I’m old enough to remember when the Lib Dems were a genuinely popular party. I was politicised during the whole ‘Cleggmania’ phenomenon of 2010, and ever since may as well have been a card-carrying member of the party (in spite of being Irish). Teenage me regularly tried to defend the party’s record during the ‘Cameron-Clegg Coalition’, much to the ire of many of my more left-leaning friends, family, and A-Level Politics teacher.
It seemed, following the party’s near wipeout in 2015, that those halcyon days of 'I’m with Nick' and 'Winning Here' were long behind the party. Tim Farron’s early days as the party’s post-Clegg leader weren’t exactly comfortable. He quickly earned the moniker, 'nice but dim Tim', his folksy Cumbrian charm seeming to rub everybody the wrong way, that and his past record over gay marriage and LGBT issues in general. Despite having largely voted in support of LGBT rights, Farron’s record contained some fairly notable exceptions.
Brexit, or more accurately, the party’s clear opposition to it, seemed to provide a route back into the political mainstream. Under Vince Cable and now Jo Swinson, the Lib Dems have positioned themselves as the clear Remain option right from the beginning.
Cable proved to be a steady pair of hands, seeing the party’s vote increase in both the local and EU elections this year. When Swinson took over, some polls put the party at over 20%, a record-high for a party that was languishing with ratings between 8% and 10% just two to three years before.
On the BBC Question Time ‘Leader’s Special’ programme, the leaders of the Commons’ four biggest parties answered questions from members of the audience. It is safe to say that, on the whole, Jo Swinson wasn’t well-received. One could remark that the audience seemed hugely hostile to her from the beginning, though MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton has alleged that the BBC weighted the audience by Commons representation.
As if to make matters worse, the party’s polling position has dropped between four and six points over the past month, with many remarking that this will only drop further as the campaign progresses.
So, why are things going wrong for the Lib Dems, and can they turn their fortunes around?
We Need To Talk About The Bar Charts
Ok, so right off the bat, the use of bar charts and slightly exaggerated stats hasn’t gone down too well. In fact, it’s been written off as either hysterically inaccurate or hugely unprofessional.
Yes, local polling may suggest that the Lib Dems are in with a chance of winning some seats. The party does stand a real chance of taking seats like Kensington or Guildford for example, especially after Labour launched it’s ‘even more radical than 2017’ manifesto this week.
However, the reliability of local polls can be questionable. The party’s use of small samples and leading questions, such as in NE Somerset, were laughed at to the point where, once again, the Lib Dem bar charts became a sort of ‘election meme’.
Have things changed since 2017? Yes, they have, and in places like the South-East, as well as parts of the South-West and London, the party has a real chance to make some gains. But using questionable, dishonest or soft data doesn’t help win over undecided voters, and in fact, may put them off voting for the party altogether.
The Problem of Revoke
Another point worth considering is the party’s shift on Brexit from a position of supporting a confirmatory referendum to one of revoking Article 50 outright – should they win a majority.
Now, that seems to be a clear enough position, but it’s caused more issues than it’s solved. Questions remain around whether the party needed to even take this step. Everyone knows how Corbyn feels about the EU, his voting record is one of Bennite Euroscepticism. His tone during the 2016 campaign was muddled and unenthusiastic, and recently claimed he would remain ‘neutral’ in any upcoming confirmatory referendum.
Why the party thus felt the need to ‘out-Remain’ Labour is a mystery. Did they fear that Corbyn’s eventual shift to supporting a confirmatory referendum would cost them votes? Aibhe Rea called it correctly in a piece for the New Statesman, the strategy is 'high risk, low reward' and may have ended up alienating a lot of the voters that the party needs. These are the moderate, ‘let’s all have a cuppa and chat until we get somewhere’ type voters who may see outright revocation of Article 50 as far too extreme a move.
The Squeeze of FPTP
Another point to mention is the inevitable squeeze of the party’s vote due to the sheer backwardness of FPTP as a voting system. The Labour campaign is banking on this, and so far the strategy seems to be playing out as they expected. Lib Dems initially start well, but when centre-left voters are faced with a choice between Labour and the Conservatives, they ignore the Lib Dems, hold their nose, and vote Labour.
It’s an almost inevitable reality caused by a voting system no longer fit for purpose. It’s also sadly the only thing that the Lib Dems can’t really change over the course of the campaign, at least until they’re in power.
Sexism & Swinson
A final element worth considering is the effects of sexism in politics. Lewis Goodall of Sky News has noted that whatever one thinks of the Lib Dems policies, Jo Swinson herself tends to get a negative reception due to her age, ambition and of course, her gender.
Whilst Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is often respected given her office , many either don’t know who Jo Swinson is or sadly, do know and have a huge dislike for her. A poll published in The Times found the that more voters have seen Jo Swinson, the less they liked her, something that’s going to be a big issue for the party given that much of its literature has her front-and-centre.
To say that the Lib Dems campaign is now over is a tad premature. More debates shall be had, more campaigning is still to be done. Whilst I don’t think the party shall repeat the seat tally of the Kennedy or Clegg days, Jo Swinson and her party should still claim a fair number of seats on election day.
The issue facing the Lib Dems right now isn’t that they’re not as active as Labour on the ground – the party has long had a strong, local ground game – or that their leader isn’t as fun as the Tories. It’s that the party and its members are its own worst enemy.
Yes, the FPTP voting system is unfair on the party, and overall is no longer fit for purpose. Yet, that doesn’t take away from the fact that the party have ‘scored’ needless own-goals which have marred an otherwise promising campaign full of genuinely radical and liberal pledges on childcare, drugs reform and immigration.
Things can be turned around, and I largely think that whilst last night’s debate wasn’t Swinson’s finest hour, she still held her own against a needlessly hostile audience – hopefully learning some lessons and growing more seasoned as a campaigner.