I want to preface whatever I write in this blog post with I don’t think anyone can say any campaign manager, any campaigner or any activist didn’t really go for it. The hard work and dedication of these people should not be questioned in any way, shape or form. However lessons need to be learned with regards to what message needs to be used for future election campaigns.
Quite simply the Lib Dem message was muddled and watered down to such a degree that it made little impact. It wasn’t gruel but it was a long way from a nice thick, rich soup. Instead of campaigning for either stopping Brexit at all costs or that we wanted a soft Brexit that put the economy, Single Market access and freedom of movement at the heart of the message. The decision was to try and please both the stop Brexit at all costs and the ‘we have to respect the result of the EU referendum’ camps and it pleased neither. That was always a bad strategy if you are genuinely looking to recoup a significant number of the losses from two years ago.
The electorate do not want nuance and thoughtfulness. They want a clear, simple, concise message. The Lib Dems did not have that this time around and it was always going to be a tough sell.
You win elections in one of two ways. You scare an electorate that the alternative is so bad that you should vote one way or you give people hope. The Tories won in 2015 because they scared the electorate that any coalition involving Labour and the SNP would screw over England. It was a huge success. They tried the same this time around but it didn’t work because they were red hot favourites and a near shoo-in for a big majority. In that situation you have to give the electorate a positive reason to vote for you. Theresa May refused to do that and we all saw what happened.
Jeremy Corbyn though put forward a manifesto of hope that everything could be better. The fact they couldn’t afford much of what they promised wasn’t important. On one side you had a Conservative party that was all doom and gloom and the electorate wanted something different. The biggest problem for the Lib Dems was they chose to go negative and you couldn’t out-negative where the Tories put themselves and therefore it had no traction.
When the party released that poster of Theresa May merged with Nigel Farage I despaired. It was just awful. Whoever approved that poster or thought it was even a good idea has been in the Westminster bubble for way too long and needs to reengage with the voter. The problem wasn’t even the transphobic nature of the poster, which was awful enough. The biggest problem was at that point in the campaign, more than 50% of voters wanted the Tories or UKIP to win so why would you ever commission a poster that reminded the majority of voters that the Lib Dems view of Brexit was not what they wanted?
I know it was clearly designed to shock and remind the soft-Tory voter of the type of Brexit that Theresa May was proposing but that was never the right way to get those voters to switch. Once again you can’t out-negative a negative Tory party (Blukip anyone?) so you have to give hope to in this case soft Tory voters that the Lib Dems can be a vital influence in ensuring Brexit is not the hard right-wing version that the Tories seemed to be campaigning on. Instead we chose to scare them and when that didn’t work, they looked elsewhere.
The place they looked was to Labour. The party whose leader is deeply EU sceptic himself. The fact that according to Lord Ashcroft’s exit poll data, two thirds of those that voted Labour actually wanted to Remain in the European Union must spin heads at Lib Dem HQ. How can a party who seemed happy to allow Article 50 be triggered really have scooped up so many Remain voters? Quite simply that put the economy first and prioritised Single Market access.
From Labour’s manifesto, ‘We will scrap the Conservatives’ Brexit White Paper and replace it with fresh negotiating priorities that have a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union – which are essential for maintaining industries, jobs and businesses in Britain. Labour will always put jobs and the economy first.‘
That my friends (as well as enemies and those who are neutral towards me) is the ding, ding, ding moment. Labour promised some fantastic things with regards to sticking it to the Tories and on domestic issues. With regards to Brexit though they cleverly manoeuvred themselves as the party of the soft Brexit where the economy wouldn’t be impacted as much. This is the position a lot of the 48% (and some of the 52%) wanted. It moved Labour into being electable for those who cared about the economy. It was smart and it meant the Lib Dems position was wishy-washy in the eyes of many potential voters.
Of course we have to look at Tim Farron’s gay sex issue. Is it right that politicians are put in a position where they have to talk about their personal beliefs without how it impacts the way that they vote? No. No it is not. Yet that is a reality of the world we live in and Tim had the best part of two years to find the answer to that question. He failed to do so. This led to a lot of momentum being stagnated early on in the campaign. Tim is a brilliant campaigner and surely he would have known he needed to to ready for this issue. The fact he wasn’t stunned me.
I have no idea if he truly has issues with this. My best guess would be that he doesn’t but that is all it is, my best guess. However whenever anyone twice in an interview uses the term, ‘theological announcements’ then you have to think they are trying to worm their way out of answering a question directly.
Tim’s performances on TV were certainly a mixed bag. In the BBC Debate he was very good. He got slammed by Andrew Neil though one-on-one, it was brutal. Neil didn’t come off as anything more than a schoolyard bully but Farron failed to make any inroads. If I were a floating voter and was watching, I certainly wouldn’t have thought much of either person on my TV.
In terms of targeting, I actually have little to say as I think in general they did a good job. I’ve seen plenty moan about the time and resources being put into Labour facing seats where we didn’t hold incumbency, Vauxhall, Bermondsey & Old Southwark, Hornsey & Wood Green, Cambridge for instance but I feel as though those seats were certainly winnable. Certainly at the start of the campaign. When the runaway carriage known as Jeremy Corbyn’s populism really got going though, this is when some time and resources could have easily been pulled and sent towards Tory facing seats (Vauxhall, Bermondsey and Hornsea to Richmond Park, Cambridge to St. Albans for example) but in general I think a good job was done here.
One thing that is clear in retrospect is the next generation of Lib Dems need to fully appreciate what it takes to get elected as a Liberal Democrat MP. Several quite brilliant younger candidates saw disappointing results and a lot of it is because the electorate don’t really know them yet. This isn’t the fault of anyone but it takes time for an electorate to get to know a new candidate, certainly if they aren’t already a councillor.
If we do have a full five-year parliament (big if) then many of these people should be in a position where they’ve embedded themselves within their community and are much more likely to have a personal connection with their electorate. If you look at many of our MPs, they’ve not won on the first go-around. They’ve won after continuing to show the local community that they are there for the long haul and aren’t just being parachuted in. This seems to be the way forward and one of the issues of this snap election, it didn’t give these candidates the time they needed.
It just felt as though the Lib Dems weren’t actually promoting anything apart from a second referendum instead of actually offering something that the public could get their teeth into. The manifesto was pretty good overall I thought but apart from the second referendum, the only other parts that made any real impact were the cannabis and 1p on Income Tax for social care policies. This shows that manifesto’s aren’t as important as we once thought, it is all about the headline policies. Labour offered everything and the Tories had a big cock-up over the so-called Dementia Tax that caused momentum to shift.
One issue we all know the party has is when the electorate aren’t sure who’ll form a government, they tend to look only at Labour or the Tories. When landslides are expected, they are happier to look at other parties. We saw this in 2010 when despite having some real momentum and more votes, the MPs went down. The 1997-2005 era showed steady growth as people knew Labour were set to win but in 2010, when push came to shove, many still went red or blue and thus the party saw a reduction in MPs.
So this is something that looked good for us when the campaign started but as polling showed that Labour could actually form a government, the electorate started to drift that way once more. This hurt in Labour facing seats but also meant lots of people who would lend a vote in Tory facing seats decided to vote tribally instead of just to oust the Tories.
The Lib Dems are no longer the party of protest. They are also no longer the party of the radical centre. They have positioned themselves as a lite version of the other two main parties and that is not a winning position going forward. I’d like to see the party move towards standing solidly for something again and not a watered down version of something else.
Labour are not liberal in any way, shape or form. They are authoritarian and want to give away free stuff but at some point we all have to pay for it through taxation. This sounds good for most, kicking the debt into the long-grass for another day. It though isn’t the smart way to deal with the problems facing the country today. Yet many did vote for this last Thursday. The fact many Remain voters went to them and indeed many natural Lib Dem voters seemed to switch showed that people are fed up and voted for the party they believed could deliver real change. That party is not the Lib Dems, or at least it wasn’t last Thursday.
If I could from my outside of HQ eyes say anything then it would be that the party has to look hard at itself in the mirror and decide what it actually is. This is not a short-term fix, this is a long haul towards being the third party in the House of Commons again but it could easily happen in five years. However what the Lib Dems need is to have that clearer and more concise message. Use positivity more than negativity.
My generation grew up with Tony Blair telling us anything was possible, the next generation is seeing that with Jeremy Corbyn, they should be seeing it with us and they aren’t. That is the most damning indictment of the 2017 General Election that any natural liberal can give.
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