The following landed on my desk today, with a strangely heady, smoky aroma infusing the paper.
To: Nick Clegg
From: Angela Screwtape, Director of Strategy, Office of the DPM.
Re: Future Strategy
It''s a pleasure to be appointed as your new director of strategy. Yes, I know all the puns, but in crisis, opportunity.
If we can find a way to return significant numbers of LibDem MPs at the next election, both you and I will be regarded as political escapatologists of the first order. That's a challenge I relish, and one I think is of the greatest importance for our country.
As requested, I'm sending you my initial thoughts on what our strategy should be for the coming three years.
WHERE ARE WE NOW?
You don't need me to tell you how bad things are. We have lost perhaps half of our 2010 support, will suffer significant losses in the the next two sets of local elections, and your personal ratings are, for want of a better word, dire. If we feel less pressure than a year ago, it is simply because the coalition is currently giving us political cover as attention focuses on the failing of the Chancellor and Tory ministers, and so the media focus is on internal conservative divisions. Our biggest political positive is that with the cuts, AV and Tuition fees out of the way, the issues likely to cause division and defection within our party have already been managed.
The bad news is that in doing this we have lost a very great deal of support. Nor should we rely on the usual mid-term LibDem collapse/resurgence cycle In national polling to rescue us. This is normally a function of limited media attention in non-election years. Whatever else we feel, we cannot claim that LibDems are being ignored by the media. When Mark Pack appears on TV more often than Labour Shadow Cabinet ministers you know things have changed for the LibDems.
I'd assess success in three ways. First. that we ensure the LibDems are a distinctive, unified political force effective in government as a campaigning organisation. Second, that we maximise the number of LibDems MPs returned in the next parliament. Third, that we maximise support in the popular vote.
Defining what success looks like is important. If we were to put popular vote support as more important that returning members of parliament, it would have a significant impact on our political strategy. We would for example, focus on support in the many seats where we are currently a good, but relatively distant, second place to either of the other parties.
Equally, If we simply wanted to maximise popular vote and seats, we should give no value to being in government. However we are in politics for a reason, and delivering our political agenda in government is no small thing, though do note that the scale of the achievements we make in government reduces as the next election nears. The balance of risk and reward for remaining in full coalition is not static.
There are three broad strategies we could follow that are currently being recommended to you, either consciously or by default:
1. The path to Liberal Unionism:
Under this scenario, we judge that the value of our Coalition to the nation is so great it outweighs our concerns about our own political identity, so in exchange for key influence over the path of a broadly Conservative government, we subsume our unique political identity. This is a well worn path – by Liberal Unionists, advocates of "Fusion" in the Twenties and Liberal Nationals from the thirties right through to the post-Second World War period.
The internal logic of this position is clear. The risk of an alternative government is so great we need to secure the centre-ground with conservative support. Doing so eventually costs us electoral support, but it makes us acceptable to previously sceptical voters. As a result, a formal or informal deal becomes possible to secure the seats of sitting MPs, retain our place in government and construct a broadly centrist political agenda.
The negatives of this strategy are clear in the historical record. Once a pact is made, it becomes increasingly hard to unmake. If a Conservative government is essential to the successful governance of Britain, then what is truly distinctive about Liberalism as a political force – as opposed to say the moderate Toryism of the Bow Group, or one nation Conservatism. Further, the very act of accepting the political shelter of a long term alliance weakens your overall political independence and freedom. Clearly you seek support because you fear you would lose without such backing. This exposes a fundamental weakness that builds its own momentum. Sustained for long enough, this tends to end in absorption into the dominant party.
For some, such a relationship would be unacceptable. It is hard to see the present Lib-Dem parliamentary party retaining perfect cohesion should such an arrangement be formalised, though in the past (eg the Lloyd-George-Asquith split) organisational and political links were retained even when very different political strategies were adopted. One could picture a "Social Liberal Democrat group" forming semi-independently of the main party, sitting in opposition, but not organising candidates against MPs from the "Official Liberal Democrats". We have relatively recent experience of this. John Cartwright and Rosie Barnes did not face Liberal Democrat candidates in 1992, for example.
Nor should it be assumed that Liberal Unionism is final. If your assessment is that no conceivable Labour government could be supported by you in government, then all that has to happen is that the Labour party changes sufficiently for that assessment to change. Different people in the party will be at different points on that continuum.
Equally, should the Conservative party win a majority at the next election and decide to form a government alone, then such rifts could be healed relatively easily. The longer such an alliance goes on however, the harder it is to unmake.
2. The search for an early split:
The logic here is that in order to reconstruct our post-Ashdown political alliance of professionals, public sector workers, students and support secured by strong local campaigns and organising, it is essential that we are able to present ourselves as identifiably independent and liberal.
A corollary of this is that our alliance with the Conservatives is fundamentally situational. We support this government only as long as it is dealing with a particular set of challenges. We wish to remove that support as soon as possible in order to deliver a stronger Liberal agenda with any or all partners, To that end, we wish to end formal coalition as soon as possible, knowing that we wold then be able to publicly critique a minority conservative government, develop a distinctive Lib Dem position on issues.
There are strong arguments for such a position. It would allow us to support the fundamental economic strategy of the government without being tied into every error and policy choice of government. It would place us at the fulcrum of every political debate, and it would likely mean some return of support among voters who felt our decision to enter coalition was a fundamental mistake.
However, there are also strong negatives.
Having entered a full coalition, to depart it early would require a powerful causus belli. It would definitely not be in the interests of the Conservatives to gift us such an opportunity. Second, in departing we would not be able to instantly bring down the government through a vote of no confidence. We would face a fortnight of debate over whether to support the government or not, during which time we would either be offered concessions, or, if the polls were against us and the Conservatives felt they could win an election, simply attacked. Either way, we should ask ourselves if playing out the dilemmas of governance in public, rather than in private, would really be beneficial for us. It is highly probably that out of government, our MPs would split on many divisions and many issues. We may, by departing the harsh discipline of office, actually increase the division we sought to prevent.
The final question is whether the 1992-2010 LD electorate is attainable. A political strategy that seeks to build that electoral combination has to be based on certainty that it is achievable. I am not convinced it is. I think it is highly likely that white collar public sector workers, the metropolitan centre and students are extremely disaffected and would not return to us easily, especially as the Labour party is currently providing an unchallenging and comfortable home for such views.
If you wish to consider such a strategy, I'd advise urgent research work among 2010 LD voters to identify the current toxicity of the Lib Dem brand and barriers to voting. It may well be that you yourself are such a barrier and you will wish to understand what such a strategy means for your position.
3. Castles of Liberalism:
This is the strategy we are following at the moment, almost by default. In this scenario, we identify our currently held seats and centres of support and we seek to maintain them as best we can.
This is ultimately a ground up strategy, focused on the achievable of the re-election of individual MPs and councils, though the construction of fortresses of support where we are one of the two main parties, and thus the national political picture is of little relevance. In such areas the choice becomes LibDem or Conservative, Labour or LibDem. We are therefore able to pose to voters an entirely different challenge to the national campaign narrative. To voters in a Conservative/LibDem seats, the choice is between a Tory and a moderate, centrist LibDem still acceptable to many conservative voters and clearly preferable to those on the left. To voters in a LibDem/Labour seat, the LibDem candidate becomes the de-facto "government" candidate.
At the moment, I fear we are pursuing this strategy but in the wrong way. The logic of this position is that a LibDem in a "conservative" seat should be running moderately against the government, seeking to unite the "left" and "moderate conservative" vote against the Conservative candidate, while a LibDem in a "Labour" seat should be running moderately with the government, seeking to unite the "right" and "moderate Labour" vote. Instead, we tend to do the reverse.
There is also a bigger risk. In seeking to build such a bottom up strategy, there is a danger of national incoherence. Do we seek the re-election of the current government? Will we be more likely to go with Labour or Conservative? What conditions do we attach? If we allow a diversity of local strategy, there is a danger that we are unable to answer these questions with any particular credibility.
ALL THESE OPTIONS ARE FLAWED
It is my view that none of these strategies are acceptable, either electorally or as a coherent political position. The first likely ends in fusion, the second in defeat and the third in chaos. None of them are entirely stupid however. Those who recommend them are working from some very intelligent observations, and elements of each strategy make sense. That said, I would advise opting for none of the above and exploring a fourth option.
4. Building a new, tighter Lib Dem alliance
There is a potential electoral alliance for the Liberal Democrats.
However, it is both smaller and more focused than the 1992-2010 alliance. It is made up of those white collar professionals in both the private and public sector who accept the need for fiscal responsibility, our rural and small town "Small-c" supporters, those who find the Conservatives unacceptable but Labour unpalatable. It is broadly speaking a suburban and semi-rural constituency of voters. It excludes students and most public-sector professionals. It is both older and less metropolitan than our 2010 support. It is more free market oriented, less concerned by constitutional and civil liberties issues, though broadly liberal on matters of personal freedom.
To take a deliberate decision to pursue these voters would require an understanding that some seats would effectively be on their own in terms of building a political alliance. This alliance would not win Bermondsey, or Manchester Withington, or Leeds North West. It would mean an effective abandoning of Liverpool and Newcastle's hopes of majority, instead aiming to consolidate and retain a strong second place, at least in the short-to-medium term. It may even be pragmatic to allow candidates is such areas to differentiate themselves from the national leadership, perhaps even officially.
On the other hand, a relentless focus on this new electoral grouping, many of whom would have been Conservative voters at the last election (but by no means "core" conservative voters), might preserve for example, Solihull, or Somerton and Frome, Cornwall North, Mid Dorset and Poole, Chippenham, Berwick, Eastbourne and Torbay, all of which are currently likely to switch to the Conservatives in 2015.* It might also be enough to hold off the Nationalist surge in many rural Scottish seats, where we would be able to present ourselves as the moderate, widely acceptable face of unionism.
Many of our activists will be unhappy with the political positions needed to pursue such a position (more support for tax cuts, a tougher anti-crime message, a clearly pro-business agenda, a more car-friendly transport strategy, more openness to public sector reform, especially in schools, combined with a strong emphasis on rural issues, a tougher approach on planning and regulation than the Conservatives offer, less enthusiasm for broad house building on green-land. However, there is political space for such a political party, and it can preserve a significant segment of our political representation.
One final thought.
You have tough choices to make on strategy. You know that whatever choice you make will involve jettisoning elements of support, losing MPs and being accused of destroying the Liberal tradition. Indeed, your choice may even involve putting the whole future of the Liberal Democrats at stake.
If possible I would be relaxed about this. If the last century teaches us anything, it is that Liberalism in Britain is remarkably resilient. After a century of defeats and absorptions, betrayals, coalition, renamings and defeats we are still here, and what's more, in government. Whatever choice you make, Liberalism will remain, revive and return. In the mean-time, do what is right for the country and for liberal values as you see them.
* I am working off the 2010 boundaries here. I urgently need a separate conversation with you about the political impact of introducing the proposed 2015 boundaries. We should put these up for negotiation as part of HoL reform.