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25 September 2020

There are no shortcuts to recovery for the Liberal Democrats, but there are bear traps

The party risks learning the wrong lessons from 2020, warns former Lib Dem communications director Sam Barratt. 

By Sam Barratt

Lockdown presented an opportunity for me to spend more time in the kitchen, an opportunity I took a little too enthusiastically.  So I was left with no option but to sign up to the Couch to 5k running programme.  

Early attempts to fast-track through the first few weeks ended in failure. It was only upon realising that following the well-developed plan was essential that I eventually reached my goal. Which brings me to the Liberal Democrats. 

There are no obvious quick fixes to rebuilding the party’s parliamentary strength. We need a period of introspection like a hole in the head and accepting the route ahead of us is hard, but achievable is the first step. Properly committing to the right plan is the second. 

In the aftermath of the general election the theory that a left-wing Labour party leader seen by many as a dangerous choice of prime minister will somehow leave “space” for another party to occupy to their electoral advantage has now been tested to destruction.

Credibility is the biggest challenge the Liberal Democrats face: can you win here? What does voting for you do?  That credibility comes from winning in local government and devolved administrations, so resources should be prioritised to delivering those results in 2021. Building this credibility in target areas is the key to returning the highest electoral dividend for the party in Westminster, far more than any individual policy initiative or magic words spoken from a conference podium. Winning in constituencies between now and the next general election earns the right to hope voters will consider our offer of a credible plan that speaks to their needs, inspires activists to campaign and advances the liberal principles which are why we exist in the first place.  Political parties must be the intersection between ideological policy and electoral pragmatism. To try and appeal to everyone is to risk appealing to no-one: this is especially true for third parties.

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We do not have the resources of Labour or the Conservatives and must carve out every advantage we can by recognising our unique challenges and not try to apply off-the-shelf techniques and approaches that can work for them, but cannot yet for us.  A huge contrast is in how much longer it takes for any message to cut through, which is why early clarity is so important. The time taken for the party’s anti-Brexit position to be known by most people was measured in months and years rather than weeks. And that was on the biggest issue of the day, that was constantly in the news. While on the ground strength is essential if we are to build electoral successes, when it comes to our plan we should seek to highlight a core group of distinctive, liberal issues that the party is unique in championing which complement a broader offer that appeals to those who value entrepreneurialism, environmentalism and an active state.

For example, the party should be a natural voice for supporting more choice and flexibility in work for the growing number of people who want it. Alongside investment in infrastructure and supporting entrepreneurs and businesses to enable more homeworking, this has to mean introducing universal free childcare. What was already a policy that would do so much for many families is needed more than ever as the enforced move to more home-working has seen many parents reducing their hours due to a lack of childcare, according to the IFS and UCL. This is particularly true of mothers, who are also more likely to have left paid work and are more likely to be trying to work and provide childcare simultaneously. A significant reappraisal of how much we invest in provision is long overdue.  At this conference there are two potential pitfalls for proactive messages: on Europe whilst a “rejoin tomorrow” policy would be wrong and damaging we should not leave any doubt that we believe the UK would be stronger as a member of the EU in the future. The other is Universal Basic Income: a hard to explain, complex policy with an eye-watering price tag.

The biggest risk is that in learning smaller, operational lessons from the general election that we miss the biggest. It was a failure to be credible enough to the many voters who were open to us that we could win in target areas that cost us most dearly. That married to the huge, toxic unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn amongst key target groups formed a mountain that was too steep to climb. Before that, it was clarity of message that saw the party backed by over 20 per cent of voters in the European Elections and us polling at the highest level for almost a decade. It underpinned growth to record membership and defections from other parties. Even in the general election well over a million more people voted for the party than two years previously.  

Voters back us when they know we can win in their area and are clear on issues that matter to them. We can elbow our way into media coverage and build public awareness by bringing clarity, focus and distinctiveness to our offer. The Liberal Democrats must take this twin track approach. Failure to address either makes a challenging road of recovery even steeper. 

Whether it is a Couch to 5k or planning the electoral rebuild of a political party both need the right, credible plan.  There are no shortcuts in achieving sustainable growth, and in contrast to my burgeoning running career, there is no reason for the Liberal Democrats to waste time looking for one.

Sam Barratt was director of communications for the Liberal Democrats from 2017 to 2020.