Upon his election as leader of the Liberal Democrats in August, Sir Ed Davey did two things. First, he kicked off a ‘listening tour’, proclaiming that he would travel around the country to listen to people’s experiences, because “the Liberal Democrats have not been doing enough listening”. Secondly, he told journalists asking what the party offered voters to “come back in ten months”.
Having just received 4% in the polls – our joint-worst score since 1989 – it is not clear that either of Davey’s plans have been especially successful.
His listening tour appeared to be a series of photo opportunities, with no report back about what he learned. We also received almost no coverage from the tour. Of course, this exposes the facile nature of ‘listening’ exercises: no party leader is going to change their views on a whim based on what a few unrepresentative individuals have to say, and the press knows it. But the perceived need for such a tour speaks to the fundamental brokenness of how the Lib Dems do politics.
At present, we are like a horse looking for a rider, wandering aimlessly around the paddock until someone decides to give us a shot. We are tied to no coherent grouping in Britain. No identifiable group supports us, as is the case for Labour and the Conservatives. So all we can do is come up with menus of policy which we think voters might like, and see if anyone wants to come to dinner.
This approach is clearly wrong. It is top-down, first of all, which clashes with the bottom-up instinct of most liberals. We create our manifestos from on high, and dangle them before the electorate. But on a practical level, it is clearly failing. We are irrelevant to the public. Our vote is strong only where we have historically been challengers to the Conservatives, and people vote for us merely as anti-Conservative. In the very few remaining places where we have strength in Labour-held areas, the same holds true: we are an anti-Labour vote, not a pro-liberal vote.
We are, therefore, merely a transactional party. It is only rarely (2019 being a notable exception) that people vote for us because of what we positively stand for – we are there for voters when they tire of the ‘other’ option. And it is a bed we have made for ourselves. We have spent so many decades obsessed with content-free, process-centred liberalism – which cares about the fairness of local consultations, about taking on the concerns of anti-housing, pro-landlord residents no matter how illiberal the outcome of that is, about the administrative efficiency of filling in potholes and collecting bins, about ‘listening tours’ – that we have entered a vicious cycle of becoming simply ancillary to everyone else.
If being an anti-Conservative receptacle is our function, then fine. We will pick up a clutch of new seats at the next election – Winchester, Cheltenham, St. Ives, maybe Guildford and Wimbledon – and we will grow and become slowly larger. But this dooms us to five, ten, fifteen, twenty years of being nothing but this irrelevant receptacle; a useful box to tick come election time, but something people don’t care about outside of it. This surely cannot be the limit to our ambition.
This presents a potential problem for radicals in the party. On current trends, we are at real risk of simply continuing the anti-housing habit already so alarmingly present in our local campaigning, and siding with those whom the broken structures of the current economic system disproportionately benefit, rather than those they overwhelmingly disadvantage. The great fear is that doing so could end up with us converting ourselves into a more liberal version of the pre-Brexit Conservative Party. This is not something radicals can accept – it is antithetical to our view of the world.
So, if not that, then what? What is left for us? We still have six months until Ed Davey comes back and tells us what the Lib Dems offer voters. So far, it simply looks like growing irrelevance and mild-mannered disapproval of some of the bad things. Our latest press releases are on a breadth of themes from visa-free tours for musicians to Trump supporters in the USA to “high food standards” to a “faster vaccine rollout”. None of these are bad things – I agree with them all. But they are either anodyne, unobjectionable or irrelevant to most people’s political thinking, and don’t speak to any coherent vision of what liberalism in 2021 entails.
Radicals have to step up to the plate if we are to create something for ourselves in the party post-Brexit. The fundamental electoral logic won’t change, and we should not ignore it – our fortunes lie in our second places in the South. This is especially important for radicals to address when a common criticism of the radical position is that it will toxify us to precisely those voters – the voters we need to win. But there are ways to persuade soft Conservative voters which don’t involve surrendering to process-liberalism and pseudo-conservatism, and which also appeal to a new generation of voters. The secret is the common values we all share. Because the truth is that politics is about those values, and uniting people who share in them behind one political force.
Purely by way of non-exhaustive example, we can emphasise our strong commitment to remedying the climate crisis and protecting our natural environment – something which appeals to young voters and soft Conservatives in our target seats alike. We can show off our innovative policies on education and healthcare. And we can openly and actively support development – well-designed, environmentally-friendly, affordable development which involves public input – because when we openly campaign for housing rather than simply reacting to developer proposals, it is us who is in control, enabling us to meet the concerns of residents while also, crucially, taking practical steps to achieve the liberal goal of ending the housing crisis.
This is not top-down politicking. We don’t need a listening tour to understand this. These are intuitive things that we already know are supported by people in the communities we represent, and more pertinently, that we know our target voters would like. This is the point – politics is not an alchemical exercise where all we have to do is mix just the right quantities of substances and we will get gold: it is about a fundamental understanding of what makes people with our values tick, and then using political leadership and organisation to make them realise that those values can be expressed by voting Liberal Democrat.
So, we can appeal to an electorally logical demographic without abandoning our principles. And we can use the demographic we are already winning as the foundation stone for a broader coalition into the future, rather than unduly restricting ourselves as part of a knee-jerk reaction to the past three general elections. In sum, we don’t need to resort to mumbling from the sidelines to achieve political growth.
Being honest, continuing as we are won’t affect much in the short term. Our poll numbers will continue to flatline, but anti-Tory votes will probably mean we do roughly fine in 2024, so long as Ed Davey doesn’t publicly gaffe. Perhaps that is the plan. But if we do nothing to restore a sense of purpose to our party, activists will lose their patience and talented people will leave for more principled and exciting shores (as they already have done, overwhelmingly from the party’s youth wing). If we do nothing, we will continue to atrophy into our silos of local strength and deserts of irrelevance. If we do nothing, we will never take the first step back towards relevance and control over our own fate.
So, what is left for radicals is to take action now, before it is too late; to inject some purpose, some principle, some direction into the old party of Gladstone and Lloyd George. The task is difficult. It will take more than a week, a month, a year. But if we fail, we are doomed into the foreseeable future to be deprived of agency as a political force; merely a boat without a propellor, swept from shore to shore by the prevailing political tide, until one day, perhaps, we are capsized, and drowned beneath those punishing waves.
Gracchus is a new columnist for The Torch, writing under a pseudonym. They hold a minor position within the Liberal Democrats.