A brief recap of the political landscape sees us in an unaccustomed situation. May screwed the pooch and lived up to her internal nickname of “Submarine” by saying something, disappearing and resurfacing going another way entirely. It seems this wasn’t as carefully crafted a plan as we all believed. According to Guido Fawkes, she caught Tory HQ on the hop. It seems she believed her own PR a little too much and now she is so power hungry and desperate she wants to risk derailing the Northern Ireland peace process by cosying up to terrorist sympathisers/supporters, despite the brickbats hurled by her lot at Jezza for saying some pretty commonsense things about trying to achieve a resolution to a conflict. Not the way I’d do it but he has been resolutely consistent, something you can’t say for many politicians.
On the other hand, Momentum seems to have spiked Corbyn’s tea with something strong that worked to jolt him into towing the party line. Albeit for a short time. Labour is attempting to spin this momentous second place loss – trailing by 56 seats – as the second coming of Christ. Corbyn hailed this as, “an amazing response from the public…I think it is pretty clear who won this election”. One ought to recall a certain person writing in The Morning Star in 2010 decrying the 48 seat difference as, “disastrous for new Labour”. It is funny how power changes people. Nonetheless, he has a messianic following so one can’t ignore that.
Both parties want a hard Brexit for different reasons. Now Labour think they may have a sniff at actual power they are softening their stance somewhat. May hasn’t got the mandate she sought so she can’t just bundle the country over the nearest cliff as planned. In the meantime the EU are doing good cop bad cop with the chief negotiator making withering remarks whilst the new centrist president of France (Macron) smiles sweetly and alludes that the door to EU membership hasn’t slammed fully shut. That combination of Michel Barnier and Macron will have sowed enough doubt in the minds of sensible people in the Lords and Civil Service that we may be able to wriggle free. The nerves will be getting frayed. Although, there is no doubt that any re-entry will come at a considerable price, both in pride and money.
But back to my party of choice, the Liberal Democrats. The wailing and gnashing of teeth over the departure of our once glorious leader won’t last long. Many nauseatingly sycophantic comments along the line of, “Tim walked on water and people just need to see what an incredible human being he is”, type thing. There is a recurrent theme here of people having so incredibly strongly held personal viewpoints that they are unable to step back and take a bigger view. Many, in the party rank and file LibDems, seem to function with no distinction between a Parish Council style mentality of ‘dog fouling on the green has to stop’ compared to National Government issues. There remains a depressingly recurrent theme of trying to blame electoral failure/Farron’s departure or anything else they don’t like on anything other than themselves. It is the Orange Book believers, the bitchy sniping fringes, Clegg, tuition fees, coalition and so on and so forth. (Caveat – I am, apparently, one of the bitchy sniping outsiders. Though, in my defence, I and others are devoting time to try and think how the dire state of the political centre ground can be fixed.)
Those of us that don’t think the purity of the political soul comes just from the hard graft of pushing leaflets through letter boxes as the answer to every setback are not just corporate bully-boys/girls. We just take a more businesslike view of things. Measuring output and not input is how we look at things.Tim Farron has resigned as leader and that is a very good thing. He singularly failed to get any traction with the press or the electorate regarding Brexit,arguably the most important issue of our time. Say what you like about Corbyn having the air of a divorced geography teacher, at least he has stuck to his guns. I find him deeply distasteful but I respect him nonetheless. People knew who he was and if they had even heard of Farron it was usually because of one thing. Just prior to the election I was at a function and fell in to chat with a retired Brigadier General. Not that old and still very sharp. The talk turned to politics and parties. I told him I was a LibDem and he thoughtfully replied that they were an ok bunch but, and I quote, “I am not keen on that poof-hating god botherer you lot have let into the driver’s seat”. And that, ladies and gents pretty much sums up the public perception of Farron.
Given his voting record, Farron clearly isn’t a homophobe, but try telling that to people who consume mainstream media. He was incapable of deconflicting his personal views and political stance and had had two, count them, two, years to put this to bed and yet he couldn’t. Couple that with external appearance of the cheery carer to Corbyn’s miserable old man persona and he really didn’t cut it. This weekend gone he was obviously handed a loaded pistol, a shovel and told to take a solo walk into the woods, make peace with his god and do the decent thing. And so he did. Kudos. All told, a very liberal regicide.
The Liberal Democrat party is such a big church of conflicting viewpoints that it is too overweight with competing opinions to ever get airborne. By contrast, we make the Tories and Labour appear as ideologically tightly knit units. I think that we try too hard to accommodate too many different positions and it just doesn’t work. Our poor results speak directly to being overweight on too many different opinions and underweight on slick electioneering.
The Social Liberals are perceived as the left wing and the Classical Liberals as the right. I have formed the view that many at the extremes of the Social Liberal position are just Labour supporters in Liberal clothing, scared of the big bad Labour party. The Classical Liberals are definitely just right of the general centre ground and I heard them described as Tories who aren’t bastards. Either way, the tension between the two seems too high. They spend their time arguing amongst themselves rather than winning power.
The wider electorate do not perceive the Liberal Democrats as having a defined leader and nor can they repeat any policy much past the legalisation of cannabis. Corbyn is someone to get behind and to some extent May is the same, though wounded and about to be dispatched soon. It doesn’t matter if you are economically illiterate, do not realise how illiberal both are, you can just be tribal and support a team. Part of that is slavish and unquestioning support for the team when the chips are down. Hell, even the latest Panorama about what happened in this debacle of a General Election never mentioned or showed the LDs at all. Caroline Lucas even got a 10sec slot. Us, nothing. If the LibDems are to ever prosecute a liberal agenda they need recognition and media, however distasteful they may find it.
I think that we may need to do a reverse ferret (apologies to Private Eye for I dip liberally – geddit? – into their terminology) and consider another centre party. At this point many people recoil, gasp and point to the failed SDP-Liberal Alliance that preceded the LibDems. To successfully form a new party one would have to discard convention and do it differently from how it has always been done. Additionally, you need at least three other things for a successful party – good candidates, a good team and money, lots of it.
To take the last one first: Money. Political donors may claim their donation is ideologically driven and altruistically motivated, though that is a little dishonest. We all want something, be it a warm and fuzzy feeling that comes with supporting a shared ideology or the time-honoured belief that donating to a party buys you influence. A new party needs to be treated like a start-up business with a great idea. Potential investors need to see a return. Their will be a period of burning cash, just like a start-up. When it succeeds you have to pay the piper so investors need to be chosen wisely because they will be microscopically scrutinised and require their return. Again, this needs to be carefully planned.
Whilst on the topic of scrutiny, any new party will need to have candidates. Not in every seat but 5-10 (max) and targeted, mostly on LibDem seats. This may sound cruel, it ain’t personal, just business. Early successes are needed so that investors need to see the idea working, within the predicted timeframes. There is a ripe pool of centrist candidates; from Chuka Umunna to Ken Clarke to Ruth Davidson and (gasp) George Osbourne. As an aside, no one seems to be enjoying May’s discomfort more than George. None of the aforementioned are in politics because they love campaigning in the rain, they are in it for themselves as much as anything else. A new party would need an attractive proposition, a plan even! If you ask a successful politician to give it all up and defect they need to see what is in it for them and their constituents. This proof of concept will work if we can back to the hilt a chosen few. The “Full Macron” will have to come later as we run a fundamentally different electoral system here.
Finally, planning. This is not about traditional reactive behaviour, it is treating the enterprise like a start-up business with big investors and lots at stake. A goal, a strategy, tactics and many what-if contingencies. Politics is a brutal pastime, the knives will be out. No planning equals no nothing. A blend of commercial, technical and political talent, people with contacts, people with a clear agenda for themselves. Being in at the launch can make or break them. No namby pamby clockwatchers. If the investment is right and the founding candidates are few then decent salaries can be paid to tempt the best talent away to the start-up. This is how business works. We are not creating a new market but rather trying to introduce a vastly improved product into an established and crowded market. We’ll need to test policy, cost policy, recruit, win backing and be pragmatic while all the time be mindful of our goal to introduce a purer liberal party that is unencumbered by the baggage of the existing one.
PS: This will take time. 18 months minimum to launch. Done under a decent cloak of secrecy. FWIW, I don’t think people have the stones to make this happen. This post is to just put the idea out there and get people thinking and talking. Perhaps it will, who knows.
UPDATE: Perhaps the Liberal Democrats need their own WtF? Rethinking the Democrats from within.
10 thoughts on “Thinking The Unthinkable”
I’m left with the question, what would this new party be for? At the moment I would like it to be in order to prevent any repetition of this dreadful fire in a tower block in London. It seems to me that putting profit before people’s lives has gone too far if this is why cladding which has been discovered to be inflammable was used. A fire in 2014 in Melbourne was similarly horrific and the same type of cladding was implicated. I’m not sure this would fit in with your economic vision though.
My economic vision is not mentioned. I am trying to speculate on a possible way that a new party would need to be born. Quite what this post has to do with the appalling tragedy is beyond me. Am not certain how you have managed to lever that into this? Such a horrible and painfully current tragedy probably isn’t the most appropriate thing to use to try and make a point.
Certainly very thought provoking. I’m not convinced by the notion that the Lib Dems are too broad a church, especially if you want to set up a seemingly broader one. A neo-liberal party with Osborne-omics would probably be quite effective vs Blu-KIP. But funded by vested interests in this way, and made up of careerist, who presumably would need to forgo any principled positions in favour of focus-grouped policy, would be huge ammunition for the anti-establishmentarianists on the left. Due to our voting system, this ultimately sets up the new party as opposition to Labour. Effectively ‘progressive’ or ‘one-nation conservatives’ in the mould of Cameron. In which case, what’s the point?
A seemingly broader one? Quite the opposite. Do you think that people donate to a party without an interest, vested or however you choose to describe it? I think the point is quite clear, assuming you read to the end. It is to stimulate discussion. The LibDems are spinning their wheels. What do you propose?
Arguably, Chuka Umunna and George Osborne is a wider coalition than the Lib Dems on the social democrat-economic liberal spectrum. Narrowing the umbrella, I would assume, narrows the support base, which is basically our problem at the moment. If you are talking about big donors, then I guess there is generally something in it for them, more so for the Conservatives than anything else, but your start-up analogy seems to be proposing selling policy. In many ways that’s a step further still. One, to me, that’s morally repugnant. It’s not at all about having the stones in that respect, it’s about being too principled to simply set up a party for the sake of grabbing power, without any principles behind it.
To be honest, if you can get the money and influence, you could grab the reigns of the conservative party pretty easily to shift them to the centre. The problem being, those with the money don’t want to be in the centre.
I would call the article ‘spitballing’ as I have a North American heritage. I am chucking up some ideas, some provocative, to try and stimulate a discussion. One that breaks out of the ‘more of the same’ response. We are not getting elected. Something radically different needs to be done. What do you suggest?
At the risk of this being the ‘do nothing’ response, the main criticism I heard was that from the low base, we weren’t going to win. It’s a long way back but we have to grow. We won’t get 50+ seats overnight. There was a general noise that the Lib Dems were the party a lot of voters most wanted, but they were more scared of May having a massive mandate esp for hard brexit. I think this explains the remain Labour vote to a large extent. Maybe it was a failure of Tim that he didn’t gain enough traction but to me our policy offering is good. The brand is really only toxic to the shouty left protaginists like Owen Jones who would never vote Lib Dem anyway. It’s just a stick to beat us with. Where Tim was totally correct was that we have to go out and work hard in our communities, be seen, be great, build our base. Forget the lazy shortcuts.
Sadly there can be no lazy shortcuts. Wanting to work smarter is not lazy. It is about focusing on results and not inputs.
If I recall correctly the SDP did have some big donors, but I think they had a problem with getting people elected. A bit like the UKIP with regard to Parliament and local councils. Both the SDP and UKIP thought that a national swing would do it and were/are bad at targeting. From ex-members of the SDP it appears that they learnt how to fight local elections from the Liberals. In 1983 according to Wikipedia 22 SDP MPs failed to get elected. Only 6 were elected and in 1987 only 5. As UKIP has found out it is difficult to gain a seat in Parliament from nothing during a general election.
Also targeting the existing Liberal Democrat seats just seems really silly – a way to end up with no Liberal Democrats and no members of the new party in Parliament.
If the Liberal Democrats is too broad a church wouldn’t it be better to split it – into Social Liberals and Economic Liberals. However I am not sure how long an Economic Liberal Party would exist. There is still a continuing Liberal Party but they haven’t managed to break through. The reason could be because there is only space in UK politics for one liberal party.
A political party is not like a business. All politicians I have met went into politics to change the country, to make it better from their point of view. I expect even those who were interested in power picked their political home based on a closeness to what they wanted the country to look like. What does this “purer liberal party” stand for?
Well done for putting your thoughts into an article where it can be properly critiqued.
I am a fan of the ‘broad church’ that is the Liberal Democrats – and I’d be happy to take in people further to the left and the right. I don’t think we’re a more awkward coalition than either of the two main parties.
I’m also a fan of Tim Farron, who had a bad election and can’t escape some of the blame but who I don’t think you give sufficient (any) credit for what he achieved. Which was to prevent the party from disintegrating, to more than double our membership, was to set out a striking, pro-EU position which was beginning to gain traction when the genereal election was called and derailed things, and under whom we increased our number of seats. To a greater number than you’re proposing even targetting with a new party.
I think you underestimate how difficult a position the Lib Dems are in, which leads you to overestimate what an alternative leader could achieve.
And I think you underestimate how difficult it would be to set up a new party.
You freely admit that the new party would compete with the Lib Dems – which would split the liberal vote right out the gate. If your new party was only going to target 10 seats, then even if – having demonstrated your ‘business case’ – you then went for every single seat at the following general election, you would still be asking George Osbourne to give up being editor of a paper where he has real influence for being a back bench MP for many years.
I think that if your donors were out there they’d have either funnelled their money into the Lib Dems or into a faction of the Labour or the Conservative parties.
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