What was the Liberal Democrats’ aim at the 2019 general election: to maximise the number of Liberal Democrat MPs in parliament or to stop Brexit? That was the tactical question the party never answered – and it contributed to a mixed and muddled 2019 campaign, which resulted in the party losing seats despite increasing its overall vote share, including the loss of its leader, Jo Swinson.
That’s the verdict of a detailed post-mortem, conducted by Liberal Democrat peer Dorothy Thornhill into the 2019 election and what went wrong. It also details a series of organisational challenges facing the party. Although political parties have conducted similar post-mortems in the past, the party has broken new ground in opting to publish the document in full on its website.
The Liberal Democrats will hopefully feel the benefit of doing so, in that the Thornhill report ought to dominate and shape their leadership election, whenever it ends up being held, as well as shaping the party’s internal debates going forward. Several Liberal Democrats have privately likened the report to the 2004 Orange Book, which challenged the party’s internal ideological consensus. They hope that the Thornhill report will be a similar moment of rupture and change organisationally – albeit one that is capable of commanding broader and more enduring support within the party than the still-divisive Orange Book.
The Orange Book was the work of many authors, but they all had a freedom this report, by necessity, did not have: they could reach firm conclusions. So what are the unresolved debates in the Thornhill report?
Vision and policy can’t be separated from one another
The report recommends that the party leader should be responsible for ensuring that the party has a “vision” that appeals to voters and communicates its values.
The problem is that your “vision” is intrinsically linked to your policy platform, and in the Liberal Democrats, policy creation is in the gift of the membership.
There is an oblique reference to the leadership talking about things that were not “relevant” to voters, which to my knowledge refers to debates about Swinson’s interview on trans rights. Ultimately that interview happened not because Team Swinson decided that was the day to talk about the issue, but because the policy is a) the subject of fierce opposition and b) easy to talk about and package. If you don’t want to talk about these issues, you simply have to scrap them. If you don’t want to scrap them, then you need to accept that you will be talking about them, no matter how relevant you may find them.
Leaders matter, but you’ve got to let them lead
The report has a lot of specific criticisms of Swinson and her inner circle. It’s fair to say that, for instance, those who warned that the “Britain’s next prime minister” message would not work, and that it would receive criticism and opposition that similar statements by Tim Farron and Nick Clegg did not, were excluded in favour of an inner core of true believers.
But I’m not convinced this is a problem that can be solved or even should be a particular preoccupation for the party in the future. For good or for ill, all organisations reward proximity to the leader, be they the CEO, the headteacher or the prime minister. When those organisations fail, defeated leaders are said to be occupying the “bunker” or operating as a “cult” – when they succeed they have a “tight-knit team of hardened professionals” or an “energised young staff”.
Ultimately a party’s leader is inextricably linked to the party’s vision and message, and the Liberal Democrats have a historic tendency to stymie their leader’s effectiveness by subjecting them to reams of procedure and Byzantine committee meetings (a flaw that the Thornhill report also recognises). Ultimately I don’t think you can fix both of these problems institutionally – you can free the party from some of its overmighty procedure but at the cost of running the risk that the leader centralises decision-making and listens only to the views of true believers, or you can have the situation the Liberal Democrats presently do, where they do both.
Do the Liberal Democrats want to go back to the bad old days?
One of the correct analyses of the Liberal Democrat campaign was that they failed to ever confront head-on what they were aiming for: to stop Brexit or gain more MPs.
The problem is that the report itself doesn’t do this either, so at times it feels like the argument runs something like “it’s a shame the party didn’t have a more fungible pro-Remain position, so we could win seats like St Ives and then stop Brexit against our voters’ wishes”.
The Liberal Democrats had some electoral success in the 2001-10 period with an approach not a million miles away from this, running on ideologically variegated pitches that often had very little to do with the substance of the party’s platform. The result was that they amassed an electoral coalition that dissolved upon contact with political power.
I’m not saying that the Liberal Democrats couldn’t pull this off if they wanted to, it’s just not wholly clear why they would want to go back to the era of local opportunism. It was not a sustainable basis for power, which both meant they ended up with crushing defeat in 2015 but also significantly weakened their influence over the coalition because of the perception that a general election was too risky for them.
What on earth is a BAME person, anyway?
There is a lot of discussion in the report of the Liberal Democrats’ continuing difficulties with non-white or “BAME” – British and minority ethnic – voters and communities.
BAME can be a useful concept for policy wonks and political discussions around race and racism, but for political parties it is a bit of a dead end. The Conservatives did not have a political offer for “BAME” voters – they had a distinct message for British voters of Indian descent, particularly British Hindus. That message, in some parts of the country, meant actively aggravating and running off their existing electoral problem with British Muslim voters. And they had a distinct message for Leave voters, and one of the unwritten stories of the 2019 election was that the party did better among ethnic minority Leavers in general than they did in 2017.
And they had a powerful message for British Jews about who they were not – that while your heart may have been with the Liberal Democrats and Remain, the only reliable way to stop Jeremy Corbyn was to vote Conservative.
They did not have a particularly effective or distinct message for black British voters, though the Conservatives will comfort themselves that they have a lot of black talent coming through in their parliamentary party and that this problem might fix itself. The Liberal Democrats’ high watermark among ethnic minority voters came thanks to their opposition to the Iraq war and they performed particularly well among British Muslims.
There’s a danger for Labour’s opponents in that they look at the party’s strong performance among most British ethnic minorities and conclude that that appeal is based on that group voting as a bloc – but this isn’t the case. Part of doing better among “BAME communities” is starting from the realisation that there is no such thing.
None of these are issues that the report itself can adjudicate, but they are all useful unresolved questions that ought to inform the party’s leadership race.