A dark future for the Liberal Democrats
After their brutal drubbing at the 2015 election the Lib Dem fightback campaign appeared to be full of beans. In Tim Farron they had a competent, fresh-faced, if unremarkable leader, untainted by service in the coalition government. Farron presented himself as a voice of reason between the two main parties who had galloped off to their respective extremes. He stood on manifesto promising a second referendum, tax rises to fund the NHS, and offered detailed and viable policies in contrast to Labour’s wild promises and the Conservatives’ vague un-costed ones.
Such polices were aimed firstly at appealing to remainers – this constituted disenchanted Remain voters who refused to accept the referendum result, and younger people who hadn’t voted but were nonetheless frustrated by the result. Secondly, he looked to middle-ground voters put off by the lurch to left and the right of the two main parties. But aiming for two targets may be the reason that the Lib Dems ultimately misfired. In theory, the time for success was ripe. While the Conservatives had claimed the mantle of the Brexit party, Labour’s position was a confused mess. The Lib Dems subsequently seized the title of the Remain party and fought a solid campaign on that basis. They should have stopped there though. Their mistake was perhaps the contradictory attempt to appeal to both hard remainers and middle ground swing voters – two groups with widely differing views.
It is hard to represent yourself as centre-ground moderates in opposition to the extremes of left and right, whilst taking an extreme position on the most important and divisive vote in recent history. To voters the claim of simultaneously being the hard-remain party, and the party of centre ground pragmatism, simply didn’t ring true. This highlights an ongoing problem for the Lib Dems – confused messaging and a lack of clarity on what exactly they stand for. Take Farron’s leadership election for example. He stood on a left-wing platform, planning to outflank Labour on the left and mine the voters disheartened by the New Labour project. This solid strategy was utterly trashed by the shock election of Jeremy Corbyn who then went onto mine exactly the voters Farron had intended to arm the Lib Dem banner with. It left him and his party scrambling for a strategy and new appeal.
Farron has been much criticised for his stumbles over whether being gay was a sin. In truth, this has been overplayed, and with his exemplary voting record no one ever truly believed Farron was a homophobe. The ‘scandal’ was at worst a distraction, unhelpful but not deadly. The real problem is that the Lib Dems struggle to define what they stand for or what the point of their party is. From 2010 into the 2015 election they would be a moderating coalition partner to whichever party won the most seats. Now robbed of this position, and having their support for the second referendum roundly rejected, failing to even maintain vote share from 2015, the Lib Dems are once again searching for a purpose.
So, can Vince Cable save his party? He has definite strengths, having the gravitas and elder statesmen presence that Farron lacked. Yet he seems as devoid of new ideas as the wider party, speaking of a rising tide of support for a second referendum which is simply not apparent. Polls consistently show leavers not changing their minds and a plurality of remainers coming to accept the result and even preferring a hard Brexit to a soft one. Hard remainers determined to resist the result remain considerable in number but the group is shrinking not growing.
Continuing to fight the referendum campaign didn’t save the Lib Dems at the last election and it won’t save them now. The Lib Dems have come to be defined by little more than their support for membership of the EU. During the period of Brexit negotiations this should keep them relevant, but even so they are struggling to get their voice heard. The true danger lies after Brexit is completed. With even the transition period likely to be over before the next election, the question for the Lib Dems is with the Europe question settled, what do they stand for?