Tue 22 June 2021

Otto English considers why the Liberal Democrats are struggling to provide a home for the politically homeless that should be flocking to the party.

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Here’s a question for political nerds. Without resorting to Google, can you name both of the current acting leaders of the Lib Democrats?

A tip: neither is Jo Swinson.

Swinson lost her seat in the 2019 General Election and disappeared never to be heard of again. Nor is it Vince Cable, Tim Farron, Nick Clegg or any of the other half dozen people who have claimed the title in the past five years.

The answer for those of you sitting on the edge of your seats is Sir Ed Davey, the party’s former Deputy Leader and Mark Pack, the Lib Dem President. Never heard of Pack? Me neither. But then, even the Lib Dem website isn’t sure who is in charge – claiming (wrongly) that Baroness Sal Brinton is acting head when, in fact, she stepped down in January.

There’s an old quip, often misattributed to Winston Churchill, about an empty taxi arriving at Downing Street and Clement Atlee getting out. If the current Lib Dem leadership was to pop round to see Boris Johnson, there is a very real risk of a packed cab arriving, only for nobody to get out. Never in the field of modern politics has so little been cared, by so many, about so few.

A Place for Progressives

Before liberal-inclined readers start firing off erudite, well-crafted, extremely polite complaints in my direction, believe me when I say that I don’t have it in for the Lib Dems. Far from it.

Alone among the main three national parties, they stood firm against Brexit and – if my Twitter feed is representative – the party membership is full of decent, thoughtful and progressive people. Their policies on social care, childcare and mental health issues are second to none. They have an enlightened drugs policy, being the only party to have committed to legalisation and regulation of the cannabis market. They are the only major party to have pushed for electoral reform that could drag this country into the modern age.

The Lib Dems’ time in David Cameron’s Coalition Government damaged their credibility, particularly on the thorny issue of tuition fees, but they also curbed the more reckless proclivities of the Conservatives – just take a look at what happened after the Coalition ended.

In short, the Lib Dems, seem like a group of well-meaning people, with properly liberal policies that should chime with a large swathe of the public because, despite what we might think, the United Kingdom is an ever more progressive country.

Research by Ipsos Mori at the end of 2019 showed that, in a little over 30 years, the nation has gone through a revolution in attitudes. In 1989, 40% of the population believed that same sex relationships were ‘immoral’, but today that figure is just 13%. The overwhelming majority – 71% of British adults – believe that using drugs such as cannabis is acceptable. Just 18% of the population think that abortion is ‘morally wrong’. Most people don’t support capital punishment, most are positive about the impact of immigration and a majority think that multiculturalism has enriched Britain.

The right-wing media’s negativity may have embedded a sense that most people in this country oppose immigration, minorities and progress – but poll after poll demonstrates otherwise. The Conservatives may have won an 80 seat majority in December, but well over half of the 31,829,630 people who voted did so for progressive centrist and left-wing parties.

Meanwhile, Labour under Corbyn has done everything in its power to alienate and antagonise its centrist supporters, driving them away in swathes and rendering millions of potential voters homeless. The natural place for those estranged left-leaning voters would be the Lib Dems, but it simply hasn’t happened.  


Time for a Re-Think

One problem is that the first-past-the-post electoral system is stacked against them.

In the last General Election, the Lib Dems secured 11.6% of the vote, up 4.2% on 2017 and around a quarter of the 43.6% achieved by the Tories. But, while the Conservatives romped home with 365 seats, the Lib Dems got just 11 – down one on their 2017 result, even as support increased.

Our electoral system is an embarrassing sham – democratic in the same way that a tomato sandwich is a mid-field player for West Bromwich Albion. Lord Hailsham famously (approvingly) described it as an “elective dictatorship” because a party with a clear majority can do what it wants. Reform would benefit the Lib Dems and other smaller parties but, as long as Boris Johnson has his whacking majority, it is unlikely to happen. 

But, the Lib Dems don’t exactly help themselves either. For all the talk of European-style coalition politics, the liberal centre and left remains a scattered mosaic that resists all attempts to come together and create a picture.

By ruling out a coalition with Labour and refusing to cut deals with Corbyn in 2019, Swinson undoubtedly alienated potential support. For a party which advocates for a proportional representation electoral system, it has too frequently proved curiously resistant to forging alliances with natural partners such as the Greens.

And then there are the other complications that are not entirely within the Lib Dems’ control. For a start, there’s a huge disconnect between their position as the ‘party of Remain’ and their heartlands, which are in predominantly Leave-voting regions. They don’t attract anything like the funding that the other two main political movements get and were obliged to make a quarter of their headquarter staff redundant in 2019 to save money. 

However, in these days of social media and populism, perhaps the biggest problem facing the Lib Dems is their image. Still seen as a movement of sandals, socks and beards, the party has failed to shake off its fusty trainspotter vibe and this hasn’t been helped by the solid but dull leadership of Vince Cable and Menzies Campbell or the erratic years under Tim Farron and Swinson. The branding is painfully dated. That awful yellow ‘bird of liberty’ that was adopted in 1989 as the party logo should have been put down a long time ago. 

So what could be done?

Clearly the Lib Dems need to properly re-brand and then start going on the attack. Much as it pains me to say it, they could learn a lot from Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party. That movement seized upon the swathes of enraged Brexiters who felt that they had been marginalised and gave them a place to go. There is likewise a mass of Remain-minded individuals in this country who marched against Brexit and who have been galvanised by the chaos of the past three years. Those people are crying out for a home and the Lib Dems, under the right leadership and making the right noises, should be their natural destination. The party has the potential to be a mass modern movement of protest rather than the political wing of CAMRA. 

More than anything, they need to put fire in their bellies. The Lib Dems need to find their inner rage and use it. Less “bollocks to Brexit” and more “we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it no more”.

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