Reflecting on Liberal Democrat Party Conference, Atlas Director and former Swinson SpAd, Vanessa Pine, warns that hubris and short-termism threaten to undermine the promise of the new Lib Dem leader.
I’m a liberal because I believe people should be allowed to make their own life choices, and that - good or bad - those choices should be carefully defended against an overreaching nanny state. So, go ahead, eat that doughnut, drink that Coca-Cola. But I’m not a zealous libertarian, so I believe there is a balance to be struck between individual freedoms and community, where government intervention is justified. So, a smoking ban is ok because one person’s choice should not negatively affect others - particularly a child’s - life chances. I can just about get on board with calls for minimum alcohol pricing. And I would absolutely agree that taxation is the price we should pay to live in a society where the less well-off are looked after.
But can this argument be applied to Brexit? Are Brexiteers children who need to be protected from their desire to have their cake and eat it, if you will? Are the negative economic consequences of leaving the European Union so bad that a concerned minority should be allowed to take away the choice of the majority who voted for it (not just in 2016 but again in 2017 by those who supported both Labour and Conservatives with manifesto commitments to deliver it). This question weighed heavy on my mind as I arrived to sparkling seas and sunshine in Bournemouth for the Lib Dem Conference last week.
For me it is an annual pilgrimage that typically starts with an Eeyore-ish feeling about the pointlessness of our fourth largest political party, despite having been a paid-up member since 2004 and a supporter for even longer. But the optimism, the embracing of our weirdness and the dedication to doing good of the 900 or so attendees usually lifts my spirits. With this due to be the first outing of our newly elected leader – and my former boss – Jo Swinson, I had all the more reason to anticipate cheeriness.
A test for a new leader
Having romped home with two thirds of the leadership election vote, Jo too could be optimistic about conference. A summer spent appointing her new shadow cabinet, touring target constituencies and the more practical challenge of setting up her leader’s office had left her busy but happy. Welcoming new MPs and new donors into the fold has also given her reason to be ambitious for the coming months. But there are challenges both internal and external for any leader, and she is no exception.
Lib Dem leaders traditionally struggle to get cut through in the media. The polarisation of the two main parties and the implosion of Change UK has turned up the spotlight on the centre-ground, that Jo hopes to step into. Increased coverage creates a virtuous circle that boosts poll ratings, which in turn means more voters and journalists see the party in a more credible light. It was her explicit pitch to members that she could cut through better than ever before. This was her moment to prove it.
The Lib Dems could yet be overshadowed by Labour as the party for remainers. Constituency parties and shadow cabinet members are gradually dragging their reluctant leader to a pro-remain position – as evidenced by Corbyn’s somewhat ludicrous claim last week that “only Labour will give people a final say on Brexit” (overlooking Green, Plaid, Lib Dem and SNP support for a second referendum). The outcome of the punch up at Labour conference could yet give them a clearer message to sell on the doorstep to pro-European Lib/Lab waverers. (Editor’s note - subsequently Labour has gifted this to Swinson)
An election seems imminent, but the Lib Dems love a long drawn out policy debate more than anything. Using executive privilege and making up new policies for the manifesto will likely lead to a swift backlash amongst the party’s (many, powerful) committees and grassroots. Jo is faced with a short timeframe to establish her own decidedly under-cooked new policy ideas or the prospect of simply recycling those from 2017, neither of which make her look like the dynamic Prime Minister in waiting she claims to be. On which point…
To drink the Kool-Aid or not. One of the main objectives for any conference, but especially one for a new leader facing a General Election, is to excite the party faithful. The Lib Dems have an impressive grassroots infrastructure that has been stretched with an almost continuous set of electoral events over the last five years. Despite recent successes, two General Elections, a Referendum, a leadership contest, Euro and Council elections have depleted the party’s energy, capacity and its war chest. The best antidote to this is to hype up the hope, to pump egos and expectations and tell the volunteers that THIS is their long-awaited winning moment. But as Lord Steel learned to his cost in 1981, this message can only hold for so long until it is tested in the flames of reality outside the conference hall. And can get you roasted.
So how did Swinson do?
Listening to the buzz in the conference bars and even to those chatting on the train home, it is clear that the membership has gone away happy with their new leader. She was “on fire” at the rally and clearly enjoying herself in the new role. Many seemed to discover at conference that she’s not only a different looking and sounding option – she’s actually a talented politician. A weekend of strong media coverage left them feeling upbeat and excited about the prospect of a Swinson led General Election campaign. So far so good.
However, some of the other challenges outlined above combined to produce a short-termist, tactical decision to unveil a policy to revoke article 50 – IF the Lib Dems were to be elected as a majority Government. This move was intended to address the argument that the 2017 was a secondary endorsement of a mandate for Brexit. But more than anything else it was to out-manoeuvre Labour by adopting an unquestionably simple message to appeal to remainers. When all you get is a four second clip on BBC News this is also something that journalists appreciate, rather than the paragraph of caveats currently on offer from the official opposition.
Electorally this will have been tested before it was unveiled and I should stress I have not been privy to that polling. But the calculated risk that Jo and her team are taking is that, with the party at 20% ish and strong pro-European sentiment at 30% ish, a big electoral breakthrough is possible - if the Lib Dems double down on remain. So in the short term, with an Autumn or Spring election focussed on Brexit, it could deliver significant gains. And yet, as the media reaction showed it also undermines what it means to be a Lib Dem by presenting as both illiberal and undemocratic. In an Election later than Spring 2020, it also risks consigning the Lib Dems to becoming a single-issue reverse Brexit Party at a time when everyone else will want to move on.
So we return to my earlier question. I went to conference wondering, am I the only Liberal Democrat who thinks stopping Brexit is potentially problematic in the longer term? As is turns out I am not. Quietly over coffees and earnest chats about climate change policy, members were also discussing whether this was a gamble too far. Publicly senior figures like Sir Norman Lamb even went so far as to say the new revoke policy was “playing with fire”. Because whilst clear, it assumes that all remainers are in favour of revoke, it undermines the prospect for cross-party working and pisses off the voters who want to see a remain alliance. Last but not least it is inconsistent with Jo’s own calls for the need to learn once again to disagree well in our public discourse – basically saying Bollocks to Brexiteers. In my view, the party needs to do more to set out a coherent and inclusive liberal argument for revocation.
I said last year that 18 of the top 32 Lib Dem target seats had a majority of Leave voters. What the team in HQ are now doing is rapidly re-drawing those battle lines along the Leave/Remain axis. Those changes are out of sync with the party’s current infrastructure, leaving held seats like Norman’s exposed whilst opening up new fronts like Cities of London and Westminster, where the party was previously in third place on just 12%. What this new dichotomy does to the electoral map is not at all clear even to the really clever psephologists. Jo argued that in this age of uncertainty all was to play for. Chuka even predicted we would win “hundreds of seats”. Scarred as I am with the memory of Cleggmania – where the party briefly reached the heady heights of 40% in the polls in the run up to the 2010 General Election, only to go backwards in the number of seats we won - I prefer to take a more sober view. The better expectation management game would be to aim for and actually win 80 or so seats, which far from being unambitious, would be the party’s best ever electoral result.
Even this would still leave Swinson with arguably her biggest unresolved challenge. Presented with another hung Parliament, what do the Lib Dems stand for? Beyond stopping Brexit, what is she in politics to achieve? Her warm words around “an economy that works for people and planet” urgently need some philosophical and policy depth before they can be translated into messages that will connect the party with values-led voters across the UK. Having learned the hard way what happens to minority parties in coalition, Jo has already ruled out doing a deal with Boris or Corbyn, so what then? Finding the time to even think all that through before the next crazy turn of our current political rollercoaster, will require all her unquestionable discipline and focus.