Ten years ago, we were filled with great optimism for our liberal future, but we ended the decade with real disappointment.
We started with the hope of making lasting changes for a tolerant, sustainable and outward-looking Britain. We have ended with eleven MPs, the most right-wing government in recent history, and departure from the EU.
We Liberal Democrats cannot pass off all responsibility for this outcome. In hindsight, wrong choices were made.
Those choices were strategic, not merely tactical. They were rooted in a misjudgement of how liberalism in the 21st century can be protected and advanced.
The mistake was to see our party in the political centre, standing equally between right and left. In this day and age, the biggest threat to liberalism – not just in Britain – comes from the right.
Our reasons for entering coalition with the Conservatives in 2010 were well intended, but we ended up undermining our values. We ultimately legitimised the Conservatives’ long-term illiberal, nationalist agenda.
Moreover, in the 2016 EU Referendum, because of our heavy defeat in the 2015 General Election, our vision of a tolerant and outward looking Britain was on the margins.
In the years after the coalition this equidistant strain in our strategy continued. In the most recent election, we trained our fire equally at the Conservatives and Labour, even though Labour backed a People’s Vote, had a plan to address the climate crisis and wanted to invest in public services to deliver a more equal society.
The Liberal Democrats are clearly distinct from the Labour Party. Philosophically we set far higher value by individual freedom and civil rights. We cherish localism and diversity over central authority and conformity. We seek social equality so that everyone can exercise substantive freedom, not to raise one class at the expense of another nor to entrench the power of the state for its own sake. On policy, we do not share Labour’s dogmatic approach to the state’s role in the economy, preferring pragmatic, evidence-based approaches, and harnessing the energy of enterprise.
We did worse than we should have done in the recent general election. A good result would have been to win about thirty seats. I believe the root problem was that we continued to balance ourselves equally between left and right. By aiming so much fire at Labour (rather than just distinguishing ourselves from Labour) we weakened the centre-left as a whole. As a consequence, we strengthened the Conservatives and thereby shot ourselves in the foot in the majority of constituencies where our immediate opponent was Conservative.
We were right to take an unequivocal anti-Brexit stance working with other parties on the centre-left, to set the national agenda and to successfully pressure the Labour Party into backing a People’s Vote. The Revoke position indeed proved a lot harder to explain than intended. But the clear ‘Stop Brexit’ message in the European Elections, which arose from the same unflinching, strident pro-EU position, is what catapulted us back to relevance in the national conversation in May.
Going forward we should be proud of the dynamic pro-European movement which has been at the heart of our national revival. We must keep the flame of EU membership alive as a genuine possibility for Britain, because if the flame goes out it may never be relit.
But more fundamentally, we cannot stay halfway between left and right. We must fight illiberalism from the centre left. Our instinct for political cooperation should be channelled into working with those who share many of our core values, not with those who are ideologically opposed to them.
We need to make a clean break with the last decade.