What’s up with the Liberal Democrats?

16 Aug 2018

 Both Labour and the Conservatives have deserted the centre-ground in recent years. The Conservatives’ Eurosceptic wing now holds sway over the direction of government, whilst Labour has moved further left since Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Party.


But, as the two main parties have moved further from the centre-ground, a chunk of MPs and voters have been left politically homeless. Brexit typifies this perfectly. Both Parties are backing Britain’s EU withdrawal, leaving the Lib Dems as the only nationwide party occupying the anti-Brexit vacuum. The Lib Dems have been incapable of exploiting this golden opportunity so far, their support refusing to edge above 10% in opinion polls, and talk of the creation of a new centrist party completely overlooks them. Why?


If we look back to 2010, there was a degree of consensus between the UK’s two main parties. Both looked like socially liberal parties embracing business and free trade. The centre-ground was the battleground. Fast forward to 2018, and moderation has been deserted.


The cultural conservatism of the Conservative Eurosceptics, and their desire to damage links with our closest neighbours, clashed with Cameron’s socially liberal outlook, and preference for level-headed economics. This faction, now in the form of the backbench European Research Group, holds significant influence and uses its clout to steer the government down the most extreme Brexit path possible.


Meanwhile the far-left of the Labour Party was sceptical of the EU for its own reasons. In 2010 they were mostly used to protesting and dissenting and were on the fringes of the Party. They now have a Party leader in Jeremy Corbyn, and Brexit has been embraced under his leadership. The anti-Semitism saga, and the leadership’s handling of it, has alienated Jewish Labour members and moderate MPs further. These shifts to the extremes have left a pro-EU, liberal, gulf in the centre-ground, in which many moderates lie, feeling stranded and disillusioned.


This leaves us with a big question. If these moderate parliamentarians are feeling disillusioned with the leadership and direction of their parties, why aren’t they defecting? After all, moderates from both sides of the house certainly have more in common with each other, and the Liberal Democrats, than they do with the ideologues from within their own party.


Some of them complain of being left politically homeless, with no party representing their views. But if anyone represents their desire for openness, tolerance and rational economics, surely it’s the Liberal Democrats. So why are MPs so reluctant to take the leap?


Well, why would they want to join such an unpopular party? The Lib Dems are the only Party explicitly claiming to represent the 48% who rejected Brexit, but pushing above 10% in opinion polls is proving tricky. They are the only Party calling for a referendum on the Brexit deal, a campaign that has attracted support from moderates from across the House, and is increasingly popular among the electorate. But still, anti-Brexit voters seem reluctant to support anyone other than the two major parties, despite one of them leading the nation down a knowingly damaging road, and the other egging them on.


The Lib Dems’ decision to support the Conservatives in coalition between 2010 and 2015 has made the Party unpalatable to many voters. They shared the blame for austerity, and owned the blame for things like tuition fees, which they promised would never be increased while they were in government.


Though the electorate might be overestimating the Party’s clout whilst in government, and underestimating their moderating influence, the Lib Dems have endured lasting damage from the coalition years. Their vote fell from 6.8m in the 2010 general election to 2.4m in 2015, and the recovery is proving difficult.


The Lib Dems have been handed an ‘open-goal’: the major parties have embraced Brexit, and left the millions who opposed it up for grabs. But why do these voters still refuse to budge and support the Lib Dems?


Well, perhaps it’s the case that these voters are resigned to Brexit, and an anti-Brexit party simply doesn’t appeal to them. Maybe they believe that trying to reverse the decision, or hold another vote, will be pointless and entrench the nation’s divisions even further. Are they born-again Brexiteers?


Well, opinion polls suggest not. According to YouGov, Remain support is holding up at 47%, whilst support for Leave has dipped to 41%. Public support for a second referendum (the Lib Dems’ flagship policy) has been growing. The anti-Brexit voters are still out there, which suggests the issue lies not with the Lib Dems’ message or position on Brexit, but rather with the Party itself.


The Lib Dems have baggage from the coalition years. Voters still link it to the unpopular policies of the Cameron government, and the Lib Dems have failed to detoxify their image and move on from the past. Choosing Sir Vince Cable, 75, to lead the Party hasn’t helped.


A key figure in the coalition government as Cameron’s business secretary, Cable’s leadership undermines efforts to modernise the party and lose the baggage associated with the coalition years. Yes, Sir Vince is a true ‘liberal’ and party favourite. But choosing a new, young, leader without association with the Coalition government, would allow the Party to mark a real change from the past, and allow the Lib Dems to reconnect with voters. This will be the first step to improving voters’ perception of the Party, and might make attracting the anti-Brexit vote that little bit easier.


The Lib Dems are in a tricky position. They are failing to win the support of those wanting to Remain in the EU, despite them being deserted by Labour and the Conservatives as they continue to shift further to the flanks. They could have a home in the Lib Dems, but they are not viewed as credible. Their association with the Coalition government has poisoned their image, perhaps explaining their failure to capitalise on the Brexit-created ‘open-goal’.


To become a credible force once again, the Party needs radical change. This should start from the top. One internal reform being discussed would allow non-MPs to become leader. This would allow a more competitive selection process, and make selecting a fresh, rejuvenating leader far easier. After all, having 8 MPs doesn’t leave you much wiggle room.


Sure, high-profile defections from Labour or the Conservatives might make the Party appear more credible in the eyes of voters. But credibility and stronger support may be needed before defections become a realistic possibility. The Lib Dems need to detoxify their image and renew the Party from within if they are to have any hope of courting the anti-Brexit vote. But until then, murmurs of a new centrist party won’t go away.


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