Report criticises election strategy - but does it tell us anything new?
|Former leader Jo Swinson (Photo: Andrew Page)|
It's a poor mataphor in many ways - I utterly dislike "car crash" terminology as I've been involved in a few road traffic accidents and know people whose lives have been radically altered by them, so naturally find such comparisons glib and insensitive. It's also not entirely clear how the Liberal Democrats's campaigning, in which we were significantly outspent by other parties, could ever be likened to a high-speed vehicle.
Still, I think we get the point. In electoral terms, it was a disaster. Being reduced to 11 MPs, losing all of the recent defectors and our leader in the process, was nothing short of devastating.
The review, headed by Lady Thornhill, found that over-optimism and improbable polling lay behind some of the party's subsequent difficulties. This is not remotely surprising, and many of us (myself included) were very uneasy with the apparent willingness to go to the polls in December. I spent verly little time actively campaigning, mainly because I had other plans already made for December but also because I lacked any confidence in the strategy being pursued. It was plainly obvious that we were being not only outspent, but out-thought by the Conservatives. I was completely disengaged from the campaign and its core messages (as much as any were discernible), but not necessarily from the election itself. Certain realities should have been obvious - and were indeed obvious to me, but clearly weren't to the people leading our party.
The main findings of Lady Thornhill's review, as helpfully summarised in The Independent, are as follows:
* The party took a "high stakes gamble" in opting to fight the election on the basis of revoking Article 50 and the personal appeal of Jo Swinson as prospective Prime Minister. I like Jo but I was never sure the electorate would, at least not until she had time to prove herself - something Lady Thornhill seems to accept when she cites research suggetsing female leaders need more time to establish themselves. I honestly don't think people knew the Jo that I do, and certainly didn't warm to her campaigning strategy.
* The party was guilty of "wishful thinking" in believing the country would reflect our own enthusiasm for our new leader. The personal focus was therefore fatally flawed. While "there was clearly a lot of sexism in play...ratings for Jo fell and [her] appeal to women also fell significantly during the election."
* The party placed too much confidence in positive MRP (multilevel regression and post-stratification) constituency polling. This led to targetting seats in which we had very little historical success and virtually no presence on the ground (such as, astonishingly, Rushcliffe) to the detriment of other constituencies including the leader's own, Dunbartonshire East.
* An "inner circle" of advisors resulted in decisions being made by "an unaccountable group around the leader".
* "On our biggerst strategic choice we made no decision". This "inner circle", confronted with the "hellish" dilemma of either standing down in consituencies with strongly pro-Remain incumbents or denying Boris Johnson the election he clearly wanted, "showed a lack of strategy and clarity in decision making". Instead they claimed, improbably, that the Lib Dems could not only fight but win a General Election. Few found this suggestion credible.
* The Revoke Article 50 position proved impossible to sell to a sceptical electorate.
* "We adopted a bunker mentality, sticking rigidly to a single course of action despite overwheling evidence to the contrary".
* The party performed poorly "in an election [it] helped to call, in in which poor planning, leadership and decision making compunded to [provide] a poor result."
* Responsiblity cannot be attributed only to the leader herself, but to a "dysfunctional" organisation. The review cited a "rift" between activists and HQ, poor governance structures and a culture at HQ in need of overdue change. "Some local parties were left feeling hurt and damaged...[feeling] justifiably abandoned and neglected", the report concluded.
It's very difficult to argue with any of these findings. There is no doubt whatsoever that this is a scathingly critical review, which underlines the need for a transformation in how the party functions at various levels. The detail of some of its findings, specifically in relation to internal dynamics, is as fascinating as it is concerning. The message is clear: things need to change.
But, I wonder, did it tell us anything that we didn't know previously? My own take on the 2019 General Election, written in half an hour on the morning of December 13th but expressing much of the frustration I had felt in the weeks leading up to polling day, while lacking the same detail gives much the same impression. I went as far as to say, and I still believe it now, that "we are where we are because we deserve to be".
I was critical of the Article 50 policy, the lack of clear messaging and the uninspiring campaign. I was also very much aware of the poor targeting strategy (which I personally could never understand) and the fact that Jo wasn't the asset many naively assumed she would be. Indeed, it was painfully obvious. I also struggled to comprehend why there was so much positivity about an election I was always convinced the Prime Minister would win - and why, when the Brexit Party withdrew from about half of the UK's constituencies in a bit to bolster the chances of pro-Leave MPs, the Lib Dem campaigning unit didn't realise the game was up for its ill-conceived strategy.
Specifically on the Article 50 issue, several Lib Dems have suggested if I was so concerned about it perhaps I should have voted against it at conference. I fear this atitude is actually part of the cultural problem Lady Thornhill references. Those of us with young school-age children can't travel hundreds of miles for a conference, and neither can many others. Conference may decide party policy, but it is not immune from ciriticisms of the vast majority of members who, for whatever reasons, are non-attendees. Neither is conference the best forum to test messaging strategies. As Lady Thornhill noted, specifically in relation to the "Your candidate for Prime Minister" slogan, what goes down well at conference is not necessairly a good indicator of what goes down well with voters.
This isn't about being wise after the event. We've now suffered three successive heavy defeats in General Elections, with no sign that much is likely to improve any time soon. Reviews were also held after the catastrophic 2015 and 2017 defeats. Is Lady Thornhill telling us anything we didn't already know? How many more reviews - and electoral setbacks - are going to be needed until anything substantial changes? As the review makes clear, 2019 was "a disaster waiting to happen" - not the fault of a single person or one poor decision but "the failure [of] decisions made over the course of many years" and the result of "a lack of long-term vision and strategy".
My question about the most recent review into electoral failure is not whether the criticisms are fair, but why we seem not to be learning the lessons of the recent past.
I'd like to thank Lady Thornhill and the review panel for the immense work they have put into their report, and for their findings which I cautiously welcome on the basis they could - if the will is there - form the basis of a radical overhaul of culture and party structure. The full document is certainly worth looking at, although it makes for rather uncomfortable reading.
However, I suspect the review itself inadvertently reinforces the reality of the party's inability to not only learn from past mistakes but also to recognise its current difficulties. An England-centric document, the report only mentions Scotland in passing (in relation to Jo's Dunbartonshire East seat and to hail our having four MPs and saving a number of deposits in Scotland as "positives") and has nothing to say on the ground war across the 59 Scottish constituencies or the Liberal Democrats' messaging in Scotland - as if the issues of Scotland's constitutional future and the continued success of the SNP were of merely peripheral interest in the election.
Indeed, the entire section dedicated to Scotland is this: "Scotland now has four of the eleven Lib Dem MPs, the party manifesto took sufficient account of Scottish political needs and the vote share rose across the country with many deposits saved, and the NE Fife campaign was successful." C'est tout. The bottom line is that the review panel views the Scottish campaign as clearly successful, when most impartial observers would see a much more mixed picture. I'm not persuaded that this hypothesis sufficiently appreciates either our current predicament or our strategic weakness in Scotland. This unconvincing argument, ignoring the wider picture, stands in contrast to the rest of a report that is generally focused, detailed and well-considered.
I'd like to think we can learn from this review and that the work of the panel will not be in vain. My suspicion is that it will prove no more effective than previous reviews have in revitalising a party badly in need of institutional reform and decisive leadership.