The pinnacle of Liberal Democrat success was in 2005. Standing loudly in opposition to the Iraq War, and with Charles Kennedy leading us, we were a constant thorn in the side of an authoritarian Labour government, and reaped the electoral rewards. But while Iraq and our opposition to it is what most people remember of the Kennedy era, our success can be more broadly attributed to our anti-establishment attitude and positioning during that period.
For example, in addition to opposing the Iraq War, the 2005 election manifesto prioritised in its introduction the abolition of council tax, scrapping tuition fees, smaller class sizes, free personal care for the elderly, and opposing ID cards on the ground of cost as much as for principled reasons. The manifesto was just twenty pages long.
It was an inherently anti-establishment programme for government, picking up on common popular themes – the unfairness of council tax, the need for better and more focused education in schools, the injustice of selling the family home to pay for care, and the wasting of money on unnecessary ministerial projects. Combined with perennial Lib Dem issues like electoral reform and decriminalisation of drug possession, it was a far cry from recent manifestos, whose mildness and borderline irrelevance to the lives of real people was highlighted in the recent election review (page 21 here).
Admittedly, our success in the Blair period was partly down to a historically weakened Conservative Party and growing national discontent with a Labour government. It is true that, at the time of writing in 2020, Labour’s popularity amongst young people has not had the chance to “weaken” as a result of seeing their authoritarian and non-progressive instincts be enacted in government. But significant other factors included our positioning – firmly rooted in progressive, centre-left liberalism – and our attitude – anti-establishment, and willing to take on the powers that be on behalf of the communities we represent.
We gained trust between 1997 and 2010 by being a party who supported progressive causes both in the community and nationally, by sticking to our principles on issues of civil liberties when under threat by the Blair government, and by being a credible voice for the genuine concerns of voters who were being unrepresented by the main two parties with an anti-establishment and radically liberal manifesto.
We can do the same in 2020. A strong message going forward would be a new brand of Kennedian anti-establishmentism. Electoral reform – because the two big parties are stealing and wasting your votes. A citizens’ dividend – because why should billionaires and big businesses be the only groups to get unconditional government support? Scrapping council tax and replacing it with a fairer local tax – a policy from 2005 which would make the average household hundreds of pounds better off a year. Better paid health and social care professionals to recognise the sacrifice and hard work of the heroes in our NHS and frontline services – funded by a penny on income tax. Smaller class sizes and better paid teachers – because the next generation should be the best educated in our history. A systematic review in whatever form and with whatever resources necessary into institutional racism and the societal causes of why BAME people are overrepresented in poverty statistics, homelessness statistics, and youth criminal justice statistics – because in modern Britain, we should settle for nothing less than equality and the empowerment of individuals from all communities and backgrounds.
These are just preliminary sketches of suggestions – many people will have much better ideas than this author. But since 2010, the Lib Dems have become too at ease with the tempered language of self-restraint. We have been accused of being pro-establishment and patrician; middle class and white – and the criticisms smart so much because they are right. We should get comfortable with being anti-establishment again – angry at what a broken economy, a crony electoral system, and an unequal society has done to our country, egged on by parties both red and blue. Perhaps then, we will be able to slowly regain the trust and credibility which buoyed our party to its zenith fifteen years ago, and this time, go further.