Election notebook #11: more Lib Dem strategy woes; some praise for Tory pledges; & bracing myself for 9th June

by Stephen Tall on May 19, 2017

My if-you’re-a-Lib-Dem-slash-your-wrists notebook on Wednesday prompted a handful of people to get in touch privately. Their message: that, if anything, I had been too positive. Which given I suggested the Lib Dems might get entirely wiped out in three weeks’ time tells you something of the prevailing mood.

I think it’s becoming clearer by the day that while the party’s anti-Brexit crusade has been good for picking up members and picking off low-turnout by-elections, it’s melting in the spotlight of this national election. By our own admission, the Lib Dems won’t be in government, so a vote for the party won’t actually reverse Brexit. And I suspect to many folk we look like the bad losers we’d be accusing Ukip of being if the positions were reversed.

Rather than hiding behind a second referendum, I suspect we’d have been better off focusing on the single market and its economic benefits, setting tests by which to judge Theresa May’s deal. “The Tories have promised us a deal as good as we have now in the EU, so we’re going to hold them to that. Vote Lib Dem to make sure Britain’s better off.” Or something like that.

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Would such a strategy work? I’m not totally convinced, to be honest. Quite apart from the comically easy ride Theresa May is being given by the press, I think a lot of the “why aren’t the Lib Dems doing better?” pre-mortems miss a pretty fundamental point: two years ago we were almost wiped out after a 5-year Coalition which utterly trashed the Lib Dems’ brand. To expect the party to bounce straight back because Brexit is simply not possible.

Partly, because the Lib Dem reputation is still too toxic among too many of the party’s potential pool of supporters. And partly, because the Coalition hollowed out local parties, with many experienced activists now gone. For sure, they’ve been replaced twice over by an influx of fresh-faced newbies — and that has many positives — but that hasn’t yet translated into community campaigning capable of winning key seats.

For those, like me, who backed the Coalition’s formation reckoning it was the best choice for the party and the country, it’s a pretty depressing thought that we may well have killed our party. Certainly it’s still in intensive care. Caitlin Moran recently tweeted, “As Labour collapses across the country, I can’t think of anything I regret more than voting Jeremy Corbyn as leader. I’m so sorry, my kids.” That goes for me and those five days in 2010, too.

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Okay, enough of the self-flagellation. I’ll move on to something uncontroversial: the curate’s egg of a Tory manifesto which is good, in parts. I’ve previously praised them for dropping their tax guarantee (an economically illiterate thing to do) and for dumping the pensions ‘triple lock’ (a generationally unfair thing to keep).

To those I can now add the means-testing of winter fuel payments. And also the substitution of (very expensive) free infants school lunches for (much cheaper) free breakfasts, a move which is justified by the evidence; it was the charity I work for which funded the research showing free universal breakfast provision boost attainment for all pupils. Cannily, it also frees up enough cash to enable the Conservatives to ensure no school loses out when it moves to a new and fairer national funding formula.

It’s hard not to be impressed by the grown-upness of these policies, each of which is likely to be unpopular with some, and especially the elderly — the one group most politicians never dare to antagonise because they bother to vote. This is the manifesto of a party which expects to be in government and is determined to win a mandate for its reforms.

Of course, like the curate’s egg, it still stinks… of divisive grammar schools and anti-business immigration drives.

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The less said about the Labour manifesto, the better. Apparently the party can find £11 billion to reverse the progressive tuition fees reforms Vince Cable introduced, but cannot find any money to reverse the vicious welfare cuts the Conservatives are pledged to introduce which will have a massive impact on working families.

As Ed Conway damningly writes today, “the party should admit the truth, written in invisible ink all over its manifesto: that these days it prefers to redistribute money to wealthy parents and university students than to the poor.”

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I’m mentally preparing myself for 9th June, when I wake up (if I go to sleep) to the inevitably crushing Conservative victory. Depending on how dire it is for Labour and the Lib Dems — and I think both should prepare for the worst — the moderate liberal-left will have to do some hard thinking about what happens next.

Because one thing we know is that parties which are one day seemingly invincible can and do crash and burn. Thatcher did. Blair did. May will. Will it be the Brexit deal? Will it be a faltering economy? Will it be the dementia tax? Or all three? Or something else entirely… Whatever it is, the hyperbolic acclaim for Theresa May cannot last. And when it fails, the country needs a sane opposition capable of picking up the pieces.