margins, while seats like Twickenham and Bath were gained comfortably, if the national campaign HQ had been able to properly assess what was going on in the target seats and redirect resources accordingly – particularly on polling day.

Instead, for at least the week before polling day, seats like Twickenham rang up and emailed party members across huge chunks of the country around south west London to demand help which they claimed was desperately needed. On polling day itself, activists from Surrey were redirected to Kingston and Surbiton (which it was claimed was on a knife edge) and the East London phonebank was contacted by Twickenham at around 6pm on polling day and persuaded to stop phoning voters in Richmond Park to get them out to vote and instead to make phonecalls for Vince Cable.

In the end, Richmond Park was lost by just 45 votes while Vince Cable won Twickenham with a majority of 9,762 votes and Ed Davey won Kingston and Surbiton with a majority of 4,124.

While this must have been utterly unintentional, and probably based on what seemed like solid canvass analysis for the seats in question, the fact remains that this was a massive failure of targeting and resulted in the loss of a seat which should have been held. Although blame and recrimination is pointless at this stage, it’s clear that the Liberal Demcorats need to get far better at working out what’s happening on the ground and at targeting resources for next time round.

4) People genuinely want radical, progressive and liberal policies

Jeremy Corbyn is an illiberal. He ran on a manifesto based around rejecting freedom of movement, leaving the single market, keeping Conservative welfare cuts that hurt the poorest in society and a manifesto which the IFS concluded would make lower income households much worse off. He’s got a track record of cosying up to human rights abusing regimes, refuses to work together with anyone who isn’t fully signed up to his values and clearly prefers protesting against things he dislikes to the work of actually implementing policies to make the world a better place.

But nonetheless, he has proven to be immensely popular amongst young voters and non-voters and motivated them to get out to vote. His supporters happily overlook his flaws and the fact that many of his policies fly directly in the face of the values they profess to care about him.

They do this because Jeremy Corbyn is viewed as being honest, principled and having integrity. His questionable past and association with hard left of Labour in the 70s and 80s means nothing to people whose memories all start after the fall of the Berlin wall and who’s earliest political memories might be of 1997 at the earliest.

Instead, they care about the vision that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party has offered to the country. The picture he has painted is one of a society where the government actively fights poverty and inequality, where it provides homes for young people currently living at the mercy of the landlords, where the wealthy will be forced to pay their share, where public services recive investment, not cuts, and where the government will stimulate the economy through infrastructure projects instead of pursuing more austerity.

The fact that Labour’s actual policies are, in many cases, utterly contradictory to this vision doesn’t matter because the public doesn’t really pay attention to the nitty gritty of policy detail.

Instead, his vision of a fundamentally different and fairer society is what cut through and is what was enthusiastically embraced by people desperate for an alternative to the status quo. This is what lies at the root of Corbyn’s success.

By contrast, the Liberal Democrats failed to offer any kind of cohesive vision or get across a clear sense of our values. Our messaging on Brexit was muddled and confused as we tried to appeal to hardcore Remainers, “let’s get on with it” soft Conservatives and people in the Leave voting north and south west.

While individual policies might have been good and potentially eye-catching, such as 1p on income tax for the NHS, they were announced far too late to get noticed during the snap general election campaign and, as a result, the majority of people still weren’t clear what the Lib Dems stood for.

Equally importantly, the Lib Dems repeated the old mistake of criticising Labour and Corbyn for being economically illiterate and unfit to govern. This was utterly redundant and pointless given that the same criticisms were already being made by the Conservatives and, if anything, discouraged soft Labour voters from tactically voting Lib Dem.

But if the party had learned the lesson from the past and constantly attacked Labour from the left – for supporting an extreme Brexit and for wanting to keep the Tory welfare cuts – then it might well have succeeded in convincing many potential Labour voters that Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t really all that progressive and perhaps the Liberal Democrats would have done a lot better at winning over Labour voters in the marginal seats where it mattered, including places like Sheffield Hallam.

5) To succeed Liberalism needs a radical vision and policies to match

After 2015 British Liberalism was on life support. It’s still in intensive care.

One of the fundamental truths about politics is that it’s vision that matters far more to people than policies. This general election was no exception.

The Liberal Democrats desperately need to get over their now institutional aversion to bold policies. While Labour flirts with old Liberal ideas like Land Value Taxation and a Basic Income, even the most tentative steps towards anything half way similar in the Liberal Democrats are met with a baying chorus of “but how will we pay for it?” and a strong aversion to rocking the boat.

As a result, the party consistently ends up with a collection of disconnected but specifically costed policies which might well add up to a fully costed manifesto but utterly fail to paint a clear vision of what Britain would look like under a Liberal Democrat government.

And so it was that Liberal Democrat policies which were both morally right and sound politics, such as scrapping benefit sanctions, were airbrushed from the manifesto, leaving the party with very little in the way of a coherent vision for this general election, let alone a compelling message to win over the progressive urban and working class voters that the party desperately needs if it ever intends to form a government in its own right.

All the evidence points towards western politics being in flux and British politics is no exception. The world is polarising between small-minded, inward-looking, selfish nationalism and outward-looking, multi-cultural, compassionate internationalism. There is no room left for the “split the difference” approach that the Liberal Democrats have pursued post-2010.

As a result the Liberal Democrats’ old strongholds in the rural and Celtic fringes are crumbling. In order to survive, we desperately need to carve out new strongholds in the cosmopolitan cities and the small-l liberal market towns – and to stem the loss of support in rural areas.

The only way that can happen is if the party offers a radical vision for overcoming the immense challenges facing Britain in the 21st century.

The seeds for that vision are already littered throughout the history of British political thought. Mutualism, co-operatives, land value taxation, real local democracy, decentralisation, environmentalism, harnessing markets to serve the common good and more are all well-established Liberal ideas. Together they could and must form the basis of a real alternative for Britain’s future.

With a radical vision the Liberal Democrats could reach out beyond well-off, progressive voters in market towns and the suburbs. We could reach out to low income voters frustrated at an economy that offers them nothing but a constant struggle just to keep their heads above water. We could reach out to young voters hungry for a brighter future. We could offer economic prosperity based on tackling climate change, investing in new industries, European integration and free trade. We could offer a vision of empowerment for the individual, the strengthening of community and a truly just society.

The vision of a shining city on a hill should not be something Liberal Democrats should shy away from. To thrive in our new political climate we need to offer a real, radical and clear vision for a better tomorrow. For a fairer economy and a stronger society – or whatever slogan we end up adopting.

And if we adopt such a vision then we may well be able to make it a reality. But if we fail to offer that brave and radical vision then we’ll be forced to languish on the fringes of politics while illiberal forces shape the 21st century and continue to fail to create the fairer society we all deserve.

Liberal Democrats have a choice to make between now and the next election. I hope they make the right one.

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