The question that raised its head in strategy discussions with every recent leader of the party and, I am sure, in David Cameron’s counsels, too, is: How do we deal with the Lib Dems?
That question is reinforced when, as I do, you go to Conservative marginal seats where the incumbent MP is a Lib-Dem. ‘Please,’ the candidate pleads, ‘Can you ask Central Office to do more to attack the Lib Dems?’ ‘We need to show everyone,’ they go on, ‘that they are two-faced… that they are on the left… that they say one thing to one audience and another to another… that they fight dirty… that they love the European Union and believe in high taxes.’
You can’t help having some sympathy for this request, after all it is the Lib-Dems’ improved political position which over the last fifteen or so years has done such significant damage to the Conservative Party. Not just in seats lost to Lib-Dems but where they have eaten away at our vote, opening the door to Labour.
Sympathetic as I might be, I am however certain that this head-to-head national battle just doesn’t work. The more I have watched the Conservatives attack, the more I notice that the public doesn’t seem to pay any attention to the content of our critique. Instead we seem to confirm many of the voters’ negative views of us. I believe that the rules of politics which apply to us don’t apply to the Lib-Dems.
When people vote Conservative or Labour they do so in the hope that
they will be selecting the next government. This is not the case when
people vote for the Lib-Dems. That is why the charge of hypocrisy or
inconsistency is damaging to Labour or us. You wouldn’t countenance a
government or future government in which local parties did one thing
while their national leaders said and did something else. And yet this
is exactly what Lib-Dems do all the time and without appearing to
suffer at all. The reason for this lies in the politics of those who
vote for them.
I recall studying a poll of Lib-Dem voters which asked whether they had
voted for either Labour or the Conservatives before. Interestingly,
approximately 20% had voted Labour and 25% had voted Conservative. They
were then asked if they could name up to five Lib-Dem policies. The
ex-Labour voters gathered around leftist policy issues such as higher
taxes and greater support for trade unions. The ex-Conservatives, by
contrast, said lower taxes and looser ties with the EU amongst others.
In other words nearly half of those voting Lib-Dem not only couldn’t
recall any Lib Dem policy but had transferred their own political
beliefs onto the face of their new party. This made the powerful point
that they had stopped voting for the other parties because they had
grown dissatisfied with them, not because they were enamoured of the
Lib Dems. (This was before the Iraq war and so wasn’t distorted by that
event.) They were angry with the two main parties and saw the Lib-Dems
as a good way of punishing the party they used to support.
It is also worth noting that the recent fall in the Lib-Dem vote was
made much worse when they turned in on themselves and fought about
their leader. For the first time in a long while they began to look
like the other two parties and the public didn’t like it. They always
sold themselves as being ‘none of the above.’ The media spotlight
revealed a rather nasty bunch of ‘politicians’.
It is worth noting that since then they have, despite the leadership
election, received far less media attention, their poll rating has
risen as a result. In a peculiar way, silence suits them. This is
because a significant part of their support doesn’t really care what
the Lib-Dems believe.
Finally, much of their success has been garnered locally. They
ruthlessly do almost anything to grab the attention of the voters. It
is here that they reinforce the sense that you can protest and make a
difference by voting for them, regardless of any belief you hold – if
you are ‘none of the above’. It doesn’t matter that in another nearby
town or nationally they are saying something different. The best anti
Lib-Dem campaigns are almost always local.
The most important thing Conservatives have to do to damage the
Lib-Dems is to put our own house in order. To become credible again
with a clear narrative of a strong economy, functioning as part of a
strong society, which appeals to the public as more than just self
interest. No more internecine war. Our party must at all times behave
decently. Whilst this has begun to take place, there is still a feeling
amongst the public that we will revert to type. Confounding that
possibility is critical if we are to take away the Lib-Dems’ reason to