Wednesday 24 July 2019 4:10 am

If you stand for nothing, Lib Dems, what will you fall for?

The Liberal Democrats have a new, young, energetic, female leader and are riding high in the polls. So with the two main parties in disarray, even now one of them has finally changed managers, can the Lib Dems break through the electoral system and overcome the political duopoly we have been cursed with for decades? 

The opportunity looks better today than it has for a considerable time. Does the party have what it takes to succeed? Here are some suggestions of what it might take. 

The first is about mentality. 

For a long time the Lib Dems have thought of themselves, and behaved, as the third party; the party of protest; the party of “none of the above”. 

Can Jo Swinson change that mentality so that they start seeing themselves as a party of government, behaving with the boldness, self-confidence, swagger and showmanship that requires? 

And will the self-satisfied, stuck-in-its-ways, internal bureaucracy which, in the name of “party democracy”, tends to suffocate at birth any new, bold leadership initiative (as it did with Sir Vince Cable’s proposed reforms) allow it to happen? 

Second, the party needs to answer one fundamental question: what emotions does it want voters to feel as they walk into the polling booth and put a cross next to a Lib Dem name? 

What is the overall narrative that needs to be developed to generate such feelings? And what narrative will be distinctive enough to open up a new space in British politics, rather than one that merely splits the difference between the two main parties? 

The anti-Brexit platform has worked well in the current climate. But everyone knows that it has a finite shelf-life. What comes next? 

Which brings us to another question: is the party to be a liberal party or a social democrat one? Ever since the SDP merger with the Liberals, both these wings have co-existed side by side, making it difficult for a clear political position to emerge. It’s time that this was confronted. 

The party has always developed well thought-out and detailed policy positions. Many of these ideas have ended up being stolen by Labour or the Conservatives. But what has rarely been addressed is that policies are a second or third order issue. 

They should not be the tail that wags the dog. Rather they should flow from and reinforce the overall narrative and political space that the party wishes to occupy. 

The Lib Dems also need clear and punchy communication – not that which simply appeals to policy nerds. Crude as it may be, “Bollocks to Brexit” might serve as a good example.

Finally, can the party and its new leader break out of its tendency to focus on narrow issues of victimological politics to present bold, distinctive and radical positions on the economy, constitutional reform, immigration, health, defence, security and foreign policy, revitalisation of left behind areas, education, and so forth? Can a convincing position on environmental issues, rather than a merely virtue-signalling one, be developed and effectively communicated?

Success will come from challenging the status quo with big, bold, new ideas; a willingness to take on vested interests; and a vision for the country that is rooted in the opportunities and challenges of the 21st century. Timidly tinkering around the edges of the current system will not cut it. We need the outlines of a new settlement of what has become a broken social contract.

In short, can the party break free of their unwieldy and conservative internal party machine and evolve beyond the tendency to believe that success comes from boring earnestness, tactical electioneering and vote counting, and being seen as the “sensible”, intellectual party of the status quo? 

Today’s opportunity lies in energising voters with a new, distinctive, bold vision capable of making the blood boil. 

Success beckons if the Liberal Democrats can move beyond past ways and find the self-confidence and boldness truly to become a party of the radical centre.

All power to Jo Swinson to drive that change.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.