What the next Lib Dem leader should say to other parties

As a Lib Dem member, here’s the kind of approach I personally hope the next Lib Dem leader might take:

“First, thank you again to everyone who helped fight the general election. We saw a greater increase in votes than any party, up 1.3 million. We are now in first or second place in 102 seats, giving hope for gains at the next election. And congratulations to our sister party in Northern Ireland, Alliance, for regaining a place in the Commons.

But we should not kid ourselves. Winning only 11 seats was a huge disappointment, especially given such unpopular opponents and a huge population of anti-Brexit voters. And, while one terrible general election result might be considered a misfortune, three in a row is a pattern. What’s more, Brexit is now set to go ahead and – to add insult to injury – we will shortly lose our 16 great MEPs. Looking to the next election, even if we somehow overturned every target majority smaller than 12,000, that would leave us with 42 seats: not bad, but fewer than from 1997 to 2010 and quite possibly not enough to make us Britain’s 3rd largest party again.

So we need to do more than dust ourselves off and try the same things again. Although there is always another set of elections on the horizon to fight, we need a deep think about what our fundamental objectives and strategy are. But we should not retreat in on ourselves. One of our strengths as a party is that we are (relatively) open-minded and pluralistic. Our discussions shouldn’t – and, if we want to achieve our objectives, cannot – just include Liberal Democrats. And while the next election may be some years away, those discussions, and an accompanying change of attitudes, should start now.

So I say, to the members and potential leaders of the Labour Party: Although no-one likes to admit it, our manifestos agreed on a lot. That includes the Lib Dem priorities of a second referendum, a radical decarbonisation plan for the 2020s, reversing welfare cuts, more education spending, and greatly expanded free childcare. (See also: more NHS spending; free school meals; increased paternity leave; ending farming’s cage age; lots more social house building; votes at 16; votes for long-term residents; business rates reform; selected tax increases; more humane asylum and visa rules; HS2; opposing the break-up of Great Britain; scrapping voter ID plans; House of Lords reform; and more…) Now, I know the Coalition (which was before all but three of our MPs joined the Commons) tarnishes us in the eyes of many Labour members, but I’d urge you to take a look at our actual current policies.

Our parties inevitably have a shared goal at the next election of reducing the Conservatives’ seat tally by at least, say, 60 seats (or more than double that if you want any Labour majority). Maybe the political pendulum, the realities of Brexit, and economic fundamentals will help with that, but to get into Number 10 you are probably going to need the Lib Dems to pick up seats. And we’ve found that an unpopular Labour party does not (under First Past the Post) help us: quite the opposite.

Of course we have political disagreements, but in grown-up politics that cannot rule out cooperation, or even coalition. The more important barriers to working together have perhaps been Corbyn’s unprecedented unpopularity; the degree of tribalism – and even infighting – within your party; and the unacceptable toleration of anti-semitism. Those are largely internal questions for you to grapple with, though of course we have our own work to do and I would urge Lib Dem members to emphasise common ground over tribalism wherever possible.

Perhaps it is asking too much for everyone to just get along. And of course in fairer voting systems like in the upcoming London elections we will not hold back. But I can make this big, straightforward offer for the next general election. If you back proportional representation, and stand down in the 50 closest Con-Lib seats, we will stand down in 100 Con-Lab seats of your choosing and encourage voters to back Labour there. (And, yes, that includes Kensington: we’re sorry about that result.) Such a pact would be transformative. Or perhaps you’d prefer a milder non-aggression, no-campaigning arrangement in those seats while still fielding candidates. Proportional representation is already favoured by John McDonnell, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Cat Smith, Owen Jones, Paul Mason, and the vast majority of Labour members, so perhaps it’s not much to ask. Yes, some of this may sound eerily familiar to 1997 but, then again, that was a pretty great result for both our parties.

To the members and leaders of the Green Party: It was a pleasure to be part of the Remain Alliance with you, with the shared primary goals of stopping Brexit and greening our economy. I hope we can at least arrange something similar next time (and let’s include Carshalton!). But perhaps we should go further. As political movements we certainly do not agree on everything. In particular, Lib Dems tend to be more optimistic about the possibility and desirability of sustainable technological progress, and more optimistic that new homes and new transport links can be good things. And I know Green members tend to disapprove of our role in the Coalition. But for the foreseeable future we are pulling in very much the same direction: not least more urgency in tackling climate change and biodiversity loss; a close relationship with the EU; reduced animal suffering; a less unequal society; funding increases for public services; and a proportional voting system that would allow much more diverse politics in future. So I would like to open talks on even greater cooperation, to ensure we actually achieve those goals at the next election. And I hope the Green Party would also take steps to make a Labour-led government more likely, if that government would deliver proportional representation. As (Baroness) Jenny Jones says, we need a “united opposition”.

To the members and leaders of the SNP and Plaid Cymru: We do not want to see Great Britain broken up. But, while that is a fundamental difference of opinion, on so many other issues we agree, not least on proportional representation and votes at 16 in Westminster. Although the Remain Alliance was welcome, the centre-left will particularly need to present more of a united front in Wales next time, with the Conservatives now holding 14 seats and –  incidentally – the Lib Dems 0.

To the leaders of the Conservative Party: Clearly we disagree about the desirability of Brexit, among so many other issues. But we will not oppose everything this government does just for opposition’s sake. Our manifesto policies are clear, and if you ever need our votes in the Commons or Lords for greater ambition on climate change, or any efforts to reduce inequality, for example, we would be happy to provide them.

To civil society, we know that controlling central government is not the only way to bring about change. We will continue to inject new ideas into political discussion, and take every opportunity to campaign with others for our manifesto policies, such as increased support for parents with young children or that shift to proportional representation. And Lib Dem councils across the country will work with others to deliver the best possible outcomes on issues like recycling and decarbonising transport.

And, finally, to UKIP and the Brexit Party: Well played. You secured perhaps the most radical policy change in post-war history while winning almost no seats. You and your views took over the Conservative membership. And then in 2019 you helped change the outcome simply by not standing in many seats. There are lessons there that Liberal Democrats should heed.

In the words of Barack Obama, we (and Labour, and the Greens) have received a(nother) shellacking. We are all a very long way from where we’d like to be, and that’s even before considering the impact of boundary changes and voter ID laws. Given the mountain we have to climb, and the realities of First Past the Post, we need to be hard-headed: working together strategically to achieve our objectives and get a different result at the next election.”

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