Being a member of the Liberal Dems can be an emotional rollercoaster. After strong results in the local and European elections in 2019, it’s fair to say that our general election campaign last December was disappointing. That poor result has prompted a lot of soul-searching within my party, and with everybody in the country currently stuck at home, there is plenty of spare time for reflection.
Our upcoming leadership election (if it ever actually happens) is going to be crucial in setting out what our next steps should be.
Some leadership candidates will argue that the party should be more willing to work with Labour and other centre-left parties. Some think that we should immediately call for rejoining the EU. Many of our members also believe that we should just carry on as we are, as an inoffensive “centrist” alternative to the big two, which hates potholes with a passion and loves delivering leaflets.
Personally, I am yet to be convinced by any of these potential directions. We may have more in common with the new Labour leader than we did with the last one, but Labour is still a socialist party at heart. Lib Dems cherish individual freedom and civil rights more than Labour ever will, and we do not share their approach on state ownership or control of the economy. It is hard to see a formal alliance between our two groups working for long.
For better or for worse, Brexit is definitely happening. Continuing to focus on that seems incredibly counterproductive and could lead to us becoming a single-issue pressure group, rather than a serious political force. And carrying on exactly as we are? That’s obviously a pretty bad idea too.
In order to win again, we need to rediscover who we are: liberals. Our party constitution tells us to “champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals”. At our core, we believe in equality of opportunity, globalism and free enterprise. Sticking up for the individual against state authoritarianism and self-serving corporatism is the reason why liberals exist, and we have been doing it for hundreds of years.
As the Whigs and the Peelites, liberals were instrumental in the repeal of the Corn Laws, ushering in a new era of free trade and prosperity in Britain. In government as the old Liberal party, liberals combined this with expanding education and more support for the most vulnerable in the People’s Budget.
And more recently as the Liberal Democrats, against a challenging backdrop of the 2008 financial crisis, liberals entered into a coalition with the Conservatives. Not only was this government one of the more stable governments of recent times, but it was also able to implement a successful policy programme, which included cutting taxes for the lowest earners, the pupil premium and introducing same-sex marriage.
The names and faces involved may have changed over the years, but our distinct liberal values and aptitude for getting things done have not waned. I would like to see us rediscover some of this spirit. So what would a truly liberal Lib Dem policy programme look like?
Firstly, we need to become more credible on the economy. Neither the erratic Johnson nor Comrade Keir inspires much confidence among the business community. And the millions of moderate voters who aren’t huge fans of Boris or Brexit and only voted Tory last year out of fear of Labour may well welcome a sensible alternative if one were on offer. The Lib Dems, instead of just promising to fix every societal problem by spending more money, can be the party that champions economic growth and free markets.
We should simplify the tax system, by lowering or abolishing inefficient taxes such as business rates and stamp duty, and replacing them with a land value tax. We should embrace opportunities like flexible working, new technologies and automation, instead of trying to discourage them. And we should introduce full expensing, to allow more entrepreneurs to get started and to encourage larger firms to invest their profits back into the economy.
Liberal prime minister David Lloyd George once said: “When I talk about trade and industry, it is not because I think trade and industry are more important than social reform. It is purely because I know that you must make wealth in the country before you can distribute it.” That should be our attitude.
As liberals, we should also stay true to our internationalist principles. We need to champion the benefits of free trade with Europe, as the Whigs and Peelites did. We need to celebrate immigrants and the vital contributions they make to our society. And we need to work together with other countries to tackle vital issues such as the climate emergency, and managing the potential threats to liberalism around the world posed by Russia, China and others. Our party should be leading the way on all of this and more.
Rejoining the EU may be a pipe dream, at least for now. But we should still be looking to secure a close and mutually beneficial relationship with our European partners, as Norway and Switzerland have done, as well as building new relationships with the Commonwealth and many others across the world.
And we should also have a strong message on aspiration. Why aren’t we offering lifelong education, to allow everybody no matter their background to pursue their dreams? Why aren’t we offering to relax planning regulations and build thousands of homes, so that young people have the opportunity to get onto the housing ladder? And why aren’t we offering real devolution, to give some of our countries most neglected and impoverished regions, such as Cornwall and mid-Wales, a proper say in how their communities are run?
The Conservatives and Labour cannot deliver a policy programme like this – only liberals can. There is also every reason to believe if we were to adopt a platform like this, we could win.
Looking at a list of potential Lib Dem target seats, we see a diverse mix covering the home counties, suburbs and some of the most rural areas in the UK. But one unifying factor is that the majority of these seats are two horse races between the Tories and the Lib Dems, with Labour in a distant third.
In order to take a Tory seat, we will need to appeal to Tory voters. Even to win a Labour or nationalist-held seat, we will need to persuade the Tory voters there to vote for us tactically (our failure to do this in Jo Swinson’s seat last time is likely why she lost). At the next election, it is absolutely essential that we win over thousands of people who voted Tory in 2019.
Of course, there is no easy way to win all these votes overnight, but adopting a policy programme emphasising economic growth, internationalism and aspiration would be a very good start.
With Labour likely to go into the next election offering Corbynism-lite and the Conservatives increasingly moving away from free markets, perhaps the biggest gap in British politics right now is for an economically sensible and socially liberal party? (Or, dare I say, a neoliberal one?) The Liberal Democrats, by rediscovering our liberal roots, could be that party.