Where next for the Liberal Democrats?

14 Jun 2017

Thursday 8th June was a mixed day for the Liberal Democrats. Overall they made gains with big names such as Jo Swinson and Vince Cable being re-elected after losing their seats in 2015. On the other hand, big names such as Nick Clegg and Sarah Olney lost their seats.


In many ways losing Nick Clegg marks the very end of the coalition era. An era which, in the minds of the electorate, was negative, costing the Party in the 2015 general election. Mr Clegg was the figurehead of the Lib Dems over this period and the tuition fees U-turn was never forgotten. Though, Clegg and the coalition team will still be remembered favourably, not least for providing stability following the financial crisis, and taking some of the lowest earners out of income tax.


The party is at a cross roads. While making gains in terms of seats, its overall share of the vote remained at a similar level to the 2015 result. The main reason for this was the resurgence in the Labour vote after a very positive campaign by Mr Corbyn.


An equally important reason for failure was the Lib Dems' inability to provide an eye-catching reason for people to vote for them. For example, Labour ran on a socialist manifesto providing policies such as nationalisation of industry and redistributive fiscal policy, whilst the Conservatives ran on a pro-Brexit personality campaign.


As a Liberal Democrat campaigner I went out and put across our vision to the voters every week. It was a good manifesto full of policies which would help solve many of the issues facing the country, such as a 1% increase in income tax, and allowing a vote on the terms of the Brexit agreement. While these are good policies, they’re not the type of thing that would get people excited in the same way that Labour policies, such a free tuition fees, did.


The Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) said that Lib Dem benefit and taxation policy would redistribute incomes in a much fairer way than Labour would. The graph below shows that under a Liberal Democrat government incomes for the poorest 10% would fall by about three percent while, under Labour, incomes would fall by about seven percent. However, these type of findings just don’t reach most people whose political information comes from confined media streams full of soundbites.


The problem is not policy, but recognition. Overall, Tim Farron has done well, despite being dragged down by questions about his views on homosexuality, but he was always going to struggle against Corbyn ,who championed the youth vote - a Lib Dem target demographic. By much of the electorate Farron was seen as weak and a bit goofy.


Beyond his leadership two names emerge: Jo Swinson and Vince Cable. Both are likely to be contenders to be the next Party leader. Both were cabinet ministers within the coalition, they have no past to drag them back and would be able to extend the appeal of the party beyond our frankly miserable polling.


The Liberal Democrats must create a brand that appeals to broad swathes of the electorate, not just Remain voters or metropolitan city goers. A good place to start would be to truly promote liberalism by rallying against Mrs May’s plans to curb social liberties, especially as she joins a partnership with the Northern Irish DUP.


With a modest group of MPs the Liberal Democrats now have the ability to put the government under pressure and make some positive headlines. We must establish bold progressive policies that really capture the imagination of the electorate. We must act fast or face being swept away in an emerging red tide.




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