The unexpected is happening. In the wake of the late surge in support for Labour that wiped out Theresa May’s majority (and hit the Liberal Democrat vote), a new poll on 11 June showed Labour six points ahead of the Tories. Labour were also reporting 15,000 new members in the first three days after the 2017 General Election.
On the doorsteps on polling day, and with friends since, the sense is that Labour under Corbyn have caught people’s imaginations. What does this imply for Liberal Democrats?
My sense is that this is a problem because people’s imaginations have been caught by something unrealistic. If we now had a majority Labour government, disappointment would be around the corner, but for now, hopes are roused. There’s a parallel with Brexit being seen as a bright new future.
A sharp illustration is our respective economic policies. The Institute of Fiscal Studies concluded that our manifesto was the only one properly costed and also the most likely to deliver for low income people. If 9 June had seen Vince Cable become Chancellor of the Exchequer, that would have boded better for the economy than either of the other choices. Instead a costly cocktail of promises from Labour has fired people’s imaginations.
The huge number of new members of the Liberal Democrats are making me think differently about the familiar problem of balancing resources between target and non-target seats, and the possibility of attracting support in a way that parallels En Marche in France.
For a long time targetting has been a difficult decision for Liberal Democrats. The electoral system means that, if we lean too far one way, we spread ourselves too thinly and are even more badly under-represented in parliament. If we lean too far the other way, we create Liberal Democrat “holes” where there is more-or-less little for people to join, which makes it really hard for that situation to change.
But one of the many unusual things about this General Election campaign is that it is taking place in a period of rapid growth while our membership is growing rapidly. In June 2017 I was the parliamentary candidate in a constituency where membership is up 400% since the 2015 General Election and 250% since the EU referendum.
In Emmanuel Macron, France has a new president who is liberal and pro-EU. There are encouraging parallels with his En Marche movement and where the Liberal Democrats find themselves after the rapid growth in membership over the last two years.
The headline is one of relief that Macron won a handsome majority over Marine le Pen. But the bigger earthquake is that his En Marche party has come from nowhere in little over a year. It’s rise reflects frustration with the established parties, and the widespread acceptance of a liberal mindset.
The Liberal Democrat membership surge since the 2015 General Election began with Nick Clegg’s remarkable resignation speech, putting a powerful case for liberalism even as we had taken an almighty pounding at the ballot box. As he phrased it then “Fear and grievance have won, liberalism has lost”. Shock at that, and the referendum result, and Theresa May’s opportunism in calling the present election, have mobilised people in large numbers. Standing in Hertford and Stortford in 2017, I am humbled by the calibre of our new members, and working with a local party that has quadrupled in membership since then and is still growing. The 2017 general election seems very much about working with this new energy.
Macron and En Marche, like the Liberal Democrats, are now part of ALDE, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. Their growth and ours feels like a reaction against the forces of division driving the rise of the far right.
Right now (September 2016) it feels a little like an electoral phoney war. Rumours of a possible snap general election prompted the party, rightly, to do urgent selections of prospective parliamentary candidates over the summer. Will the election happen? Could a possible false alarm be helpful?
One answer is to wait and see: a general election in October would point to a different strategy from one early in 2017, and as Liberal Democrats, we don’t have resources to invest a lot in an election that doesn’t happen.
But the appointment of a slate of Prospective Parliamentary Candidates (PPCs) and putting things in place for an election campaign is an opportunity to put forward strong party values and to engage with people who have joined recently in shock at the referendum result. If we get it right, what we do now helps to shape the national debate and strengthens our hand for whatever elections are on the horizon. Internally, this is also a chance to run meetings where PPCs (and others) speak, helping draw people together in a way that is more positive than just lamenting the referendum result.