The results are (almost all) in, everybody has had time to sleep, eat and recover. So it’s time for the inevitable debate as to what went well for the Lib Dems, and what went… less well.
Clearly there are some positives. We gained a seat on the London Assembly, took control of St Albans council and our councillors are net positive. But at the same time, we only just held on in Wales and lost a seat in the Scottish Parliament.
We also consolidated support in some areas (moving several councils to NOC), elected some great Lib Dems, and came frustratingly close to electing more (I’m looking at you, Caithness, Sutherland and Ross).
But really, the best that can be said for this cycle is that we stood still.
Many of these seats were last contested in 2016, pre-referendum, when we were still in the immediate aftermath of coalition. And even though many targets were Conservative facing, our progress against the party of government was often uninspiring. This is not evidence of a party on the up and up.
Most concerningly for me, in several parts of the country the Green Party out-performed us. No shade to the Greens. I am pleased to see them do well. The Lib Dems are a “small g” green party, and we need as many voices as we can in the fight to prevent climate breakdown and build a more sustainable way of living.
But all too often, success breeds success in politics, particularly in a system which continues to use anti-democratic first past the post systems for too many elections. There’s a certain portion of the electorate who might incline towards voting for a progressive party which isn’t Labour; if the Greens have the momentum, the space for Lib Dems is likely to shrink.
Facts on the ground will not have played in our favour. Lib Dems win where we show communities that we are on their side. But it’s been hard to do that for much of the last year. Equally, the Conservatives have probably gained from the vaccine roll-out. But both of those factors should have hit the Greens as well.
So what are we to make of all this? What do the Greens have which we lack?
What seems to me to distinguish the Greens from the Lib Dems, is that they know what they are for (you could make a similar point about the Conservatives and Labour at present).
The Green brand speaks for itself. The climate crisis has rightly risen in prominence in recent years, and while the Lib Dems have solid green credentials (albeit perhaps in need of some revitalisation), our brand doesn’t say this. We can’t out-green the greens.
Liberalism is, in contrast, more complex, and we have over the last six years, failed to re-establish a brand which communicates our values and philosophy. Brexit allowed us to hide this for a bit, by providing a key policy which stood as a self-contained monolith, but it never solved the underlying problem. And as soon as it stopped being the leading issue, our support fizzled out.
This identity crisis has only got worse since 2019. We’ve swapped a high-profile single issue (Brexit) for a far lower profile one (support for carers). Sure, this is in line with our values, but I have seen little evidence of any real efforts to build up the Lib Dems as a coherent brand.
We can’t expect people to elect Lib Dems if they don’t know what doing so means. So much of politics is about the vibe which leaders and parties give off. And at the moment our vibe (if we even have one), is bland.