No pressure on whoever ultimately succeeds Tim Farron as new LibDem leader, but I have to disagree with those mourning the party’s lowly share of the vote and seats in GE2017 last week and who are totting up the decades it will take to rebuild. People seem to believe we face a choice between either being wiped out or else clinging on and at best making a small advance on which to build next time.
Well if we have so little to lose, we may as well raise the stakes and gamble on winning big. If Justin Trudeau’s Canadian Liberals can leap from a third-place 32 seats to a majority-winning 184, if the SNP can surge from 6 Scottish MPs to 56, if Macron can storm from zero to 400+ French parliamentarians, then why are we so ready to rule ourselves out of a similar destiny? Here are my ten steps to seeing a LibDem Prime Minister by Christmas.
1. We know that the British people want competent government — a government that is fair to those who need help, at the same time as being strong against those who use their guile, wealth, power to game the system. The Conservatives used to be seen as ‘a safe pair of hands’ even if you disagreed with their social policies — but their abject performance since the referendum and current shenanigans as they attempt to form a government have finally blown that mantle of competency. With worse to come as Brexit negotiations begin, it will take the Tories years to recover.
2. We must seize the opportunity to push an emphatic message that voting LibDem is the best way to express a preference for competent government that will enact real social change — specifically in support of policies such as early years education, health spending, social welfare, sensible taxation, commitment to the environment, support for entrepreneurs, economic expansion based on trade with Europe and the world, and so on. As the IFS showed, the LibDems offered by far the fairest tax and benefits plans in the election campaign, whereas both Labour and Tory plans clobbered the poorest.
3. LibDem MPs may be a small group but it’s one that’s rich in proven talent. One of the old objections to putting LibDems in power was that we had no government experience, but that no longer applies (even if, in these days of Trump, that’s any longer considered an impediment). On the contrary, LibDem ministers have shown themselves to be highly competent and willing to push forward imaginative policies such as the raising of the tax threshold, the pensions triple lock, the pupil premium, equal treatment rights for mental health, and many other LibDem-inspired achievements of the 2010-2015 government.
4. In UK general elections, people vote for governments. Not second-best oppositions. That’s the product of the binary electoral system we have at the moment. So every party has to position itself as a prospective government, and has to convince the electorate that it has a real prospect of becoming a government. Next time we can’t afford to downplay our ambition. We must be in it to win it.
5. We know that there’s a huge untapped groundswell of support for the LibDems, even resentful frustration at our inability to get our act together and properly represent the liberal majority in this country. In a recent blog, Neil Monnery referenced the suppressed YouGov poll during the 2010 election campaign that found 49% were ready to vote LibDem if they thought we could win. In the event, we besmirched that goodwill with a broken pledge, but we have since paid the penalty. It’s time for us to move forward again and this time explain how we’ll deliver our heartfelt vision for the future of this country.
6. One scenario that could produce a LibDem PM would be based on a centrist realignment in the new parliament of the type described by The Economist in its pre-election endorsement of the LibDems. Given the fractured nature of the other parties, a group of around 50 LibDem MPs could become the fulcrum around which breakaway groups from the other parties could join together to form a government. I believe we can do better than this, but let’s take that as our worst-case scenario.
7. Such a rise in numbers depends on an election campaign buoyed up a big rise in our membership and in our popular vote. We must use the coming leadership campaign to drive a further surge in highly motivated new members, because the ground war at the next general election is going to need us to direct 100s of volunteers to each of our target seats. At the same time, we need a highly effective ‘air war’ that delivers our core message with passion across all forms of media, including social media. Our target should be to drive the Liberal Democrat vote from its current 7% into at least the 20%+ range, providing a significant mandate for a LibDem government supported by other groups of MPs.
8. But here’s the thing. We don’t have to wait for the next general election to begin appealing to breakaway MPs and opinion leaders from other parties to join us. Once public support for the Liberal Democrats begins to firm up in the opinion polls, potential defectors and breakaways will be emboldened to make their move pre-election — perhaps even precipitating an election by eroding the government’s already tenuous support. Such moves would further bolster the experience and heft of the parliamentary party and of its candidates. And individual voters can help make it happen by switching their support to the Liberal Democrats now when talking to their friends, posting on social media, or being surveyed by opinion pollsters.
9. That’s when a breakthrough into the 30%+ range in vote share starts to look possible. Even despite their low starting point in last week’s general election, Liberal Democrats will then become contenders in more and more seats, based on prior voting history, demographics and local credibility. Unlike previous elections, where only one of the incumbent parties has been weak, 2017 has created a unique set of circumstances where both are equally compromised. That allows the Liberal Democrats to draw our new voters equally from both Conservatives and Labour, with minimal danger of letting one or the other in by taking a larger number of votes away from their rival. In the vast majority of seats in this country, it’s patently clear which party’s voters should switch tactically to help a third party leapfrog the incumbent.
10. In any case, LibDems only need to become largest party to form a government — if they take seats in roughly equal proportions from both Labour and Conservatives, they could become largest party with a little over 200 seats. That’s still a stretch from a starting base of 12, but it’s a lot lower target than 325 to form a majority government. Once installed at Number 10, I suspect the new LibDem PM would refrain from calling yet another election within a few months. Instead, the party could choose to govern with the support of MPs from other parties as a demonstration that coalition can work, in preparation for the introduction of a proportional STV voting system for the subsequent general election under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act.
So there’s my 10-point plan. I confess it’s a lot to achieve if the next general election does take place this year. I believe it becomes even more credible if some government or other cobbled together out of the current parliament staggers on into 2018. You may call me a dreamer, but I prefer to think of myself as ambitious. And if you can’t be ambitious for what you believe in, then you are just a dreamer. What do you want to be?