What’s Wera Hobhouse got against social distancing anyway? The Liberal Democrat MP for Bath and leadership candidate has unveiled her campaign slogan: “Abandon Equidistance”.
Of course, Hobhouse is not proposing an end to social distancing (or arguing that people should remain 2.1 metres and 1.9 metres away from people). She’s running against the concept that the Liberal Democrats should be “equidistant” between the United Kingdom’s two major political parties.
“Equidistance” has an interesting role in the internal politics of the Liberal Democrats, in that it is a position named not by its adherents – who do exist – but by its enemies. In 1992 the Lib Dems’ then-leader, Paddy Ashdown, formally abandoned the party’s prior position of having no preference between a government led by Labour and one led by the Conservatives (making clear a preference for the former). His successor as leader, Charlie Kennedy, maintained that position, explicitly setting out a position to Labour’s left at a national level (albeit with a healthy dose of local opportunism in individual constituencies).
Nick Clegg essentially junked that stance in the last days of the 2010 general election campaign, saying that he would look to form a government with which was the largest party (in terms of votes cast) rather than having a particular preference for a Conservative or Labour government first. His three successors – Tim Farron, Vince Cable, and Jo Swinson – pursued a policy of equidistance in a different form. All faced the same challenge: their big political project, ending Brexit, was opposed by the Conservative Party, which made forming a government with the right a logistical impossibility; while many of their target voters, let alone the voters who had already switched from backing Labour, opposed the idea of a Corbyn-led government.
Now Hobhouse is running on an explicit pledge to end that position – to stake out a distinct position on the liberal-left, rather than one of a liberal party that could go either way or a centrist party with liberal elements.
The party’s debate over its ideological position is also an argument over its electoral strategy. The Liberal Democrats face two problems at elections. The first is that they are not, realistically, going to be able to govern alone; their best-case scenario is a hung parliament, so Liberal Democrat leaders are often asked who they would go into power with. The second is that most voters regard the leader of the Labour Party as being the Lib Dems’ preferred choice of governing partner, so if that Labour leader is not popular in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat battleground seats, or worse, if they are actively unpopular, then the Liberal Democrats do badly.
I’m not saying that the popularity or otherwise of the Liberal Democrat leader isn’t a factor in how the party does in a general election, but there is a good deal of evidence to suggest it is less of a factor than the popularity of the Labour leader. The 2017 election is a pretty good example of that. At one point during the contest, the party’s internal tracking showed it was on course to win just two seats. In the end, it won 12 – but Farron’s popularity remained flat throughout. What changed the party’s position was that the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn, the party’s “true” prime minister-candidate, increased during the campaign. It probably didn’t help that Jo Swinson became more unpopular during the last general election, and given the narrowness of some seats, it may have been decisive. But it was almost certainly secondary to the unpopularity of Corbyn.
This is why I think it’s slightly overblown to talk about the Liberal Democrats’ failure to choose whether it wanted to stop Brexit or to maximise its own parliamentary gains. Voters reasoned, quite rightly, that the only way to stop Brexit was for a Labour-led government to take office, and this is one reason why Conservative Remainers did not vote Liberal Democrat even in Conservative-Liberal Democrat battlegrounds.
In some ways, the argument over equidistant is somewhat redundant for similar reasons. The Liberal Democrat rank and file, who ultimately set the party’s policy platform, have, on the vast majority of issues, consistently voted to support policies that put them closer to the aims of the Labour Party than the Conservatives. Barring a transformation of the party’s grassroots, the party will in practice never be “equidistant” between the two big parties.
Hobhouse’s big political argument is twofold: the party should “lean in” to the perception that it is closer to Labour, and it should explicitly reject the idea of a coalition with the Conservatives. Within the party, this invites three objections. Some believe Labour and the Conservatives are closer to one another than the Liberal Democrats are to either party. Others fear that Hobhouse’s strategy would put rocket-boosters under the party’s existing political problems in winning over Tory votes and seats. And the third group thinks the party shouldn’t restrict its hopes of being in office by hitching its wagon to the often elusive electoral success of the Labour Party.
The reality is that any Liberal Democrat strategy based around true equidistance between the two major parties will ultimately fail because it won’t be believed. Hobhouse’s campaign is a good one for the party intellectually because it guards against a reversion back to the Lib Dems’ mid-Noughties “run against Labour’s failures to tackle the housing crisis in London, oppose any new housing developments in Conservative seats” opportunism. This was a great way to gain and briefly hold seats, but the electoral coalition it built inevitably faded away the second they entered office.
The party should be targeting sustainable growth – that is to say, it should be winning over the support of those who will support it because of what it is rather than what it is not, so that the next time they are in coalition their support doesn’t immediately collapse. Whether or not that’s achieved by running as an explicitly left-liberal party as Hobhouse envisages, hers is a healthy start to the contest, even if the slogan is impenetrable to many.