One year ago the Lib Dems were fighting a rearguard going into a General Election they had once hoped would deliver over 100 new MPs. Five years prior the party had had over 50 MPs and seats around the Cabinet Table. Despite the false dawn of the 2019 European elections, the story of the last five years is one mostly of managed decline for the Liberal Democrats. The party membership and leadership are asking the same question: what is the route back to relevance? However, there are significantly different answers here — which is a primary cause of many of the recent fights and elections internal to Britain’s liberal party.
During the coalition government, where party policy had the very real potential to become law, debates in conference halls and fringes typically focussed on what was the best policy, and the best policy priorities for the party. The party membership felt a duty to examine proposals put forward, and to debate them, using their accumulated expertise to try to make Britain more liberal — and to potentially change the direction and policies of the coalition government. Now party members view it as their duty to help the party climb out of its current sorry state, to try to give British liberalism a stronger voice. The conference hall still features arguments from expertise, but now more than ever the debate is a proxy for discussions about strategy and party messaging.
The dominant position in the last decade has been that the party must be, above all things, “credible”. This position has been the approach since about 2010, when the goal became to establish the Liberal Democrats as a normal and natural party of government. The more recent 2019 General Election campaign was driven by this desire too. It was seen as key to present the Lib Dems as “a credible party who can form a government” and that Jo Swinson could be the next Prime Minister. This perspective also led to an open door for defecting MPs. Statements and parliamentary motions before their defection were ignored in favour of the greater good of growing the parliamentary party and thereby gaining credibility. This thinking leads to the argument that policy, strategy, messaging and actions must be set out in such a way that they don’t scare voters, and don’t close off options. Tweaks to the system, competence, and better management become the electoral offer, with minor policy inducements here and there. There is no offer of a drastic departure from the status quo. Scars from coalition entrench this perspective: bold policies that the party was unable or unwilling to implement were seen as damaging; such failures must never happen again. “Work carefully and win elections,” this group would say, “and then govern as liberals, incrementally making the world better.”
The alternative position notes that the “winning elections” part is not exactly going to plan, with the Lib Dems now languishing at little more than 6% in opinion polls, placing behind the Green party on occasion. The party has retreated in previous strongholds. This position sets out that voters do not know what the party stands for, and therefore argues that the party’s main goal now has to be getting across who they are and what they stand for. Proponents argue that middle of the road managerialist statements don’t get noticed or provide any cut-through. This group believes that there is no tension between winning and standing up for liberal values; to these activists you get noticed and win by loudly defending these values. Such eye-catching positions do not need to break the bank. The 2010 pledge to vote against any rise in tuition fees managed to be, by definition, cost neutral, but became an eye-catching talisman for an empathic, caring party. Indeed, throughout the noughties, policy was used to reinforce that national message — for example through campaigns to help gurkhas. A sizeable group within the party wants an approach that returns to this strategy, placing bold, distinctive policy and messaging hand-in-hand to create a values-based path that the party should follow, instead of the managerialist and credibilist approach attempted in 2015, 2017 and 2019. Of course, it’s always hard to separate out policy and messaging beliefs, and this group also strongly believes that campaigning on key liberal issues is a moral imperative. “What is the point of being in politics,” they might ask, “if not to campaign for your values? If you stand for nothing, what’ll you fall for?”
None of this is to say that the credibilists are unaware of the issue the party faces on “values”. However, the emphasis of credibilists is placed on the party not sharing the values of voters, rather than a failure from the party to effectively communicate its values to voters. Credibilists therefore launch listening campaigns, and don’t want to take too strong a stance on various issues, for fear of alienating people. Their answer is for the party to pitch in a centrist manner. As Ed Davey put it on winning the leadership: “Voters don’t believe we share their values. And voters don’t believe we are on the side of people like them. Voters have been sending us a message, but we have not been listening. It is time for us to start listening…I am listening now.” Davey has told activists to wake up and smell the coffee, given three disappointing general election results in a row for the party. Despite the 2015, 2017 and 2019 election campaigns being fought using credibilist approaches, it seems likely that this missive was directed at the group who favour bold and distinctive messaging and strategy.
However, there is no reliable route for Lib Dem activists to feed their views into national messaging and strategy. Instead, many activists turn to policy debates at conference. Activists try to box the leadership into specific positions that either demonstrate credible managerialist competence or signpost the party’s values. These debates are not a left versus right battle for the soul of the party, but a battle for how the party sets out its stall. The two groups often agree that the party establishment policy pitches are reasonable policy positions, but the values-led group feel that these policies don’t set the world alight, and fail to achieve the core necessity of communicating the party’s values.
The two approaches lead to clashes, even when the groups agree on the actual policy positions. In the 2019 General Election the Liberal Democrats adopted a position in favour of revoking the article 50 notification — one that the “values-led” group hoped would signpost clear pro-European values. However, it was primarily used in the campaign to bolster a credibility argument: that the Liberal Democrats could form the government and gain this power to revoke, rather than to make a strong pro-European values case. It is somewhat ironic that the less explicitly pro-European “final say referendum” position in the 2019 European elections was more successful than the more explicit revoke position. Those who want values-based campaigning would argue that this was because the European elections campaign was the first time in a decade the party had made a values-led pitch to voters, building a campaign around the party’s opposition to Brexit. The credibilists would argue that the “final say referendum” was simply a more credible position.
The fault lines between the credibilist and values-based positions still remain; I think the party’s 2020 leadership election is best viewed this way. Ed Davey’s pitch was one of experience, emphasising his role in the coalition government and in delivering green energy, and as someone who can appeal to those who have previously voted Conservative (despite both leadership candidates having won Tory-facing seats): he was pitching as a credible national leader. Layla Moran made a values-based pitch of returning to the radicalism of the noughties and the values-led approaches of the Charles Kennedy era; Davey very much hinted that this approach was dangerous. The two viewpoints were at odds: when Moran talked about being more radical than Labour and achieving cut-through with young voters, the credibilists heard “more left-wing” and worried about turning off existing voters. Looking back on the campaign, there’s tentative evidence that Moran’s bold proposals for the party leadership did themselves achieve significantly more press coverage than was achieved by the Davey campaign. Never-the-less, Davey secured victory in an all-member vote, and promptly launched a listening tour to find out what he should do as party leader.
In many ways Davey’s leadership style has epitomised the credibilist approach. Since he took office, the party has scaled back its commitment to a future for the UK in the European Union (despite the latest YouGov poll showing 51% of people think Britain is wrong to leave the EU, compared to 38% who still back Brexit). And despite adopting a radical policy of a Universal Basic Income — far from a minor tweak to the existing system — the central party has pitched the policy as a mangerialist change, providing for an enhanced carers allowance. This presentation style is one of the other major criticisms of the credibilist approach. Opponents claim that it offers little vision for a grand transformation of British society, and instead offers minor adaptations on a case-by-case basis — even when the policy espoused is genuinely transformative. The mangerialist, credibilist style pigeon-holes the party’s proponents into talking only about a handful of issues. The party then becomes slow to adapt when new issues arise, and slow to offer a liberal perspective when the party doesn’t control the conversation, with little to say to large numbers of voters in seats where the party has gone backwards since 2010. It is perhaps unsurprising that Ed Davey finds that coalition doesn’t come up on the doorstep: his party has long since stopped speaking to those who had issues with it.
It’s not clear where the Lib Dems go following Davey’s listening tour. While the credibilist, managerialist approach has won internally for now, it remains to be seen whether this approach will buck the trend and unlock good election results for the party in 2021 and beyond. It seems the divide between credibilists and those who want a values-led approach will remain.