It’s fair to say that the Lib Dems haven’t had the best election campaign. And it hasn’t been helped by continual briefing from unnamed “Senior Lib Dem Figures” (whose names any Lib Dem could tell you) that any failure on the party’s part is because of its leader. Since the day the election was called there’s been briefing that Tim is the reason we’re not going to do well.
(I really must, one day, write that blog post I keep meaning to do about the parallels between Tim and Corbyn. They’re *far* more similar political figures than most people in either the Lib Dems or Labour seem to think…)
Now, I still expect us to hold up (or slightly increase) in vote share and slightly increase in our seats, but I’m no psephologist and can’t be sure of anything. But what I *am* sure of is that our failure to make up as much ground as we’d hoped isn’t a failure of strategy, but one of timing.
Quite simply, the strategy the party have taken for the last year is a good one — remember we have made by-election gains for the first time in a decade, and we’ve increased the party’s membership to the highest it’s ever been. The problem is, it was a strategy *for an election in three years’ time*, not for one this week.
Making Brexit the principal policy we’re standing on would have been great if we’d gone into the election just after the close of negotiations, as everyone assumed was happening until mid-April. Then, when there’s a deal that’s been struck that isn’t what anyone at all voted for, the Remain/Return vote would be a strong one, and would feel as betrayed by Corbyn’s Labour as by the Tories.
But right now, before Brexit has *actually* raised the price of food forty percent, destroyed the NHS, and taken away workers’ rights — and make no mistake, it will do those things — most people aren’t yet angry enough about it, even if they voted against it, for it to be the deciding factor in their votes.
But (and it’s a big “but”), while it’s not a strategy that will win us many seats (though it’s likely to win us a few) this time, it’s a strategy that would have worked enormously well in 2020. I suspect if we keep on course it *will* do us well in 2022.
But more importantly, even if we gain in neither vote share or seat numbers, Tim’s strategy (and of course it’s not *just* Tim but the whole leadership team) has been one that makes it possible for us to make gains in the future.
I honestly thought in 2015 that the party was dead. We were *hated* back then. I got abuse screamed at me at polling stations. I had death threats from Labour supporters online. The Guardian did a thing just before the last election where they paired politicians of different parties, and Caroline Lucas said of Vince Cable, giving him marks out of ten “Can I separate the man from the politics? For the man, I give him 9. For his politics, I give him 2.”
That’s where we were in 2015. This year, Caroline Lucas was pushing for an electoral pact with us, and asked Greens to stand down in several of our target seats, including Vince’s.
That’s what two years of Tim’s detoxification strategy has done for us. We’re now almost back to where we were in people’s affections in the early 90s — people liking us, and saying they would vote for us if they thought we had a chance, but being squeezed by the big two parties.
This election is a difficult one for us in many ways — not least because last election was the first one *ever* where we came third in neither vote share nor seats. That means that it’s been that much harder getting air time this election. The “return to two-party politics” we’re seeing actually helps us next time, I think, because unless the polls are *staggeringly* wrong we’ll be third in vote share UK-wide, and third in seats in England and Wales. But retaking our old seats will be a multi-election, multi-decade project, and anyone who thought otherwise was deluding themselves.
But most important in that is building a core vote, and that’s what Tim’s strategy has started doing for us. Our vote share is dropping in some of our former strongholds because they disagree with our Brexit stance — but it’s rising in areas where they’re receptive to our message. If we’re *going* to be only polling at eight or nine percent, I’d rather that be eight or nine percent of people voting for us *because they agree with us enthusiastically* than eight or nine percent voting for us as a “none of the above” protest vote or because they like a particular local hard worker.
We have the membership now. They’re more active, engaged, and *liberal* than they’ve ever been, And what I don’t want to see this week is the blame for the poor result being put onto the man who’s done a tremendous amount to fix the broken mess of a party he inherited.
Yes, Tim’s not faultless — *THAT* interview was a disaster, and he should have had better answers prepared for a question we could all see was coming — but *all* party leaders have their complete cockups, and most of them as bad as that.
We need to do a *hell* of a lot of work to make this party electable again — work that will take a decade or more to do — but Tim has started the process of turning the oil tanker around. I have a lot of ideas about what we can do in the next Parliament, which I’ll start sharing once the results are in, but we have to be radical.
And unfortunately, I think that any possible anti-Tim contender for the leadership immediately after this election will not be radical, but will return to centrist messaging and watered-down focus-grouped-to-death policies. In which case the strange death of Liberal England will finally be complete.
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