The Failure of the Liberal Democrats

Three recent elections were each in their own way highly significant. Two parliamentary by-elections were disastrous for the Liberal Democrats. At one, in Tamworth, the Liberal Democrat candidate polled the lowest vote for any Liberal or Liberal Democrats candidate at any election for 75 years - since the Glasgow Camlachie by-election of 1948. At the other, in Mid Beds, the Labour candidate took the seat from the Conservatives despite a full and strong Liberal Democrat campaign. This campaign showed, I was told in seventeen national mailings over 83 days of the campaign, that our candidate was on the edge of winning; one such mailing told me that “our canvassing shows that we are heading for a razor-close finish between us and the Conservatives.” In fact we finished third, 11% and 4,350 votes adrift from the winning Labour candidate. Either the canvassing was woefully inaccurate or party headquarters lied.

Almost as significant was that, despite intensive campaigning by all three parties, the turnout was just 44%; in other words the Liberal Democrats were unable to inspire or even entice anywhere near enough of the electorate to vote for us. Turnout matters less for Conservative and Labour parties which still depend to a large, if diminishing, extent on a class vote. Liberals and Liberal Democrat have no such semi-automatic vote and have therefore to build a core vote almost from scratch and to persuade potential supporters to make the effort to vote on polling day. In a three-way by-election the turnout for a Liberal Democrat to win has to be much higher. Even in two of the three earlier “straight fight” by-election victories the turnouts were substantially higher. I draw a veil over the embarrassing 1.6% Liberal Democrat vote in Tamworth.

The alarming lessons from these two by-elections are that, first, where Labour is feasibly in contention the electorate will favour them over Liberals Democrats and, second, we have basically no core vote, ie electors who will vote Liberal Democrat come what may. The latter affects the former. The consequence of these two indications is that the “blue wall” seats will only fall to the Liberal Democrats, and, indeed, the by-election gains will only be held, if the Conservatives are at a uniquely low level. One other factor is that on the day following the Mid Beds election, the party’s Deputy Leader, Daisy Cooper, commented that the party “had contributed to the Conservative loss by getting Conservative votes to vote Liberal Democrat who would not vote Labour.” The moment she uttered the words I could hear Conservative HQ re-quoting her at the general election, “voting Liberal Democrat lets Labour in.” And, alas, the party’s naïve and cosy attitude to fighting Labour encourages this myopia.

The outcome of the third election was very different. Against all anticipation the incumbent Polish right-wing coalition government lost its majority and a pro-EU coalition headed by former EU President and acknowledged Liberal, Donald Tusk, was formed on 11 November to take over the government. It was the first time that the dangerous trend towards nationalist and populist parties across Europe has clearly been reversed. How did this come about? By the huge increase in the electoral turnout, from 61.7% to 74.4% - the highest turnout since the end of Communist rule. Even more to the point the Polish analysis of the vote demonstrates that the main increase, of 22.4%, was in young electors (aged 18 to 29). The lesson is clear: nationalism and populism can be defeated by inspiring previously disillusioned electors, and particularly younger ones, to turn them out at the ballot box. I would add the example of Emmanuel Macron in France, who was the first French politician to take on the then Front National candidate, Marine Le Pen, intellectually. In the head-to-head televised debate for second round of the presidential election in 2017; Le Pen’s poll rating fell by four points overnight.

Have the British Liberal Democrats taken note of these three elections and noted the dangers of the by-elections and the opportunities of the Polish general election? Not at all! The response of Mike Dixon, the party’s Chief Executive, immediately after the by-elections was as ever Dr Pangloss telling the party how well it had done! It was the same after the local elections in May when gains were recorded in many smaller authorities but the results were very poor in the cities and other local authorities over 300,00 population. (My analysis of the 2022 large council results is available here.

What is quite bizarre and, indeed, indefensible, is that the party just isn’t bothered. It shows no interest in reviving an organisation in derelict seats, which certainly include over half the constituencies and far more than half of Labour held areas. The abject low state of the party’s local organisation is hidden in many urban areas by grouping seats together in a single association. For instance, all eight Leeds constituencies, seven of which (plus a single ward) have no self-starting organisation, are now a single association with no interest in initiating party organisation in the rest of the city. The same situation applies in Bradford. It is shameful for a political party with its antecedents in a Liberal Party that had a definite distinctive and attractive philosophy, and a nationwide presence, to be reduced to a minority incapable of promoting a radical vision identifiably different to the two other parties, and consequently fails to inspire key local movers and shakers - not least those younger electors who have changed the Polish political scene - to commit themselves to the long sacrificial but worthwhile campaign to change society.

History is important and the comparisons with today is salutary: the Liberal vote at the February 1974 election was 19.3% and had all the seats been contested the vote would have approached 23% - a level not reached by the “new” party until 2005. The vote in 2019 was half that figure. The mishandling of the 2010 coalition can be blamed for the sudden cataclysmic drop in the party’s electoral appeal, but that was over a decade ago and the lack of party identity and organisation has inhibited the creation of a core vote and a Liberal revival. The poll figures have struggled to rise above single figures for eleven years. Even the remarkable by-election victories cannot overcome the lack of a presence and an identity. There has to be visibility on the ground to garner the increased apparent electability of by-election successes. The February 1974 vote came on the back of five successive by-election victories which fell on fertile ground nationally. On the back of this result the party organisation tackled the hundred or so derelict seats and, just eight months later, was in a position to present Liberal candidates in all but four of the same number of seats as the two main parties. This urgent and important task is simply not happening today.

The need to earn a core vote is far more crucial to the Liberal Democrats than to the two main parties because the latter can rely on an automatic class based vote. Class is less of an electoral issue than in earlier elections but it still exists, as the distinct swathes of red and blue across the electoral map show vividly. There is no class vote for the Liberal Democrats and, whereas this has advantages in not being under pressure to favour a sociological group, it has the disadvantage that to succeed the party has to have a clear vision of the kind of society it seeks and campaigns for and to get this across incrementally to the electorate, not in detail or via reams of policy, but by the emphasis on human values, community, internationalism, the public service, participation in industry, civil rights, real democracy, accessible health, etc.

These broad issues of philosophy and values are not of themselves going to sweep the country at an election but they will attract that minority of citizens who are concerned about the woes of society and the urgent needs of many individuals which have clearly not been addressed by the two other parties tied as they are to old centralised concepts, simplistic nationalism and riven by internal divisions. There is a huge gap today waiting to be filled by a forthright and confident Liberalism. Winning electoral support for Liberalism is not a one stage operation. There is no way of baptising the electorate with a hosepipe, but it is possible to inspire and persuade those who are concerned and prepared to consider seeking action via a different politics. It is these individuals whom we pinpointed and recruited in Leeds from the early days of the Liberal revival in the city in 1968. It was horses for courses and those who were already involved in their local community were often prepared to become candidates there.

It was not just local issues that attracted them, some highly political individuals were drawn in by the Liberals principled stand on electorally unpopular issues of principle. For instance, we recruited a number of excellent individuals from the Left-Liberal flank of the Labour Party who were appalled by the Labour government’s 1968 Commonwealth Immigration Act, sparked by the Kenyan Asians’ problems following the election of Jomo Kenyatta and who were thereafter prevented from entering the UK even though the Labour government had earlier promised them this right. These individuals, having seen Labour from the vantage point of a principled Liberal Party, never went back and they became candidates and activists. With this background I part company with the idea that the party should mainly concentrate its campaigning on issues high up on the list of issues of most concern to the public.

At a recent Liberal Democrat History Group meeting Lord Newby told the audience that a respected political commentator had recently told him that those party members keen to focus campaigning on old favourites such as Europe and on electoral reform would be “bonkers” given how low they feature on the list of issues of interest to the public. Dick Newby is one of the best Liberal advocates and I am delighted that he is in charge of the manifesto preparations, but I believe he is wrong on this tactical issue. These two issues, and a few others of principle, may not excite the broad public but those they do attract individuals prepared to commit themselves to the party and to campaign and to organise for it, thus becoming, for instance, the channel of persuasion on the doorstep.

Given the pitiful state of the party today I cannot imagine why anyone concerned about the state of politics today would commit himself or herself to a long sacrificial local and then national leadership role in the Liberal Democrats. Time is running out and I see no sign that the Liberal Democrats are capable of putting together a coherent well-argued document setting out a Liberal vision for the very different political, social and economic challenges the country faces.