What for the Liberal Democrats now?

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As of this writing, Theresa May has agreed to a “confidence and supply” agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party. Nick Clegg, whom I campaigned for, has lost his seat with losses by 105 in Ceredigion, 45 in Richmond Park and most heartbreakingly 2 in Northeast Fife to boot. This has made the increase in Liberal Democrat seats from 9 to 12 bittersweet.

I’ll only talk briefly about Sheffield Hallam; how Nick Clegg lost to a unapologetically leftist Labour party in one of the most affluent constituencies in the country may be puzzling. Simply, Tories voted Tory and many students plus some left-wing Liberals voted Labour. The Liberal Democrats only lost 2000 votes and Labour only gained 2000 but it was enough. Sheffield Liberal Democrats may read this so a full examination now is not my place. For me it is sad to see a man gone whose decisions pushed me to join a party and campaign.

A new leader…

Many will argue Tim Farron underperformed. The second Brexit referendum message did not work. Half of Remain voters now support Leave, giving Leave 68% of voters. 30% of 2015 Liberal Democrat voters voted Leave; how did it make sense?

To be honest, he didn’t have a chance. Assume the election is in 2020. The second Brexit referendum becomes a foundation from which to build. Between March 2019 and May 2020, Liberal Democrats propose plans to deal with a calamitous Brexit. Our predictions coming to fruition gives us the authority.

Whether you agree with that counterfactual, the snap election meant we couldn’t retract that message. Lib Dems would have haemorrhaged votes if they had U-turned. Further, we’d have lost the large number of new members and volunteers making winning even more difficult.

Nonetheless Ed Davey, Vince Cable and Jo Swinson have made welcome returns. A third of our MPs our now women and Layla Moran of Oxford West and Abingdon is – I think – the first Palestinian-British MP. I’m not sure now is the time to be picking a new leader. Let’s keep things strong and – erm, on an even keel.

…or a new message…

Tony Blair – Things Can Only Get Better
Barack Obama – Yes We Can
Trump – Make America Great Again
Vote Leave – Take Back Control

I don’t have the 2017 results yet but look at the 2015 results. Since I kind of like spreadsheets, I spent some time fiddling with them. Let’s say we win the 8 seats we did with majorities of 1 (ie beat the other person by 1 vote only). And we win another 318 seats by 1. We’d have 326 seats ie a majority.

In order to do this, we’d need an extra 4.9 million votes (4903316 to be exact), or around 15% of people who cast a vote. These numbers are silly and impractical; I say this only to highlight the importance of targeting.  Winning in our electoral system isn’t about convincing everybody.

The four slogans above (though strictly Blair’s was Because Britain Deserves Better but nobody remembers that) have a lot in common. The only word with more than two syllables is America. They’re short and snappy. The last two have elements of assonance and alliteration. They’re positive. They conjure the idea of change.

So why did Strong and Stable fail? Well, campaigns also have to pass the sniff test. Does it “feel” like it makes sense? You can’t run on stability and then do U-turns. But often campaign failures go further than that. Hillary Clinton (Ready For Hillary) and Stronger In (Harder Better Faster…just kidding it was Stronger. Safer. Better Off. Probably) didn’t just have poor slogans – they lacked a message. Stronger In was persistenly undermined by wild claims about average loss of earnings and emergency Brexit budgets. Clinton…well, I’m still not sure what her message was.

…and if so, what?

To build a message, you have to start with an idea. Who are we? Well, we’re liberals. Which is so vague and fluffy you could barely convince a child it was worthwhile let alone an electorate. The party is split along the lines of Orange Bookers and Yellow Social Liberals. Economic and social liberalism have not always been easy bedfellows and the fault lines between the SDP’s social democracy and the Liberal Party’s classical liberalism still hinder the party.

I don’t believe they should. Economic and social liberalism are not mutually exclusive. Further, they are necessary for one another. A failing economy leads to unemployment and inflation. If you can’t afford food and heating because prices go up, you’re more likely to get sick or do badly at school. If you have no job, crime may be the only option.

An effective welfare state reduces sickness, trains and educates people and gets them back into the workplace. It is worth spending money on. Thatcher’s legacy of failing to pay for a welfare state can been seen in the mining towns and villages across South Yorkshire. Blair believed that unfettered free markets would give traditional Labour voters jobs – it didn’t as their skills were rendered obsolete and a crushing recession after his resignation meant they struggled with what little they had left.

Brexit

Too few people care about Europe for it to be an electoral issue. When the next election will be remains uncertain but the emphasis cannot be on staying in the EU. Brexit is, I think, an inevitability. Whether or not the second referendum stays as policy, it should be quietly pushed aside – we need a plan for Brexit.

The case should be made for free trade and the positives of immigration. Come the 29th March 2019, I have no doubt the Conservative government will have screwed this up. Royally. We have to have a positive alternative. Change Britain’s Future is a solid slogan (though I humbly suggest Change Your Future or Change Our Future for the, er, future). Indeed, there is something in the Republican notion that you can “pull yourselves by your bootstraps”.

The bottom line is a plan for a post-Brexit world. One where we show why it matters that we reach out to Europe and the rest of the world. How the Polish fruit-picker means the farmer in Lincolnshire has a job. As does the lorry driver who moves the produce and supermarket cashier who sells it. The mechanic who fixes the lorry and buys parts from Germany because of the trade deal we have – but rather than framing these as costs, these can be framed as opportunities. Immigration can create jobs for the many, not…the smaller number.

But moreover, how that money can be ploughed back into deprived areas. Into retraining the everybody for the onset of new technology.

We can be for both and we should be and we have to be.

Will it work?

No idea. May be this is all rambling. I’m not a seasoned campaigner, an expert in polls or a politician. I’m not clear we can successfully sell immigration to a skeptical electorate. Though most people’s number one reason to vote Leave was sovereignty, not immigration, this doesn’t say how important immigration was to them. I wonder if it is still too early to be talking about free trade in an increasingly isolationist Britain.

But if we can back the slogan – Change Britain’s (Your?) Future – with an idea, the idea that we can build a welfare state that creates a booming economy in the wake of Brexit to pay for that welfare state, may be we can sell it to 5 million more than people in 2022 that we did in 2015. Unless we do this all again in October…

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