Friday, July 29, 2011

Who's to blame for the lack of a core Lib Dem vote?

Via Iain Roberts on Lib Dem Voice, I spotted Simon Titley’s article in the latest issue of liberator about the failure of the Liberal Democrats to build a larger core vote. Unfortunately, Simon does his usual trick of spoiling some interesting arguments by descending into Pythonesque ranting:

If you have ever held back from proclaiming liberal values because you were afraid it might offend someone, it’s your fault. If your Focus leaflets are a politics-free zone, full of hackneyed slogans that haven’t changed for thirty years, it’s your fault. If you think “we can win everywhere” is a satisfactory strategy, it’s your fault. If you think the party can advance solely by a ‘ground war’, it’s your fault. If you think the party can advance solely by an ‘air war', it’s your fault. If you are an anti-intellectual who rejects political thought and debate because it gets in the way of leafleting, it’s your fault…[etc. etc., you get the picture.]
I don’t suppose anyone would answer to the full pantomime villain description conjured up – ‘Yes, I’m an anti-intellectual who rejects political thought’. But, as one who has spent much of the last quarter-of-a-century writing leaflets, helping to organise local and parliamentary election campaigns, while making the political and intellectual compromises that go with such territory, I can’t really avoid considering myself among the accused. The party’s present plight is in a sense all my fault!

But before I book myself into a political re-education camp to be reprogrammed in the ways of Liberalism, let me put in a plea of mitigation on behalf of myself and fellow defendants.

For most of the last century the main political discourse in Britain, the core choice for voters, has been between a small state/capitalist/middle class party and a social democratic/big state/working class party. Voters choose their government from these two options. The Liberal Democrats (and their predecessors) haven’t neatly fitted into this battle and emphasise values that are outside the main debate. We are asking people to opt out of the big decision about who governs and vote for us instead. Which isn't easy, because when it comes down to it most people are likely to have a preference for Labour or Conservative government and a temptation to vote for one to keep the other out of office.

This wouldn’t matter if we had proportional representation. Under a fairer electoral system we could market ourselves as a niche party, drawing support from voters who care about distinctively Liberal issues: civil liberties, workplace democracy, environmentalism, a humane criminal justice policy, constitutional reform and the like. By emphasising such matters in our campaigns, we could build up a small but loyal core support. Perhaps around 10% of the electorate would vote for such an agenda, much less than the Lib Dem vote share in recent elections. But it wouldn’t matter because we could be confident of regularly winning 50 or so parliamentary seats, with reasonable hope of regular participation in government as a junior coalition partner, and exercising a distinctively liberal influence when we do.

But we don’t have proportional representation. Even the largest imaginable core Liberal vote would win us few councillors or MPs. To be politically relevant we need to win council and parliamentary seats under first-past-the-post. Usually this means winning at least 40 per cent of the vote in any given electoral area, more than any core Liberal vote we could dream of. And that militates against taking very controversial positions on major issues, or going on about things that are distinctively Liberal, but which the average voter regards as cranky. To broaden our support, we have gained success through community politics, in particular as adapted by Chris Rennard for parliamentary elections, tactical voting and the idea of Lib Dem MP as local hero. This has meant talking about the issues that matter to voters in ways that make sense to them. As we now have 57 MPs, something that many of us could have barely imagined when we joined the party, our campaigning methods have had some success. They are also not so very different from what the other parties do. Thatcher, Blair and Cameron have in their own way taken their core vote for granted and aimed at winning the support of the uncommitted.

Yet there is a problem here. Perhaps because of the party’s reliance on the genius of Chris Rennard, we have ended up with an over-mighty campaigns department always focused on getting votes in the next election, not in campaigning for distinctively Liberal causes or values. It can be a cause for mockery if someone mentions constitutional reform Europe or civil liberties in a Focus leaflet. The lack of willingness to campaign in a distinctively Liberal manner does get noticed. The drug law reform charity Transform pointed out at the last election that:

Whilst the Lib Dems appear to have made the intellectual journey on drug policy reform… it remains an issue on which they have generally been defensive, (choosing to avoid - sometimes even deny) rather than one they actively campaign on.
Which is fair comment, except that Transform don’t have to fight elections while being vilified by opponents for being ‘soft on drugs’.

There is a difficult balance to be struck between winning enough votes and seats to keep us in the political game versus promoting a distinctive Liberal identity. Those of us charged with campaigning for the party, whether at local or national level have not always got the balance right. But, just perhaps, the problem is a little bit more complicated than Simon Titley suggests, and is deserving of reasoned discussion rather than abuse and blame.

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