Friday, 17 August 2012

Liberal challengers?

In 1988, those members of the Liberal Party opposed to the merger with the SDP re-founded the Liberal Party as a separate political entity. It is to their credit that the party has continued to exist, albeit largely un-noticed and on the periphery, for the last 24 years. Against the odds they have managed to maintain a modest but fairly constant base of councillors, contesting a handful of Parliamentary seats at most general elections since 1992.
In light of the Lib Dem slump in the polls, and their wholly illiberal actions as part of the Coalition, I began daydreaming during my office tea break and asked myself the following question: could the Liberal Party realistically challenge the Lib Dems for the liberal/progressive vote, compounding the Lib Dems misery by helping to give them the electoral kicking that they well and truly deserve?
My tea-break hypothesis went along these lines: although the Liberals would be unlikely to make a parliamentary breakthrough, they could position themselves as a credible alternative Liberal voice and help bring about the defeat of sitting Lib Dem MPs. By looking to actively undermine Lib Dem support in their areas of strength, could they convert Lib Dem support into Liberal support, eventually usurping the Lib Dems as the primary vehicle for Liberalism in British Politics? Suitably curious, I thought I’d dig a little bit deeper to see how realistic this would be, and immediately discovered the challenges to my supposition.
Firstly, the Liberal Party only has a credible local presence in disparate parts of the UK. Not only does it lack UK wide coverage, there is very little overlap between their areas of activity and current Lib Dem areas of strength. A quick trawl of the Electoral Commission’s website for last year’s Liberal Party Accounts suggests a membership base of somewhere between 250 and 450 members across the UK. Their ability to adopt the sort of Lib Dem ‘decapitation’ strategy that I envisaged over my tea is significantly compromised by their lack of members. Members are not necessarily activists and I suspect that, with such a small membership base, their National Executive has the unenviable role of ‘head chef, waiter and pot washer’.
Secondly, they seem too focused on the fact that they are not the Liberal Democrats. Whilst that’s fine to a point, they need a more credible position based on a robust policy alternative to the Coalition to differentiate themselves. They do have policy that they can draw upon to develop this alternative,  but it has gaps, some of it is out of date, and some of it is ambiguous or confused. If they were to ever pose a serious challenge, they would need to overhaul their policy, fill in the blanks, and develop a coherent message based on a real Liberal alternative.
Whilst the evidence points to my hypothesis being disproved, I keep reminding myself that there are some 25,000 ex-Lib Dems (including me) who could be tempted with an alternative Liberal home. What if the Liberals focused their attention to actively recruiting some of these to their ranks? What if they positioned themselves as a distinctive Liberal alternative that relied on more than them simply not being the Lib Dems? What if they upped their game in terms of publicity, especially more social media and press work? What if they announced their intention to the world to take on the Lib Dems in their own back yards and directly challenge them for the right to represent Liberal Britain? The national press would love something like that, and it would certainly generate them much needed profile.
I cannot help but like the Liberal Party. It’s constitution, and the ideas presented in its albeit underdeveloped and ad hoc policy, are oozing with Liberalism. No, I don’t agree with all of it, but then I never agreed with all Lib Dem policy when I was a member. Who knows, with a bit of direction, and a lot of endeavour, they might just be able to roll their tanks directly onto Clegg’s Lawn.
Any Liberals in the vicinity of Sheffield Hallam, I wonder?

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