Today Tim Farron, MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, was elected leader of the Liberal Democrats, beating his only rival Norman Lamb. Together the two-horse leadership contest represented 25% of the parliamentary party, of which Farron was the favourite throughout. He now has a herculean task on his hands – how can he rebuild a party which has been devastated by its stint in coalition? Unfortunately for Farron, the very tactic which made the Lib Dems so successful locally is the cause of their undoing nationally – and is the reason why they now have so little goodwill from the electorate.
The Liberal Democrats’ current electoral strategy can be traced back to the (Liberals’) autumn conference of 1970 when, following a disappointing general election, the party chose to back a resolution put forward by the Young Liberals. This suggested that the party “focus its campaigning at the community level.” The logic was that success on a local level, based on an effort “to help organize people in their communities to take and use power… to build a Liberal power-base in the major cities of the country… to capture people’s imagination as a credible political movement, with local roots and local successes” would trickle up, into success on a constituency level, returning Liberal MPs in general elections. (Dutton 2013, p.197). Thus ‘pavement politics’ was born, and the whole country has had to suffer countless Focus leaflets ever since.
Of course, in following this road the Liberals, and later the Liberal Democrats, also made much hay of being a protest vote. This goes hand in hand with pavement politics – the current party is useless, stick it to ’em by voting for us.
The logic of this approach is sound – however, it is in the execution where the Lib Dems face problems. Since getting a cracked pavement repaired, a pothole filled in, or flytipping cleared requires no ideology, this emphasis on ultra-local pavement politics comes at the expense of a coherent national policy direction. This, coupled with the highly decentralised nature of the party, means that local parties have a great say in their ideological positioning.
This flexibility is an asset when the same party is trying to fight elections simultaneously in, say, the Home Counties and Glasgow, but on a national level it leads to problems. By essentially presenting yourself as centre-left when against a Labour opponent, and centre/centre-right when you’re facing down the Conservatives, you set yourself up to disappointing at least one half of the divide. This is also a problem when you set yourself up as a protest vote – it’s all well and good uniting to be against something, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you will all be for the same thing. Every policy decision has the potential to alienate a significant section of support somewhere.
This happened to the Liberal Democrats in the coalition. Those who voted Lib Dem, but with a second preference for Labour, were horrified that the party had jumped into bed with the Conservatives at the first whiff of power – regardless of parliamentary arithmetic. Those who voted Lib Dem with the Conservatives as their second preference thought ‘may as well vote for the real thing’. Further, since voters place more emphasis on national politics than local – and indeed nowadays local elections are broadly at the mercy of a party’s national popularity – this national level decision overrode a huge swathe of local-level support, painstakingly built through years – often decades – of activity.
Nick Clegg, bless him, attempted to repackage this Janus-faced local approach into a winning national position, arguing that only the Liberal Democrats could provide a ‘heart to a Conservative government and a brain to a Labour one’. As the election result showed, acting as a brake on another party is no replacement for a winning, coherent, policy formulation.
Of course, the Lib Dems have always tried to be something to everyone – they are themselves the result of an oft uncomfortable merger of the SDP and Liberal parties. But the sad fact of the matter is this; the Lib Dems’ greatest local election campaigning tool, pavement politics and being the protest vote, is also its greatest general election liability. It was not until the Liberal Democrats had a taste of power in 2010 that the inherent incompatibility of this electoral strategy became apparent.
If Farron wants to rebuild his party – and the country needs a strong liberal voice in parliament – he needs to move beyond the party’s ultra-local, ‘trickle up’ campaigning tactic. Without a clear, popular, national policy direction, the party will have to continue to rely on pavement politics, and in attempting to be everything to everybody, they’re doomed to be nothing to anyone.