Rebuilding the Liberal Democrats: An Interview with Mark Pack

Alex Manzoor 11 March 2020

After the surprise defeat of Jo Swinson to retain her Scottish Parliamentary seat in the recent 2019 election few people could name her successor. This is partly because, the Party appointed the Deputy Leader and President as the new co-leaders. Therefore, the current President and co-leader is not an MP but rather the long-term party organiser Mark Pack. Pack’s extensive experience in communications consulting and electoral strategy make him the prime person to build up a party that since 2010, despite opportunities for advancement, has failed to shatter the two-party mould of the UK.

On the question of where it went wrong for the Lib Dems in the 2019 election, Pack critiqued the idea that there is a simple explanation that involves blaming the revoke Article 50 policy because the polling data suggests that this was not one of the turning points where they lost support. Instead Pack argued that the problem lay in ‘the classic two-party squeeze’ where ‘the closer you get the polling day the more people focus in on who they actually want to be Prime Minister’. Pack argues that this thesis is even more plausible when you look at what happened to other parties like the Greens who also failed to make significant electoral gains. His suggestion that the result can be attributed to the recurring problem of third parties in a two-party system has validity, but it does not explain the Lib Dems confidence under Swinson in the build up to the election. This is not to say that the two-party system is incredibly strong because Pack concurs that to a large extent people were voting as much against Corbyn or Johnson rather than for them. He notes ‘that you can see that even now in the handful of opinion polls we have had since the election’ which shows ‘very high’ support for the Conservative Party but with Boris Johnson’s ratings as ‘very modest’. In comparison to ‘Blair after the 1997 election, his polls are quite anaemic’. Pack’s laser-focus on the polling data as the Liberal Democrats go through a period of self-reflection is probably a positive sign for a party that now, more than ever, will have to be strategic in its approach to rebuilding its mass appeal.

Pack is more sanguine on the question of Brexit suggesting that it would be ‘a bit too simple’ to say that Brexit was the predominant cause of the failure of the Lib Dems to make gains. The fact that the question of Brexit was ‘the big issue’ that fundamentally affected people’s lives meant that it was therefore a ‘slightly odd question to ask whether if there is a really big issue that you have a really clear view on, should you express it or not’. He concludes, understandably, ‘yes’. However this doesn’t account for the strong opposition to Brexit that the Lib Dems adopted after the referendum was democratically won by the Leave campaign. Pack suggests that there is an interesting counterfactual as ‘if Theresa May had set out to do a soft Brexit’ it could have been different but because ‘a lot of what the Tories have pushed for is very different from what Leave campaigners have said would happen during the referendum’ it is ‘reasonable to hold Leave campaigners to account’. His response is telling because it perhaps demonstrates the tendency of those plugged into Westminster debates to assume the population has kept up with policy shifts to the same extent. Pushing on the idea of whether the real mistake of the Lib Dems was to be seen as being antithetical to democracy saw Pack reverse the question by arguing that there is ‘something fundamentally democratic’ by saying that the ‘public should get a say’ since the government has not delivered on what they have promised. Although clearly the population were not in total agreement with this notion, the remarkable ability of the Lib Dems to stay united around the issue of Europe unlike the Tories historically and Labour post-2016 suggests that they will not face the kind of bitter internecine struggles of the two main parties.

Moving on to the issue of electoral reform, a consistent hobby horse of the Lib Dems specifically and smaller parties in general, Pack sought to once again draw the issue back to the question of democracy and first principles arguing that ‘the idea that we should have a voting system that should properly represent people’s votes is still a very important principle’, pointing out the ‘particularly irony’ of Brexiteers who were reluctant to accept proportional representation whilst aggressively backing Brexit as giving power to the people. His anger over the issue of electoral reform, however, is largely directed at the Labour Party suggesting that the failure of attempts for electoral reform like the Alternative Vote Referendum in 2011 demonstrated ‘just how wimpish the Labour Party is’ as there is a ‘succession of things’ from ‘electoral reform to the House of Lords’ where Labour pretends to want change but ‘when it comes to a choice: the Labour Party repeatedly pick hating Tories over actually improving the way that we are governed’. His tone is mocking when referring to the hypocrisy of Labour politicians and officials in a way that speaks to a broader problem for the Liberal Democrats because it will be incredibly difficult for the Lib Dems to gain the kind of momentum necessary to do well in a General Election if they are unable to, at least rhetorically distinguish themselves from Labour.

 

there is a ‘succession of things’ from ‘electoral reform to the House of Lords’ where Labour pretends to want change but ‘when it comes to a choice: the Labour Party repeatedly pick hating Tories over actually improving the way that we are governed’.

 

‘Time and again Labour choose tribal hatred over properly delivering constitutional reform so one of the big questions for the next Labour leader is whether they pick petty hatred over improving the way our country is governed or not’.

In thinking about the ways that the Lib Dems can capitalise on the current political climate, Pack is under no illusions that ‘political mechanisms’ are the solution to addressing the kind of concerns of people that led to Brexit. He argues instead that ‘a significant part of it is about whether people really feel that the economy is working for them, their families and their communities’. Pack strongly maintains a belief, prevalent among Liberal Democrats and Labour supporters, that these kinds of economic fears drove contentious questions like immigration as ‘the higher the level of immigration in an area, the greater level of support for it’ and therefore a lot of it is underlined by a feeling of the idea that ‘the economy is not working for me’ with immigration and the government just as ‘the people you blame’. Pack identifies housing as a good example of his thesis, as housing shortages drive much of the blame directed at ‘London, immigrants or some other “other”’. This answer gives an insight into possible future Liberal Democratic strategy which could very well be to focus on the kind of local bread and butter issues that the Tories and Labour, through their inaction in government, are considered by many to have failed on.

The focus on the local has always been a strength of the Liberal Democrats who have been able to, historically, perform very well in by-elections. Pack pushes back on the suggestion that the Lib Dems have lost this advantage as he doesn’t ‘think the two [local and national campaigning] are at odds’ and in fact, he suggests that the party must avoid the temptation to go ‘super-local’ in order to maintain a kind of ‘ideological coherence’ which has come ‘very usefully from ideas like Brexit’. The challenge therefore in the future is the desire to maintain this coherence around non-Brexit issues. Pack’s strategy within the Commons considering his Party’s scant presence there lies in ‘identifying those issues where there is enough scope for cross-party agreement that you can actually… make a difference to people’s lives but also where there is enough scope to be particularly Lib Dem’ so that ‘people think that there is something to give them credit for’. He cites Ed Davey’s parliamentary questions concerning ‘bereavement rules’ as an example of the kind of issue that could be focused on.

‘I used to say back in the coalition years that the Lib Dems needed to learn a lot more from John Prescott. By which I meant that when Prescott was Deputy Prime Minister, when Labour was in power, he was still very much an anti-establishment figure’.

He recognises that his Party did not seem as ‘anti-establishment’ as it should have done which was ‘epitomised’ during the 2014 debate between Farage and Clegg over the EU where Clegg suggested that the EU, in ten years, would look ‘pretty much the same’. By 2019, their position on Brexit and welcoming of the rump of the Change UK cohort had put the Lib Dems in a similar position to the one they were in before the 2015 election in the Coalition years where many felt that the party had sacrificed its principles, most infamously on tuition fees, for power. Whilst Pack is reluctant to criticise the decision of Swinson to advertise the Party as a home for disaffected Labour and Conservative members and MPs arguing that ‘we should always welcome into the party people who share our values’ he caveats this with the suggestion that people must always know ‘what we campaign for’ so that the Party can weather any short term shock based on compromise which was a major problem ‘in 2010 where people didn’t have a clear enough sense of who we really were and what we were after so… disaster beckoned almost whatever we did’. He adds that there definitely ‘lessons we could have learned that might have made it less disastrous then it turned out’. Pack’s willingness to, implicitly, criticise aspects of the Clegg years shows a real consciousness of the precariousness of the situation facing the Liberal Democrats and his strong views on what needs to change suggests that, when the Lib Dem autopsy is revealed, the party can expect a serious rebrand that emphasises the kind of issues shirked by the Conservatives and Labour. Although Pack’s optimism is not exactly surprising from the Party’s most senior official, his experience as a historian is evident in his ability to study the mistakes of the past in a cool and analytical way.

 

‘in 2010 where people didn’t have a clear enough sense of who we really were and what we were after so… disaster beckoned almost whatever we did’.

 

Whilst we will have to await the results of any internal party discussion, his pitch for why the Lib Dems should be supported suggests that a change could be coming. In his view they are ‘the only party that is focused on trying to give every individual the best possible opportunities in life… and it’s that focus on giving as many individuals as possible as much freedom over their own lives that stands us out from other parties’. The lack of any, even subtle, allusion to Brexit is certainly something that should not be ignored and a sign of a sea change in the party leadership’s thinking. His focus on the individual is fitting as, in the case of the Liberal Democrats, it looks like Pack will be the individual who provides the Party with the best opportunities to succeed in its, historically fraught, life.