The Liberal Democrats must learn from UKIP and re-invent themselves as the party of English Democracy
Over the last few years, there has been a lot of talk in political analysis of the Dead Cat strategy: Lynton Crosby’s idea that no matter what everyone else is talking about if you throw a dead cat on a table soon the dead cat will be all anyone wants to talk about. Rather than debating policy, throw a dead cat on the table and say ‘I’m the only one with a clear position on this dead cat’. It’s sensational and its simplicity belies its menace: how could anyone be against dealing with the dead cat?
Those of us who engage in politics beyond the occasional TV bulletin or tabloid know that most issues are complex. The disadvantage for us in these media is that there is no room for complexity: a two-minute item on the evening news is not going to communicate the nuances of policy making, which some people spend whole lives studying. Likewise, the appeal of tabloid journalism is that it’s easy to digest because of its writing style and it forecloses the possibility of other positions in a politics made up of clear moral principles of right and wrong.
The Lib Dems have suffered in such an environment: rules regarding balance on television mean that they only have coverage relative to their representation in elected bodies; in the popular press, it’s easier to pretend they don’t exist until their position can be construed as a useful straw man for a black-and-white issue. Community politics, year-round canvassing and intensely local surveying has thus far been the Lib Dem’s route around this closed media environment: I think the party needs to up its game in the air war.
In the 2015 general election 49 of those intensely worked communities turned their back on the Liberal Democrats. There are a whole host of factors, including a sharp drop in membership as those who didn’t believe in the coalition project abandoned their party in droves: the Lib Dems shed twenty five thousand members between 2010 and 2013 alone. In response to this lack of loyalty, Mark Pack has devised a Core Vote strategy for the Lib Dems designed to capture the 20% of people who share the party’s values. In practice this means Brexit was front-and-centre in 2017.
The Lib Dem’s policy on Brexit is to hold a referendum on the terms of the deal the UK and EU work out and campaign for ‘remain’ in that referendum. This is a principled position: that everyone should have a say when the terms of the deal are known and to be prepared as a party for the country to leave if it is not convinced by the remain pitch.
This nuance is lost in the black-and-white press and two-minute bulletins: if you ask most people about the Liberal Democrat policy, they will most likely reply ‘We’ve had the referendum, it’s the people’s will, now we’ve got to leave’; exactly the line the Conservative party pushes and much of the media is happy to parrot. And if you are a true be-leaver, you’re not going to risk what’s already in the bag.
The most press the Liberal Democrats have had this election has been over the question of whether Tim Farron personally believes that gay sex is a sin. These are the questions people are interested in: policy politics has been replaced by the culture wars. So long as the focus is on LGBT rights, immigration, and Scottish Independence policy-based politics is dead in the water so far as the media’s concerned. Brexit gets an easy ride because regardless of what it might mean, enough people think it’s the right thing to do.
No-one wants to know about research backed by whatever normative claim: not only is it hard to understand, next to people who hold qualifications testifying to their ability to make political and economic arguments, voters feel like their opinions are only so much guff to be disregarded. People aren’t fed up of experts: they’re fed up of being made to feel stupid by people telling them how to live their lives and what opinions it is proper to hold. Political correctness and evidence-based policy are anti-democratic.
The popular imagination contains everything we need to know about our political system: politicians are all in it for themselves but at least party X has got it right; political correctness means I can’t tell it how it is; health and safety is ruining businesses and spoiling childhoods; and all the power is held by an elite I can’t see. These are the kinds of rationales which justify both Brexit and votes on the right and left, which is split on the question of who’s to blame. The fight against the neo-liberal elite is as illusory as the fight against the Eurocrats: politicians govern Britain, and Brexit proves it.
UKIP and Conservative Eurosceptics have won the fight on Europe by throwing dead cats on the table: from terrorism to bendy bananas, simple emotive topics have been used to sway public opinion away from ‘things can only get better’ towards ‘things are as bad as they’ve ever been’. This election had one prize for Teresa May: a sufficient majority to rule by decree. A managed democracy of the same kind as has captured Turkey, Hungary and Poland: culture-oriented politics which demands that the silent majority’s will be weaved into the fabric of the nation. John Stuart Mill’s worst nightmare.
The conditions which support British elected dictatorships are the absolute power of parliament; the primacy of the party cabinets within that parliament; and that MPs place the interests of their careers over those of the nation. Think of the sudden swing of MPs who have abandoned their personal judgement that the EU was best for Britain before the referendum to suddenly believing that democracy means obeying the will of the people afterwards. Or those who have gone from baying for Corbyn’s blood to hailing him as the great leader. If the will of the people really was the only justification for the exercise of power we would have a direct democracy, not a representative parliament.
These pillars need to be demolished if liberals are going to reclaim the banner of democracy from the forces of illiberalism. Lib Dems are too dispersed to make a difference in parliament; they pin their hopes on gathering enough non-core voters to swing seats their way. They’re not going to achieve anything with the seats they have: Lib Dems need to exercise political power independent of parliamentary representation. The party which has best achieved this kind of extra-parliamentary power is UKIP.
Nigel Farage has had a disproportionate amount of TV time since 2010. There are many reasons for this but the key one is that his brand of politics was nothing but dead cats. From his famous stand on health tourism during the 2015 debates to his views on the Barnett formula he took complex issues and boiled them down to a black-and-white right-or-wrong mentality. It did not matter that his party had two MPs in parliament at their peak (although UKIP did made up 24% of the UK delegation to the European parliament after 2014): every other party leader was challenged on the matter of his dead cats. Their airtime became his airtime.
If the Liberal Democrats want to change the country for the better they will abandon their high-minded Queensberry Rules approach. Tim Farron is effective when he calls out the other leaders for what they are; Nick Clegg was superb when he explained leaving the EU meant letting paedophiles off the hook in the 2010 debates. But the party itself does not have a contact-sport mentality: Lib Dems are easily the most polite people in British politics because they live up to their ideals of civic engagement and democratic virtue. If they want those virtues to matter in this country they must abandon them, at least for now.
Tim Farron got press over his faith for all the wrong reasons. He was the victim of the liberal media’s (irony of ironies) inquisitor-like obsession with the culture wars: this was someone else’s dead cat. Lib Dems need a dead cat to call their own. Consider this.
Europe is a red herring. England is being tyrannised.
Labour and the Tories want to run everything from London. How do they prove they’re running things properly? Lots and lots of statistics: and how do you make those statistics reliable, objective and verifiable? You standardise practice across the country, send paperwork to the regions like Soviet commandants, taking up the time of local professionals and reducing the effectiveness of their work. When a mistake is made, it’s made everywhere. Across the country the essential metrics which are supposed to prove how good we have it are making us all worse off.
Why are our education and health systems a mess? Because the Tories and Labour like to breathe down your necks at work, breathe down your children’s necks at school, and breathe down the necks of doctors when they are doing the best they can for your family and friends.
Do you know how you check how good a hospital or a school is? You go there and look. And you can’t do that from a seat in London: local services have to be looked after by local government and overseen by local people. The people who want to run everything from parliament and Number 10 don’t trust the people; they aren’t true patriots if they don’t believe in the people.
That’s what take back control means.
The Lib Dems should change their slogan from ‘Open, Tolerant, United’ (which plays well with people like my elder brother, who was going to vote Lib Dem anyway) to something like the sentiment of ‘Free England’.
England and the Cross of St George have been appropriated by the far right; so has talk of liberation and freedom. The campaign for leaving the EU was fought on the slogan ‘take back control’: the effectiveness of these tactics rest on the simplicity of the message, the investment people have in their group identities, and the sense people have that they are being controlled or exploited. Liberal Democrats can make their own pitch to exactly the instincts the leave campaign pitched to.
Put local and regional government front-and-centre; start calling the First Past the Post system literally undemocratic, and work with anyone else who’ll say so. Keep hammering the Tories and Labour as megalomaniac control freaks, intent on grabbing power for themselves to inflate their own egos. Literally any policy, regardless of what department its from, is a symptom of their one-size-fits-all mentality which means that Yorkshire doesn’t get what Yorkshire needs; East Anglia isn’t even thought of at cabinet meetings; and that the West Country could fall into the sea and the secretary of state for Transport will only worry if it means the trains will be late.
When you say that schools, police and the NHS aren’t doing what they need to in Yorkshire, London, East Anglia, Cornwall, where-ever, because sensible, professional people have had the ability to do their job taken away from them by edicts from Whitehall, or that the reason nothing works is because local government doesn’t inspect or look after anything anymore, people get it. It’s common sense.
As a proud Lancastrian, Tim Farron ought to have painted himself in the style of ‘Mr Farron goes to London’, off to fight the bloated power of the capital in the name of the common-sense values of the honest Briton. Local parties should behave like the SNP of English-Region-Here. When a party leader says that his opponents are dictators, it gets reported.
Politics does not thrive on openness, tolerance, or unity: democracy does not tolerate undemocratic principles; closed to those who would ruin us for their personal gain; and divided between decent people who mind their own business and jobsworths whose power is more important to them than what they do with it.
For all this change in rhetoric, the Liberal Democrats don’t have to make a single u-turn. North of the border, all this can be construed as a fight for Scots’ federal rights; South, it’s the same commitment to localism and democracy we’ve always had but now it’s front-and-centre.
If UKIP can take us out of Europe because Nigel Farage wouldn’t stop banging on about it, Liberal Democrats can take power from parliament for local people. If the Tories thought the power of ‘take back control’ was spent with the referendum result, they’re dead wrong. Dead cat wrong.