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The next Liberal Democrat leader must not turn left

The new party leader needs to learn from Paddy Ashdown – and Tony Blair, too – if we are going to eject the Tories from government. 

By Tim Farron

I guess you’d firmly have me down as being on the left of the Liberal Democrats. I opposed the tuition fee rise, opposed the bedroom tax, have always supported high public spending funded by progressive taxation, and was a coalition sceptic though not an opponent.

But, as we decide upon our new leader and our party’s strategy, I want to say this: it would be bonkers for us to make a choice now to stake a position to the left of Labour. I urge our next leader to take a wiser course.

The party nearly died after the 2015 election, and while it’s healthier now, we aren’t out of the woods yet. Taking a bold, distinctive and principled position against Brexit saved the party. Yet, while our position took us out of the doldrums, in the end it almost dashed us on the rocks.

But we are still standing.  And we’ll recover and fight another day.  But I want to do better than that.

We currently have the most appalling government that I can remember – allergic to the truth, stoking a poisonous culture war and largely devoid of the talent needed to run a bath, never mind a country. I am certain of two things: the Conservatives must be booted out at the next election and the Liberal Democrats are utterly essential to that operation.

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When we choose our new leader, we won’t, let’s face it, be choosing the UK’s next prime minister.  But we will be making a choice that could affect whether or not the Conservatives are defeated.

The Liberal Democrats’ major concern should not be the development of lots of worthy new policies. I can assure you that our party has never lost an election because its manifesto wasn’t long enough! Instead, we lose due to a lack of clear and effective messaging, a lack of credibility, the choice of a poor strategy or sometimes having no strategy at all.

Our credibility today comes from two sources: our traditional, and once more rapidly growing strength in local government, and the fact that we are second in 91 constituencies. The unsung success of our 2019 campaign was a substantially increased number of second places.  It gained us no more seats, but puts us in a great place for next time.

In 80 of those seats we are second to the Conservatives. This is crucial. With the SNP roadblocking Labour in Scotland, Keir Starmer has no route to a majority, but Boris Johnson can certainly lose his. But the only way that happens is if the Liberal Democrats gain two or three dozen seats off the Conservatives.

This can be done, but it won’t be done if we alienate moderate Conservative voters by being to the left of Labour or have a pact with Labour, or any other “progressive” parties. We need to wake up to this right now, or else we just hand our targets to the Tories on a plate.

So, what’s the answer? Well, let’s remember that the last time the Conservatives lost power they were defeated because of the smart politics of Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown. A formal pact would have made us less than the sum of our parts but there was an understanding.

Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates stood in every seat, but each party focused its efforts on those seats where there was the best chance of defeating the Conservatives. Tactical voting became a thing, and our national messaging was about offering the chance to change the UK by ejecting the Conservatives.

I am fed up of hearing Liberal Democrats talking about Labour in this leadership election. I want to know that our next leader will talk to Labour, but I want them to do that quietly while focusing the party’s efforts on winning seats and shaping a clear message that draws in traditional liberals, new post-Brexit liberals, tactical Labour voters and moderate Conservatives.

This latter group are vital if we are ever to get more than a dozen seats again. A battle to be “leftier than thou” would be a self-indulgent path to oblivion.

Of course, there will be some areas of the country where at local government level or at parliamentary level, Labour and the Lib Dems will go head to head. We’re not going to give up on Sheffield Hallam, Cambridge or Southwark, but when it comes to those “quiet talks” with Labour, we just have to draw a ring around those places. Knock yourselves out, and may the best team win. Meanwhile, 95 per cent of our efforts, and of Labour’s efforts, should be focused on beating the Conservatives.

I want the Liberal Democrats to be radical, liberal, internationalist, green and pro-strong public services.  And I want us to win, otherwise what is the point?

So let’s be more like Paddy and Tony, let’s stop contemplating our navels and our past.  Let’s beat the Tories instead.

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