The Liberal Democrats have a problem. If they want to have any serious impact at this election, they need to win back seats they lost to the Conservatives in 2015, like Eastbourne, Lewes and Yeovil. In many of these seats though, UKIP had previously polled between 10-13% of the vote. If the local elections are anything to go on, UKIP’s support will collapse and the Tories will sweep up most of their votes.
With Jeremy Corbyn, one of the most unpopular opposition leaders in post-war history, shifting the Labour Party to the hard left, there would seem to be a vacant space for the Lib Dems to become the dominant party of the centre. The trouble is that even if the Lib Dems are beefed up by centre left votes, the unification of the right means they are unlikely to win seats on this alone. In target seats like Cheltenham, Eastbourne, Lewes, and Yeovil, even if the Lib Dems repeat their 2015 performance and add on the bulk of Labour and Green votes, they would still lose to Tory candidates, based on our UKIP-collapse scenario.
Furthermore, based on this model, current polling suggests that the Lib Dems might lose seats they currently hold. In short, if they want anything other than Theresa May’s hard Brexit, they need something to critically alter the state of play in the next 22 days.
When the campaign began there was a strong – but short lived feeling – that the Lib Dems could unite those who woke up on 24th June last year feeling distraught, anxious and angry at the decision to leave the EU. Not surprisingly then, the very first chapter of the Lib Dems manifesto lays out their plan to deal with Brexit.
They accept we need to plan to leave the EU, but say before this plan is implemented there should be another referendum vote for or against whatever agreement the Government negotiates, with a third option to stay in the EU. In the meantime they will fight to retain pretty much everything which we currently get as an EU member. This is the most perspicuous proposal of any of the major parties to stay in the EU.
However, polling suggests this approach is not translating into electoral popularity. The Lib Dems are more unpopular now than when the Prime Minister called the election a month ago. The much talked about ‘Remaining’ Tories don’t seem to have been won over by the Lib Dems. Therefore as things stand, their Brexit approach alone will not be enough to prevent 8th June becoming May Day.
Is there enough in the rest of the Lib Dem manifesto to make an electoral statement? The key policies are a 1p tax rise on income to bring an additional £6.3bn for the health service, an additional £100bn on infrastructure investment, £7bn on education, reversing Conservative welfare cuts and “unfair and unjustified tax cuts”, ending the NHS pay freeze and empowering the role of workers on company boards.
A lot of this is ‘Corbyn-lite’, and will play well in Labour marginals like Burnley, Cardiff Central and Cambridge. But wins in these few target seats will do little to stop a big Conservative majority if the Lib Dems can’t win Tory seats. Other than a package for small businesses, there is not a lot in the manifesto which will obviously entice Conservative voters away from what May is likely to offer. This means we still end up with the likely hard Brexit which the Lib Dems say they oppose.
The other hope for the Lib Dems is that distinctive policies such as the Rent to Own scheme, discounted buses for young people, five new environmental laws, decriminalising cannabis – a rehash from their 2015 manifesto – can radically increase the Lib Dems popularity. This seems impossible; they are credible policies, but the challenge the Lib Dems face seems too great.
Other than that they could always hope for an act of God. That might even be Tim Farron’s best option.