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In search of that Liberal Democrat revival

There are always things just beyond the horizon that are going to dramatically change everything. We’re told that fusion power is coming soon, that Richard Branson is almost ready to deliver (relatively) affordable space tourism, or that Blake’s 7 remake is definitely going to be on TV in the near future. And now, alongside all those promises, we can be sure that the Liberal Democrat revival in the polls is just around the corner. Definitely coming any day now, you’ll see, the polls will change and all will be good.

As ever with confident predictions of things that are just around the corner, there are a few problems that need to be resolved first, and can’t just be swep under the carpet and forgotten about. For the Liberal Democrats, these come down to two broad problems.

The first is illustrated by the interesting phenomenon at the last two general elections of Liberal Democrats telling themselves — and anyone who would listen- that everything was going to be all right, the party always polled badly going into a general election, but there’d be a surge during the campaign which would make everything all right. From a certain point of view, it was a sound theory, missing only the fact that all those election surges of the past had come when the party was generally an unknown quantity to most of the electorate, disappearing from view and appearing new again when the media focus fell on it once more. The party lost that obscurity by joining the coalition in 2010, and media coverage now just reminds people of that, rather than presenting them with a generally blank slate. Where Liberal Democrats were once insurgent challengers from outside, now they’re insiders and part of the established system. The party finds itself in a double bind here — there’s little popular support for a party of Coalition-era nostalgia, and those who want to return to insurgency have not yet found a way to make the public forget or ignore that the coalition years happened.

“But if you’re in favour of disablement, we still want your vote!”

The second problem is that even when the party can get people to listen to it, it has little to catch their attention, partly because it has too much to say. I’ve discussed before the problem with the party’s policy process, and the specific problem here is that it doesn’t generate big ideas. It’s all well and good to have long and detailed policy papers on every conceivable subject, each of them full with a horde of ideas from the party’s many many policy wonks, but 99.99% of voters are never going to see any of those and their attention won’t be grabbed and their interest will remain unpiqued on any of the occasions they encounter the party.

The party’s problem here is the same one that would face any putative centre party — an inability to concisely answer the question “what do you stand for? What’s the reason for you?” — because so many of the potential answers to that are followed by ifs, buts, and other caveats. The party’s one big policy right now is to be against Brexit, but also to somehow negotiate a deal on it and have a referendum on that, and if you’re actually in favour of it and might vote for us, then maybe we’re not actually that against it, and would you be interested in a Government of National Unity? On just about any big policy, the party’s attitude is to shy away from the sort of big ideas that might get attention in favour of assorted fudge that’s trying to please everyone. There’s a tendency within the party to react with horror when someone proposes an idea that might not get universal support as though it’s a bad thing for a political party to take a position on side of a divide. (I do feel that some Lib Dems believe there’s a magic form of policy out there that everyone will agree on if we could only just convene the right committee to draw it up)

It’s easy to blame the problem on the media not featuring enough Liberal Democrats, but the problem is that even when we do get featured there’s very little of interest there for people to latch on to, no big ideas to grab their attention, make them notice, and want to change their mind about supporting us. The even bigger problem is we don’t seem any closer to generating any big ideas that can fill that void. Instead, we’re playing fantasy government by churning out ridiculously detailed policy proposals, but without any understanding of how we’re ever going to get close to delivering any of them.