On election night, Labour MP Jess Phillips perfectly explained the election result in one sentence:
"Our policies have to address the needs of the communities we serve, and the public have to believe we can deliver them"
This is a lesson with urgent consequences for all three main parties...
As a Labour MP, Jess Phillips could see that whilst each element of Labour's manifesto was quite popular (e.g. free broadband, nationalised railways) the idea of delivering dozens of them at once was so risky that it scared people (not just those with big pension funds but also those living from pay-cheque to pay-cheque). The more loudly and enthusiastically the true-believers dismissed the concerns of the doubtful, the more they convinced us that their plans would end in disaster.
My own party failed in a similar way: Our leader's focus on revoking Brexit without a public vote sent a message to millions of people who voted for change in 2016 that their opinion wasn't relevant. Claiming she would be the next Prime Minister made us look detached from reality. Two thirds of our members and over 90% of our MPs live in communities which voted for Remain. Liberal Democracy can work for every person in every part of the country, but voters outside the home counties will not trust us until they believe we are listening to them.
By contrast, the populist Conservative party has won power by listening to everyone's concerns and promising that "Getting Brexit Done" will fix them all. Ironically the gridlock caused by people who genuinely feel that Brexit will make things worse has simply strengthened the belief that pushing ahead must make things better.
Johnson can certainly take us out of the EU at the end of January, but there is no way he can negotiate control over our money, our borders, our laws and our fish by the end of 2020. A deal like that will take years to negotiate. It only took three words to win this election, just as it only took three words to win the 2016 referendum. But they are not the same three words. In fact they are completely the opposite.
So the big question for Johnson in 2020 is this: Will he "Get Brexit Done", or will he "Take Back Control"? He cannot do both.
All three parties have been taken over by a radical faction:
- The Conservatives have become the Brexit Party
- Labour have become the Socialist Workers Party
- The Liberal Democrats have become a single-issue Stop-Brexit campaign group
This leaves millions of voters looking for a home, searching for a party offering realistic plans about the Climate Emergency, public services and an economy which works for everyone:
- Moderate Liberal Conservatives don't want to be part of a right-wing Conservative party delivering a hard Brexit
- Moderate Social Democrats don't want to be part of a far-left Labour party indulging in undeliverable fantasies
- Liberal Democrats outside South East England don't want to be part of the "turn back the clock and pretend the referendum never happened" party.
The Liberal Democrats are the natural home for all of these lost voters, but we need to show them that we are a broad, open, tolerant and inclusive party, not a narrow, arrogant, single-issue campaign group.
I am in no doubt that Brexit is a bad idea, and I wish it could be stopped, but the UK will leave the EU at the end of January.
On February 1st, all three parties will have the opportunity to reclaim the centre ground, but only if they turn away from the extremes.
Boris Johnson kept mentioning "One Nation Conservatism" in his victory speech. He already has his eyes on the next prize. He will have to face down the right wing, but his large majority gives him some room to do so.
The only Labour leader to win a general election in the past 45 years was Tony Blair. Will the party now choose an heir to Blair, or continue with Corbynism? The way forward is clear, but only if the party can admit that this defeat was of their own making.
The Liberal Democrats must now accept what has happened and set out our plans to repair the damage and heal a divided country. This will include pushing for the closest-possible relationship with the EU so that the economic harm is minimised and the possibility of re-joining in ten years is kept on the table. But we must not spend the next five years fighting for an immediate return to the EU. If we cannot turn our attention to other matters, we will never be more than a single-issue pressure group.
The centre-ground is empty. Who will be the first to claim it? The clock is ticking...