Tuesday, July 09, 2024

GUEST POST The Lib Dems must meet the challenge of the Greens in the new political landscape

How can the Lib Dems continue to grow after last week's historic advance? Anselm Anon argues that, to do so, we must meet the challenge of the Greens.

There is plenty for liberals to celebrate in the general election: the end of a wretched Tory government, lots of splendid new Lib Dem MPs (including one in Wales), third-party privileges in the Commons and idiosyncratic politics in Leicester which will continue to enliven Liberal England. 

Despite some frustrating near misses, and the loss of an Alliance MP, overall the news is good. But we shouldn’t lull ourselves into thinking this is a repeat of 1997, and not only because we secured only 12 per cent of the national vote, as opposed to 16.8 per cent.

The results bring into focus a serious and growing problem for the Liberal Democrats. We are no longer the UK’s third party, but one of three middle-sized parties. To summarise:

Reform              5 MPs 4 million votes

Lib Dem     72 MPs 3.5 million votes

Greens           4 MPs 1.9 million votes

Although Reform are morally and politically objectionable, they don’t appear to be depriving the Lib Dems of seats or votes in any numbers. If the Lib Dems had (unwisely) focused on maximising national vote share rather than seats, we could have overtaken Reform’s total, at the unacceptable cost of sacrificing dozens of MPs.  

Doubtless Reform’s leadership would gladly swap their seat:vote ration with us. But the Greens are another matter.

In much of the country it is the Greens rather than LibDems who are now attracting liberal-minded voters and activists, and building networks in new areas. By my sleep-deprived calculations, the Greens secured more votes than the Lib Dems in at least 267 English constituencies (out of 543). 

In most of these, neither party will have been working hard, but this just illustrates that latent Green support is similar to ours, if not higher.

Unlike us, the Greens have shown the capacity to grow at the expense of both Labour (from whom they won Bristol Central) as well as the Tories (from whom they won two other seats). The Lib Dems failed to advance in Sheffield Hallam, our only realistic prospect against Labour.  

We now have no MPs in big cities outside London and Edinburgh, and only four seats in the north of England, three of which are demographically very similar to our southern English strongholds. 

Alex Folkes has explained why he is hopeful about our prospects of holding our gains, but Liberal England’s list of potential targets contains only one Labour-held seat (Burnley).

The Greens secured numerous double-digit percentage vote increases against Labour, and will be in a good position to win seats from them as Starmer's government becomes unpopular.  

They also have political momentum across a wide range of demographics, which is difficult for us to match outside those areas where we already have an established network. “Pick a Ward and Win It” is currently far more achievable for Greens than Lib Dems. 

Crucially, the Greens convey a distinct sense of their own political profile. They are seen as anti-Tory, but also associated with a distinct political approach. This doesn’t appeal to everyone, but being all things to all people is no route to lasting political success.

Much Lib Dem success in 2024 relied on opposing the Tories. The challenge has now changed: we have sensible and popular policies, with some clear differences from Labour, for instance on Europe, electoral reform, water companies and ending the two-child benefit cap. 

We can be more sensible and more popular. Articulating and developing clear liberal policies, based on our radical and social liberal approach, is essential. Otherwise the Greens will flourish at our expense.

Anselm Anon has been a member of the Liberal Democrats since the 1990s.


tonyhill said...

In the past we placed the environment at the centre of everything we stood for, and we need to redouble our efforts to do that. But I am concerned that there does not seem to be a realisation that our 72 strong group of MPs cannot just function as a collection of good constituency members. We have to develop a clear ideological purpose, distinct from the Labour Party, which is difficult given that we currently agree with them about most of the issues facing the country. In 1997 to 2010 we did develop a clear identity - opposing the Iraq war, and Labour's authoritarian tendencies - only to throw it away by going into coalition. I would suggest that we need to be looking towards those who voted Reform: not the racists or conspiracy nutters, but the people who feel marginalised by the way society has moved, and who have been left behind by the development of global capitalism. We need to speak and act in ways that give hope to these mostly decent people, and not consign them to being hoovered up by demagogues and fascists.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comment. I agree with everything you say! Especially about (many, if not all) Reform voters. This reminds me of Conrad Russell's notion of aligning with the underdog, from An Intelligent Person's Guide to Liberalism. I can't see the text here, but it is referred to by Nick Barlow at https://nickbwalking.medium.com/conrad-russells-an-intelligent-person-s-guide-to-liberalism-3a15f403e3fe.

Anselm Anon