Phillip Taylor is an officer of Hampstead & Kilburn Conservative Association, and has worked on previous mayoral campaigns.
Conservatives like to enjoy making jokes and pre-emptive declarations about the end of the Liberal Democrats. Often an exercise in wishful thinking, in recent years the semi-serious fantasy was close to becoming a reality.
But after their by-election win in Brecon, we can’t be quite so confident the Lib Dems won’t be having the last laugh.
“I will say only this of the Liberal Democrat symbol and the party it symbolises – this is an ex-parrot”, joked Mrs Thatcher at their launch in 1990, in the first such attempt by a Tory leader to declare them a spent force. Twenty five years later, David Cameron tried the same trick, albeit without the awkward scripted joke from John Whittingdale. Addressing CCHQ staffers on the night the Lib Dems lost 48 MPs, he pronounced: “At every election we always think we’re going to displace those Lib Dems in the West Country and we’ve finally done it”.
But the Lib Dems have more in common with another Monthy Python character, the Black Knight. Whatever disaster befalls them, whatever part of the body politic they lose including, as they did in 2017, the head of their party, they refuse to accept it as anything more than a mere scratch.
If you never give up, John Cleese said explaining the motivation of his character in the film, you can’t possibly lose. Its no surprise he feels drawn to support the Lib Dems when they take the same approach.
They are in better health than many Conservatives may wish to acknowledge: membership at almost two thirds the size of our party, and now a by-election win for an energised leader who comes to front line politics as a ‘clean skin’, without the political baggage of her counterparts in other parties. More than double the number of Lib Dem members took part in the election of Jo Swinson than elected Nick Clegg leader back in 2007. Compare and contrast the 20 per cent drop in Conservative members over roughly the same time from David Cameron’s election as leader in 2005.
The Brecon and Radnorshire by-election result has illustrated the risk in assuming the next election will be another Conservative or Labour, him or me, two-way fight like the referendum or even 2017 General Election.
Many local Conservatives who are doggedly engaged in fights with Lib Dems understand this perfectly well. Its not just the irritation of those famously inaccurate bar charts which prompts us to jest about their departure from the political scene.
Irrespective of any Remain alliance that may have helped them to victory on this occasion, the Lib Dems ground campaign and GOTV operation has always been well-organised and laser-focused. I fought (and lost) a local election campaign in London last year against a resurgent Lib Dem party. They ruthlessly concentrated resources and didn’t think twice at rolling up campaigns in next door council seats, even the one being contested by their local leader, to focus on their target seats like mine. Seats where we did better, we did so mostly because they didn’t try.
To nip a resurgent Lib Dem party in the bud, we need to address two key areas of weakness. First, James Cleverly’s sole task should be to find some rocket-boosters of his own and strap them on to the internal party reforms correctly identified and begun by Brandon Lewis. If a general election is coming in the next six months, he has time only to complete the overhaul of the campaigning side of the party HQ.
Our activist base has undoubtedly become over-stretched. Trying to relive previously successful periods by covering the same ground at the same intensity is unsustainable with a much-reduced membership. The Lib Dems have years of practice of working at this level of resourcing, concentrating operations in their key areas and make better strategic use of their limited-sized activist base.
The campaign managers being deployed by CCHQ are a necessary start, but they need to be given more autonomy and allowed to gain more field experience to work properly. Embedding this discipline within the party machine will be more effective than simply buying in electioneering expertise later.
More collective ownership of regional target seats, as well as recognition and reward of when support is being provided, is also needed. Mutual aid is sensible but needs better incentives for associations to dial-down their own campaigns in almost-but-not-quite winnable seats. Ruth Davidson’s two-election strategy in Scotland is a sound model; an offer by CCHQ of jam tomorrow through guaranteed assistance in the next council elections would be a welcome incentive for such associations to provide help elsewhere in the short term. It would also usefully re-build their activist base for a concerted effort in the following parliamentary campaign.
This by-election result is also a timely reminder that Conservative governments require broad based support to retain and win some of the marginal seats that are necessary for a Commons majority. Those seats which helped Cameron to his slim but ‘sweetest victory of them all’ of 2015 look vulnerable again. The Lib Dems are desperate to pick them off.
Our second task is to develop policies which appeal to these soft-Conservative voters and promote them loudly amidst the rising Brexit furore. Whether or not the Lib Dems win in the Labour leadership’s backyard, and the two opposition parties get caught up in some Lab to LD seat-swapping, misses the point.
Voters in currently Conservative-held seats in cities, university towns, and in moderate commuter beltways, where voters are relatively wealthy, educated, and more electorally mobile, have choices again. Socially responsible and ecologically-minded, the more considered form of liberal Conservativism won’t necessarily be persuaded that Boris’ past performance as London mayor is a sufficient indication of future intent as national Prime Minister. They are wary of some of the faces in senior positions around the Cabinet table. The Lib Dems are working to re-open the door for them.
Aspiring voters in their twenties and thirties want to own their own homes, but they want to feel good about doing it. They want to be uber-riding, deliveroo-eating and Airbnb-ing, but not at any cost. The environment counts and concerns about homelessness matter as much as personal freedoms. Equally, the forty-something citizens of the world want to see the Government’s deeds match its internationalist rhetoric before they are willing to be counted as our people again.
More solidly One Nation policies need to be worked up in areas that matter to these voters, and promoted by personalities who have, and are seen to have, at least as equal a voice in Cabinet as those from elsewhere in the party.
The heady days of 2016, when the Government not only retained seats at by-elections but took them off opposition parties, are probably the aberration they seemed at the time. The Lib Dems are back and we are back to watching them scoop up once solid Conservative seats. The next BBC general election results show mustn’t become our own climactic Godfather scene.