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The Lib Dems: In search of new voters…

September 29th, 2011 Posted in Uncategorized by

Time and again during Lib Dem conference I heard serious voices urging the party not to lament the voters we have in past year or so – but to focus on  where we might find voters going forward.. It is of course quite possible that with time, some improvement in the economy, and an increasingly mad Labour party, some lost voters will return to us.

But hoping or expecting or praying for the lost to find their way back to us is hardly what you call ” a plan”.

So what should the Lib Dem plan be? First and foremost, of course, we MUST be true to ourselves. We have seen all too often other parties trying to shape policy according to the latest opinion poll or focus group. It is just plain nuts. Parties get found out that way. It may work for a while but it always ends up in tears as the natural instincts of the party eventually pull you back to base. At best opinion polls et al give you a spot price on the mood of the nation. But as we know the nation can be fickle  – attitudes can change – sometimes overnight – and parties can, all too often, end up with an array of conflicting policies that says nothing about what a party stands for. This leads to doubt and mistrust amongst the voters – and confusion and conflict within the party itself.

So our plan should be grounded in our roots, in our DNA – ideas and solutions that everyone immediately recognises as obviously Liberal. It is why Nick’s stand against any changes to the Human Rights Act works so well – and our opposition to Free schools looks so phony. There is no underlying Liberal reason why empowering parents at the expense of Government (national or council) is wrong.

But opposition to coalition policies as we have said here before many times is not a plan. And if it is a plan, it is a wholly useless one. After all we are not in opposition we are in power.

So where should the Liberal Democrats be going, who should they be talking to and what policies should that then deliver?

It’s obvious isn’t it ? Small and medium sized businesses. The Conservatives are the friends of big business, the Labour party now firmly under the control of the Trade Unions is also increasingly obsessed with big business (whether workers of large public sector organisations or private enterprise). Ed Balls may have made overtures to small business in his speech on Monday. But referring to my earlier point – no one really believes that Labour is the party of small business or the entrepreneur. It’s just phony.

The Liberal Democrats on the other hand can legitimately claim the position of defender of the small. The most meaningful boost we have had in the polls recently came at the height of the Murdoch inquiry. It reminded the nation that we are not, nor ever have been, in the pockets of big business interests (media or otherwise). We argue for localism over big government. We stand for modernisation not protection of the status quo (and believe me the entrepreneur revolution is well and truly upon us). We are internationalists not protectionists. If any party should be able to win the hearts and minds of small business it should surely be the Liberal Democrats.

And if there is a group of people that every party should want to win it is small business. Small business is huge. There are about 23million people working in small and medium sized businesses. They are shopkeepers and entrepreneurs, lawyers and designers, engineers and specialist manufacturers. They are our kind of people. (And they are much more likely to operate close to where their goods/services are used which will keep the greener ones amongst us happy).  SME’s are small and nifty. Able to downsize and up-size quickly according to market conditions. They are canny,resourceful, and flexible. They are also the engine room for economic growth. Who wouldn’t want them in their camp? All they really want is for Government to stop standing in their way…..

So here is a plan that is neither bold nor brave. It’s simple. Why don’t we, the Liberal Democrats, be the party that truly, meaningfully embraces  the small and the local. We also actually have a Lib Dem minister in the necessary department. Let’s really go for it.

Let’s go into the next election saying it was the Liberal Democrats that swept away the acres of red tape that crushes small businesses. Big business loves red tape – it creates barriers to entry for the small to get bigger and new ones to start. It is the small and medium that get hurt. And let’s not be tentatitive about this. Let’s not just exempt the small from new regulation for a year or two.. let’s tear down this stuff good and proper, and forever.

Let it be the Liberal Democrats that rather than eat up headlines saying why bankers are spivs and need controlling – let’s go and just create whole new avenues of funding for small businesses eg.. Let’s give meaningful (huge even) tax breaks for indidivuals that are willing to invest in the future of our SMEs.

And why can’t the Liberal Democrats be the ones to say that companies employing less that 20 people will be exempt from compulsory pension provision and grant them exemption from paying minimum wage to under 25’s. I know that we will have unions and academics saying that this is child labour… exploiting the young, encouraging companies to fire the old to bring in “slave” labour….  But honestly we all know that small companies are just not like that. These business men and women are not evil capitalists seeking to oppress the workers – they often live in the communities in which they work. They employ neighbours or friends or heaven forbid – family members. Times have changed. Our perceptions should too.

Let it be the Liberal Democrats that stand up for small business and local communities. We should be the party saying that we have has messed around with the local corner shop once too often and heaped trouble after trouble on local pub landlords. The nation’s health is important – but law after law on tobacco sales will only drive smokers to the Tescos and Sainsburys of this world at best – and criminal gangs running ludicrously successful counterfeiting operations at worst.  And banning smoking from ALL pubs was never the intention of Government – they intended to allow independents, private clubs etc exempt. It was the big business pub chains that insisted that everyone should share the same pain. Why don’t the Liberal Democrats stand up for the local shopkeeper and the pubs and working mens clubs of this country.Let’s call time on more big government health lobbies calling the shots and give the shopkeepers and independent landlords who live in our local communities a fairer shout.

All of the above would genuinely enable the local hubs of our communities to survive and many businesses to grow, to expand, to export and to spend more time and more cash on making their businesses more successful. And actually to employ more people. The days when a person joined one company and stayed with them for 20 or 30 years have gone. We really are living in the middle of an entrepreneurial revolution. We should not only recognise it but embrace it. And it may just pay huge dividends at the ballot box.

13 Responses to “The Lib Dems: In search of new voters…”

  1. Matthew Huntbach Says:

    But hoping or expecting or praying for the lost to find their way back to us is hardly what you call ” a plan”.

    Yes it is, it is a very sensible plan. Any business which has lost customers would know that attempting to win back former customers is a good strategy. I am sure you, as I, get plenty of junk mail from companies you’ve done business with previously, they know you’re a good bet because you’ve already chosen them in the past.

    But opposition to coalition policies as we have said here before many times is not a plan. And if it is a plan, it is a wholly useless one. After all we are not in opposition we are in power.

    No, we are not “in power” as conventionally understood. We share power. The words “in power” suggest we have complete control over all government policies, which was always the case in recent governments due to them being single party. It makes every bit of sense to remind people that this is a different situation to the one they have been used to – particularly our former “customers” who may have dropped us because of this misunderstanding. To say this is “wholly” useless is rubbish – it suggests that not only do you disagree with it as a strategy, which of course you are free to do so, but that you are no even willing to take into account the viewpoint of those who do not agree with you – which is not how a “liberal” should behave.

    Let’s go into the next election saying it was the Liberal Democrats that swept away the acres of red tape that crushes small businesses. Big business loves red tape – it creates barriers to entry for the small to get bigger and new ones to start

    If big businesses REALLY love red tape, why do their trade unions spend so much time and energy opposing it? I do not recall any organisation of big businesses urging the government to introduce more regulation and control, which is what would happen if what you wrote had some element of truth in it.

    Let it be the Liberal Democrats that rather than eat up headlines saying why bankers are spivs and need controlling – let’s go and just create whole new avenues of funding for small businesses eg.. Let’s give meaningful (huge even) tax breaks for indidivuals that are willing to invest in the future of our SMEs.

    One of the biggest barriers to small businesses is the fact that big businesses can operate more cheaply due to efficiencies of scale. That is why, for example, the opening of a new big supermarket branch generally results in the closure of a whole load of small shops. OK, the customers have voted with their feet, but I think to suggest that there is no conflict of interest between the big and the small, so that no controls on the big will also always help the small is wrong. In many ways, the big IS the enemy of the small, however much you Angela deny it because your organisation is funded by big business.

    From my experience, one of the biggest barriers to people becoming entrepreneurs is insecurity. So more security in the shape of a better welfare state would actually encourage entrepreneurs because it would mean more people would feel free to take risks. For example, if you have a hefty mortgage you are struggling to pay, the only sensible option is to play safe and stick with your salaried job. If you have low cost social housing, you can afford to take the risk of starting your own business because you aren’t afraid of losing your home. This is something I know through direct life experience. The rich in this country who dominate its thinking have never lived life like that so do not know it, that is why they come up with so many clueless policies.

  2. Bolivia Newton-John Says:

    Agree whole-heartedly with the original post. If every SME hired one worker: no more unemployment. The Libertarian Party UK (who can generally safely be ignored) caught my eye with one policy to exempt all start-ups from Corporation Tax for five years. Why could this not be extended to SMEs? They continuously get shat upon by the Labservatives because they can’t cross their palms with silver in the way Big Business can. Time to fight their corner.

  3. Robin Says:

    Yes!!!! I could not agree more with every word of this! Not only is this what our party needs, it is what the country needs, and it is a real way forward.

  4. Robin Says:

    @Matthew Huntbach

    1. No, we will not get voters back who voted for us because they didn’t understand that we were a “liberal democrat” party rather than Labour lite, no matter what we do.

    2. To believe that simply saying no to everything will gain us voters is, frankly, stupid.

    3. Big business does love red tape, because big business tends to be the “incumbent” in any given industry, and thus doesn’t like it when pesky start-ups shift the ground from underneath their feet and disrupt their business model. That is what red tape is there to prevent, basically – red tape is there to protect existing business models from being disrupted by start-ups.

    4. Big business operating more efficiently than small business is only a barrier where small business competes on the same business model. But what successful start ups do is they change the equation.
    On insecurity: is that why America is the land of entrepreneurs? Because of their massively generous welfare net? I believe that the evidence contradicts your claims here, I am afraid!

  5. Richard Gadsden Says:


    To be fair on America and entrepreneurs:

    They do have a social safety net. They have bankruptcy legislation that is among the most favourable to bankrupts in the world. They also have laws that mean that mortgagees in default can’t be pursued beyond the value of the property.

    So if your business goes wrong, you can walk away from your debts, and move into rented accommodation.

    They also have a low population density which means the average house is larger. This means that young entrepreneurs are much more likely to be able to find a friend’s garage or spare room to live on or work out of.

    HP was famously founded in the founders’ parents’ garage.

  6. Angela Harbutt Says:

    Mathew – you say
    ..” just because your organisation is funded by big business”

    I assume you mean Liberal Vision when you say “your organisation”… (you cannot possibly mean the Lib Dems – ha!)

    Just for the record Liberal Vision is not funded at all – we are just a group of bloggers who believe in freedom. When we need to pay things like printing costs, hosting website etc – then I – or one of the other bloggers – digs their hands into their own pockets. Sorry to disappoint – no conspiracy here.

    Also having worked for huge and run small operations I have to tell you that entrepreneurialism is a state of mind – not a state of bank balance. Years of government handouts have indoctinated a whole generation into being risk averse. My parents started a business from a market stall with nothing and robbed peter to pay paul for years to get it going – they didnt have social housing – they rented a tiny little place that doubtless would not pass Health and Safety laws these days.

    You keep taking the state drug long enough and you will be terrified of everything – especially risk. Kick the habit my friend.

    As for suggesting that trying to go back to lost customers – well if you look at it carefully you will see BIG business does try to get back old customers… and the strike rate is very low indeed…Frankly it is just not very sound business practice but large companies can be very unimaginative sometimes… Small companies just move on and know that because they are good enough SOME will return – but they dont dwell on it.

    You say “If big businesses REALLY love red tape, why do their trade unions spend so much time and energy opposing it?” – Just read your own statement again…you have answered your own question.. did you not know that trade unions fight anything the evil capitalist employers love? strange. I thought everyone knew that.

    Finally on the issue of big vs small. Yep big can come along and wipe out small with efficiency etc – that then forces small to rethink their USP and what they can do that big can’t – and so small finds a gap in the market and thrives and becomes big and then new small come in behind. This is harder to do admittedly where there are huge barriers to entry (eg capital costs) -but even then someone usually finds a way (think airlines). This really only gets screwed up when the state starts meddling frankly… like creating state monopolies, weird hybrids of private/state
    or regulation that has unintended consequences.

    I hope that helps. Angela.

  7. Lotus 51 Says:

    Another barn-storming post. As a small business owner I whole-heartedly agree with everything you say. However I can’t see how this de-regulation is going to be achieved whilst we are in the EU, notwithstanding Ed Davey’s endeavours in emplyoment legislation. His victory was but a small battle in a war which is virtually lost.

    Remember the EU’s stability and growth pact? We don’t exactly have any stability right now and the only growth is in regulation and Keynsian macro-economic intervention.

    @Matthew Huntbach; You are quite simply wrong. Big business loves regulation. This is why they hire corporate lobbyists to frame the legislation to their advantage. This is especially rife at the EU from where the majority of regulations now emanate. Don’t belive me? read this

  8. Richard Says:

    @Angela, when Matthew refers to big businesses’ trade unions, he means the likes of the CBI and the IOD, of course.

    The trades unions that you are writing about could not be “their trade unions”, first because they would be “trades unions”, not “trade unions”, and secondly because the referent for “their” is clearly “big businesses”.

    Reducing the consequences of failure, whether by means of a social security safety net, or by making bankruptcy easy and painless, is essential if you want people to take risks.

    After all, the reason the bankers took the risks they took is because they personally do not bear the consequences. If limited liability was abolished for banks and anyone employed by a bank had to accept joint and several liability for all debts incurred by the bank then you may be certain that banking would become much more risk-averse. But they’d be the same people. You mistake incentives for character.

    The challenge here, Angela, is not to hero-worship those who are less risk-averse, either because they have risk-taking personalities – which can be very dangerous in the wrong places, or because they have a strong safety net, but to work out how to reduce the consequences of failure.

    For instance, how many ambitious, risk-taking entrepreneurs can you think of who had young children at the time they founded their companies? I go for none – all the ones I can think of had already established their companies before their children are born.

    Having children makes people more risk-averse (because the consequences of failure are greater – they affect the children too). So what are your proposals for reducing the consequences of entrepreneurial failure on entrepreneurs’ children?

  9. Tabman Says:

    What a great debate!

    Angela – don’t forget the mutual model either. Just because the Co-Op is a wholly owned subsid of That Labour doesn’t mean we shouldn’t embrace mutualism.

  10. Angela Harbutt Says:

    @ Richard
    Thanks for your deciphering Matthews meaining. I confess to never having heard of the CBI described as a trade union before.. I am sure they will be highly amused. Anyway = thanks for the clarification – it certainly makes more sense.

    As you explain it I can answer it – the CBI represents ALL business no matter what the size. In pure numbers terms there are many more SMEs than large companies. Arguably the CBI therefore listens to SMEs more than big business and is itself more important to SME’s because the CBI has better lobbying functions than their members. Big business on the hand frequently (usually)have their own lobbying departments in house or employ specialists in their particular industry. So, hardly surprising then if CBI is anti red tape etc…

    Addressing your second point you say that reducing the consequences of failure is essential if you want people to take risks. Well this actually all about balance surely – the level of risk vs level of reward vs the consequences of failure. Simplicistically I am unlikely to risk everything I own to get back everything i own +5% if the consequences are i lose everything. Ask me to risk 10% of everything I own with the likelihood/possibility that I receive treble in rewards then i am interested- in this scenario the consequences are to lose 10% of what I own – period.

    Each and every scenario will have different factors involved that need to be weighed up.

    You state that people with children are more risk averse and therefore less likely to be entrepreneurs. I am not certain that follows. I know of two entrepreneurs who actually started their businesses BECAUSE they had children. They didnt want a 9-5, wanted to work flexibly around their children so started something that allowed them to do that. Entrepreneurs are also very good at hedging their own risk – eg their partner works whilst they launch, or they start small at weekends and quit when they reach a certain size, or they move to part time or consultancy allowing them to guarantee an underlying income that is sustainable for the family whilst they start up. etc etc.

    If your point is that in the UK we have a peculiar attitude to failure that makes it very difficult for an entrepreneur to restart after initial failure then there is certainly a reasonable debate to be had about that.Though not here – i was simply arguing that Lib Dems should become the friends of the small and the local…..

    To be honest as i see it from what is happening around me most people don’t think in terms of “being an entrepreneur” – the nature of employment is clearly changing across the industrialised world – and what we find is people faced with redundancy and limited opportunities in the traditional work model – seek to set up their own business (be that as a sole trader) and go for it. The alternative is statehand outs.

    This does not happen just among the rich and educated. I know a Columbian cleaner who when faced with redundancy from her agency got together with some others and set up their own company – she is neither educated more would she consider herself “clever” – but she is clearly doing exceptionally well. She has two small children btw.

    Sorry to be so long-winded I think I was saying that there are many circs when the consequenses of failure have – or can – already been minimised by the individual. And I said all that with out mentioning limited liability etc…

  11. Richard Says:

    @Angela, I think I may have spent too much time in the IT sector, and watched an awful lot of ambitious start-ups.

    There’s a difference between setting up your own small business and letting it grow and what I’m accustomed to thinking of as entrepreneurship, which involves establishing a business with no clear revenue stream, building up huge amounts of venture capital, employing dozens of staff, and sometimes making it big and making multi-millions – and other times, not.

    When those business ideas go *splat*, the founder usually ends up declaring bankruptcy – and, often, trying again a few years later.

    Quite a few of the successes (not generally the Microsoft or Google level, but the ones that Microsoft or Google buy) have been bankrupt once or twice before making their $10-100m.

    Small, family businesses, intended to bring in a steady income rather than make a fortune – well, my father was self-employed (until he retired), but I’d never have considered him an entrepreneur, and neither does he think of himself that way.

    I am inclined to agree with your view of small-scale businesses. Not sure that getting red tape out of the way is quite the right approach. Well, I am sure that getting red tape out of the way is part of the right approach, but I don’t think your examples of red tape are red tape.

    Take the 48-hour work week. Requiring people to have on file an annual signed statement from each person waiving the protection of the 48-hour week is a classic bit of red tape. Employers have to chase around getting forms filled in, and have to carefully track staff hours and kick them out of the office when the 48 hours is up for those that haven’t got around to signing the form.

    There has to be a less bureaucratic way of achieving the same end. It’s as if filling in a form saying you’re not exploiting your staff is adequate, instead of just, you know, not exploiting your staff.

  12. Lotus 51 Says:

    I’ve just perused the Liberal Party website (the ones that didn’t merge with SDP). What a joke, wooly and naive doesn’t come close to describing it and certainly they are right-on progressives rather than liberals.

    There has to be a place for a properly classically liberal party in the UK. The LDs don’t fill this hole, they would get my vote if they did what it said on the tin, but sadly I can’t see this happening.

    The best hope for liberalism I think is going to come from the Conservatives if Cameron is ousted and the new leader is from the new socially and economically liberal intake of MPs. I know this will only be liberal-light, but it’s better than blue-rinse conservativism or control freak statist Labour or social democrat LDs.

    Check list for Lotus 51…
    Create a federal UK with equally devolved powers to Eng, Scot, Wales & NI. HOC to be English parliament. No taxation without representation, taxes should be raised close to where they are spent.

    Abolish HOL and replace with directly elected (by PR) federal parliament with directly elected UK PM.

    Austrian school economic policies (monetary, fiscal and welfare e.g. Citizens Basic Income)

    Market-based public services with voucher scheme paid from taxation (a la Sweden)

    Liberalisation of drugs policy. (Never taken drugs myself but the war on drugs is costly lunacy)

    Amend the smoking ban to allow smoking in private clubs/working mens clubs etc (hate smoking myslef, but this is a totally unacceptable loss of liberty and is killing the pub/club trade)

    Disestablish the C of E and abolish faith schools (religion is matter of the individual not the state.)

    Withdraw from EU. No CAP etc etc.

    Unilaterally open our borders to all trade, even if the trade is not reciprocal.

    Immigration – allow free immigration but no access to benefits until after 10 years residency and no state patronage of specific cultural groups, either “host” culture or immigrant culture.

    Stop all subsidy of the arts. Arts are not a public good (postive externality) to be subsidised by the state. They are form of middle class consumption.

    Abolish the quangocray

    Sadly I don’t think any of the above will happen in my lifetime (except possibly withdrawl from the EU but only by default if it collapses…. and possibly the smoking ban amendment which is fine by I don’t smoke). How depressing.

    Come on LDs; do what it says on the tin! Be distinctive, be liberal, promote freedom not serfdom.

  13. Tabman Says:

    Lotus 51: little to disagree with there.l