The centre ground has vanished and it is we, the Liberal Democrats who surrendered it. Despite the warning signs, we chased the ideological vision of a second referendum on Brexit, hoping that anti-Tory and anti-Hard Brexit sentiments would see us commit a “smash and grab” of Remain votes. Instead our resulting campaign saw us focus on an issue that was becoming secondary, even to those who voted against it less than one year ago.
Our reasoning was sound, the Labour party were falling apart from within and our unity and strong online presence gave us the opportunity to make a name for ourselves during a snap election as the real opposition. However, the execution of this plan was poor and we became a single-issue party who held no legitimate claim to the Centre-ground of the UK political spectrum. With Jeremy Corbyn pulling Labour, not only apart from within, but also to a hard-left doctrine and Theresa May pulling the country towards a hard-Brexit it was on the centre-ground that we should have staged our campaign.
Relying on a “Remainer” bounce in our vote by promising a second referendum on the terms we left the EU, was a mistake that I described as potentially “catastrophic” for our party when I wrote to Tim Farron 7 months before the election. I am happy to write today saying that the decision was not as catastrophic as I first predicted, but it certainly held us back. A party does not establish itself as the “real opposition” simply by opposing one policy that the two biggest parties in our country were either directly or indirectly supporting. All this did was establish that we were the anti-Brexit party, a group of people who were aiming for votes from the 49% of people who voted leave and who were willing to alienate the other 51% in order to do it. Compiling this with the fact that it was evident very early on that the general public were becoming tired of referendums and elections (And politics in general), and it is easy to see why our campaign began to fall apart.
This, however, is history as they say. It is time for the Liberal Democrats to commit to a restructure and devise a new way of thinking, and this memorandum is how I believe we should go about doing just that.
The direction this country is taking is clear, we will leave the European Union and a large part of our society and links to the wider world, for want of a better phrase, will be hitting the reset button. I am firmly of the opinion that as a party we have squandered the opportunity to stake a claim as the “real opposition”, and now our focus must now be redirected.
Since the Coalition our party has suffered dramatically in local and national elections. Despite a highly welcome increase to our party membership this has not been reflected in real-term votes. This is where our focus needs to begin, with setting our sights on rebuilding from the ground up. All of our efforts need to be focussed on ourselves, rather than trying to bring down the Labour party. It is all very well and good making the claim to be the real opposition, but with only a handful of MPs it is nearly impossible to back up or to be taken seriously.
I suggest a renewed focus on the centre ground and a national rebranding. An issue such as our exit from the European Union is no longer the “luxury” single-ticket item that we have the chance to oppose. Therefore a complete revamp of our policies so as to firmly realign ourselves in the political centre and an effective national branding campaign to accompany this, is now a necessity.
It is now required of the Liberal Democrats to show that in a world where our country is being torn between two extremes that we are “strong and stable” centre upon whom the population can rely. This is what our campaign should have been focussed on during GE2017, presenting ourselves as the party under whom Brexit would have been the easiest transition, rather than the party who would attempt to prevent it altogether, yet disguise it under a second referendum.
We should not be scared to adopt policies from the left or right wings of politics, it is foolish of any party to outright deny that feasible and efficient ideas can be born from ideologically opposing sides. One example I present to you here today is on Defence policy. Many assume that there are very few votes to be won on Defence issues, and whilst this is not something I agree with, I also propose that it doesn’t matter. And yes, the Liberal Democrat 2017 manifesto did have some very good policies on defence, but it could have gone further. The policy of a “Golden Handshake” to STEM graduates who go into armed forces engineering is only a Step 1 policy, the starter blocks, if you will. Furthermore, I would maintain the position we held on reducing Trident to 3 submarines, but I would go one step further and ring-fence the money saved on this policy so that it has to go back into our defence expenditure. The Ministry of Defence is severely underfunded and for all the rhetoric the Conservative party produce about putting £178 billion into defence equipment funding, this still isn’t enough. It leaves room for a centre ground party who have a strong policy stance on Defence and a liberal attitude towards Britain’s role on the world stage to really take the reins on this area of policy and lock it down as one of their own.
Our position in the world will be changing drastically over the coming years and I believe that it will be wrong to turn the idea of Nationalism into one that comes with negative connotations. As such the Liberal Democrats can begin to represent the level-headed approach to Britain’s role in the world after Brexit. We can still be the party that we should have been presenting ourselves as before the election.
What Steps Need To Be Taken?
Much like peeling off a plaster the way we are going to achieve our end goals of reaffirming our place in Westminster and regaining our lost influence, is through the short but sharp pain that comes with restructuring our party. I do not write this memorandum with the belief that I will convince everyone in our party that this is the path which we need to take, no do I believe that I will even convince most. But regardless, it is here where I make my bolder claims about where we as a party need to go and it is likely here where I lose those disregard the need for any drastic change.
Our current party structure is failing us. I have already highlighted how our attitude towards policy needs to be shifted, but I believe that our internal workings also need a revamp. In the general election only 29.1% of our candidates were female, for a party that champions liberal attitudes and equality that simply isn’t good enough. If necessary I would have our party adopt all-women short lists and create a new list of candidates, so that these people can begin in earnest to become champions of the local area in preparation for future elections (Which are not too far away, I feel we can all agree on that).
Secondly, we are restricting ourselves when choosing our Shadow Cabinet. I do not believe that we should be relying so heavily on our colleagues in the House of Lords to fill out roles that we otherwise would not have enough MPs to fill. Instead I would challenge our Leader to name younger members of our party, those from less traditional roles such as councillors, who may have fresh and innovative ideas on how to move our party forward. We should be lucky and grateful that our role in Parliament was enlarged during the General Election and playing our cards safe was fine for steadying the ship after 2015, but now is the time to take risks, now is the time to start rebuilding the ship.
Lastly, I call on Tim Farron to step down as leader of the Liberal Democrats. I want to be very clear that I have great respect for Tim Farron and I believe that he did an admirable job considering the uphill battle he found himself adopting when he took charge. However, I do not see a successful future under Tim Farron for the Liberal Democrats. I would ask that our party instead looks towards the future and supports the application of Jo Swinson as our new leader. Having previously being a Spokesperson for our party in the areas of foreign affairs, equality and Scotland, as well as being a Minister for Business and for Women and Equalities, Jo is perfectly placed to lead our party in what are rocky times. I firmly believe that with our full support Jo Swinson could be the ideal candidate to move our party forward.
Positives and Negatives
No plan is without flaw however and I am confident enough to recognise the faults in mine. Quick and thorough restructuring can sometimes do more harm than good, however the time will never be more opportune than now, with the Conservatives on the back-foot having suffered a disastrous General Election campaign and Labour having restructured around the left of the political spectrum.
The worst case scenario coming out from this restructure would be that we have until the next general election to redefine it and figure out what is and isn’t working for us. But if we are all honest with each other, our situation can’t realistically get much worse.
The best case scenario however far outweighs this. We are being afforded the chance to start over and if we take it then we can rise anew from the ashes that we left behind in 2015. We can maintain our liberal stance on society, whilst at the same time being strong enough to show that we have what it takes to not only oppose the Government, but to do so without compromising our ideals in order to win votes.
I recognise that I have proposed drastic change to our internal party structure, and somewhat lesser of a drastic change to our outlook on policy, but I am of the belief that this is what our party needs. We would be fools to coast for the next Parliament, and the sooner that we make changes the greater our chance is of being able to make a difference the next time we are afforded the opportunity.
As a party we were handed a once in a lifetime opportunity to hit a home-run during this general election, and we failed to take it, as such we are today facing the consequences of that. But if we work together, as we always have, and execute our plan effectively, then there is no real opposition standing in our way of resurgence.
How we react to the events of the past 7 years will define our future as a party. We can either show our strength and recognise that we are in need of change, make that change and then push on, taking our future by our own hands and not allowing it to be dictated by anyone else. Or, we can flounder over the coming years as we allow indecision and split opinions to disrupt where we stand going into a period of time when we need to be as united as possible.
Our country needs a party to lead it through Brexit and beyond, our country needs a party that embodies the essence of liberalism in a divided world, but one that recognises the economic and nationalist context of the time. Our country needs a strong centre ground party, our country needs us to be the party we should have been during this election campaign.
We can still be that party.