The Liberal Party I grew up with in rural Lincolnshire was forged by working-class voices in Methodist Church Halls. Its values were peace, community and self-reliance. Liberal Democrats today might argue that those values sit, still, at the heart of the party but the voters it speaks to now are a radically different congregation. The abandonment of long-standing supporters in pursuit of a new, metropolitan supporter base has delivered the party to the edge of an electoral abyss. Something has to change if the party is to recover from its devastating defeat on 12th December.
After the election, the Lib Dems now represent just a single English constituency north of St Albans. West of Oxford they won only well-heeled Bath. At the party’s post-war high watermark in 2005 they represented communities from Penzance to Cromer; from Eastbourne to Berwick upon Tweed; in Welsh-speaking Wales and the Scottish Highlands. Diverse places sharing a common feeling that the gains of the post-Thatcher era – both in terms of money and power – could be shared more fairly. All of this has gone. And gone so far that it is hard to see a road back.
What has been built instead is a new coalition – not of marginalised and voiceless coastal communities or voters struggling to get by – but a coalition of disgruntled privilege. The Lib Dems speak now for the comfortable middle class, discomfited by the threat of Brexit and bemused by the People’s Revolt of 2016. Unfortunately for the Lib Dems, the party has discovered that the majority of those voters figured voting Conservative or Labour – as they have always done – was the best way to protect their interests. Because, for them, economic and governing competence mattered far more than stopping Brexit. Having abandoned its traditional constituency, the Lib Dems were left with Remainer Ultras and little else. It’s a core vote strategy that has suffered a cataclysmic meltdown.
Is there any hope of finding a road back? Possibly. Ironically, the greatest opportunity might come from the scale of the disaster inflicted on the centre and left in the 2019 election. Both the Lib Dems and Labour are forced to choose new leaders and new strategies. Now, if they are brave, they might remake the sort of broad progressive movement that I sought out all those years ago as a teenager. The new Lib Dem leader cannot influence the choice of Labour leader but they can face three challenges in their own party that would make them a credible partner in a movement for change.
First, the Liberal Democrats must decide who they speak for, what they want to achieve and how they would do it. A philosophy of politics (or for those of us working the charity sector, a theory of change) that has been startlingly absent from the Lib Dems since the early days of the Liberal/SDP Alliance. A new leader can lead this. And can lead it in ways that ensure the emerging philosophy is not dominated by the lunatic fringe of the Twittersphere but is firmly rooted in the centre, addressing the concerns of the bulk of the electorate.
Second, the new leader must not disappear into the Westminster Bubble. Instead, they must work with the party’s new Chief Executive and new President to radically modernise the party itself. One thing that everyone in the Lib Dems can agree on is that the 2019 election campaign was disastrously badly run. Dominated by Beltway thinking. Inflexible and reduced to meaningless slogans (dodgy bar charts and all). Angry and aggressive. Built on an infrastructure that had decayed through years of hyper-targeting of ‘winnable’ seats but still relying on a ‘never mind the content feel the quantity’ approach to ground campaigning. The work to rebuild the party from the ground up will be long and hard but the will to do it can come from a leader with the energy and vision to lead change.
Finally, the new leader must reach out to people beyond her own tribe to create a policy-led programme for change. Ahead of the 1997 election, New Labour drew on organisations like the IPPR to develop its rights-based approach to reform. It also sought to include politicians and thinkers from outside its own walls. Ahead of 2010, Cameronite Conservatives and modernising Lib Dems worked together under the cover of Think Tanks like Reform and Policy Exchange to develop a programme for coalition government. The new Lib Dem leader starts with a clean policy slate. But they might draw on Lib Dem initiatives to promote social justice through the taxation of accumulated wealth or targeted spending on early years education. They might want to build on the Social Value Act and the Preston Model of commissioning to promote inclusive growth and local empowerment. They will surely want to breath new life into domestic manufacturing through investment in renewable energy. They will also need to develop a liberal approach to security at home and peace abroad. Ideas have been desperately lacking from politics in recent years.
Braying and barracking is great for the politics of the margins but a broad, serious challenge for power depends on convincing people you can govern well. It will take courage to convince wounded activists that the future lies in the thoughtful centre of politics. Recreating a party that looks on people in marginalised places not with the disdain identified 200 years ago by Edmund Burke but as equals with valid concerns that deserve to be addressed. Will the new Lib Dem leader rise to those challenges? Will the new Labour leader link arms? I don’t know. But I do know that the old churches no longer serve the people they were built to serve and only fire and daring will reach a huge congregation that is yearning for change.
Dr Edward Maxfield is leader of the Liberal Democrats on Norfolk County Council and is co-author of the book ‘101 Ways to Win an Election’, published by Biteback.