As the Liberal Democrats gather in Brighton for their annual conference this week, people are asking: what’s the point? The third force in British politics appears to have been reduced to a group of angry bystanders.
After losing 49 of their 57 MPs at the 2015 General Election, Brexit should have been a turning point for the Lib Dems, the only Party that directly opposed Brexit. Seizing this momentum could have united moderates from across politics and transformed the Party’s electoral fortunes.
Except that it didn’t. Despite promising local election results and a brief membership surge, the Party won a lacklustre 13 seats at the 2017 General Election and have failed to influence the Brexit debate ever since. Vince Cable’s keynote speech to Party conference this week rehashed a number of existing policies and gave a lukewarm endorsement to a second referendum on Brexit.
So, why has the Party been unable to capitalise on these ripe conditions?
- The legacy of government. As some predicted in 2010, the Lib Dems fared badly as junior coalition partners. They were perceived by many voters to have betrayed their values and become complicit in Conservative spending cuts. The decision to endorse the tripling of tuition fees has become totemic and the Party’s attempted constitutional reforms, which had the potential to leave a lasting legacy, all sunk without a trace.
- Decline as a campaigning party: Opposition parties work effectively when they vocally campaign on key issues to voters. Labour MP David Lammy’s campaigning for the Windrush community is an example, as is SNP work to protect shipbuilding on the Clyde. Beyond opposing Brexit – which polling shows to be anathema to many voters – it’s unclear what the Lib Dems stand for these days.
- Talk of a new party: The constant rumours of a new centrist, pro-European Party make it hard to take the existing one seriously. Lib Dem leadership have claimed to be in “conversations” about defection with up to 20 disaffected Conservative and Labour MPs for so long that many see the threat as simply no longer credible. MPs usually hold a tribal allegiance to their current Party, though this is not shared by the Lib Dems; in his recent book, Nick Clegg argues that the best strategy for stopping Brexit would be to join Labour or the Tories and back a pro-EU candidate in a leadership contest.
- Movement for moderates: Moderate people are by definition unlikely to take to the streets. The Lib Dems wish to emulate Momentum and create a grassroots movement, but outside university towns, their target voters are far less likely to actively campaign for change than their counterparts in Momentum, who have a driving vision of the wholesale transformation of society.
- Failure of leadership: The economic impact of Brexit is becoming clear; polling shows the public are becoming more sceptical; the centre ground is noticeably vacant in British politics; Labour are gripped an antisemitism crisis; the Conservatives are on the brink of self-implosion over Europe; swathes of the population feel politically homeless. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems have a healthy membership, adequate funding and a strong grassroots organisation. The UK is a petri-dish ripe for liberal internationalism and yet the Lib Dems flounder below 10% in the polls. The leadership must be held accountable for this fact. Vince Cable’s reincarnation as an omniscient grandfather has failed; a newer, younger leader should be given an opportunity.
It seems as though only a Brexit-related crisis would inspire mass support for the Liberal Democrats and their policy on Europe. There is already talk of becoming the Party of “return”, once Brexit has taken place. Yet history shows that strong domestic liberal policies, coupled with pragmatic internationalism and charismatic leadership, are the formula for success for the Party of the centre.