What is the point of the Liberal Democrats?


THE title of this post is the question that—more than ever before—I find myself asking following the Liberal Democrats’ just-finished gathering in Brighton. It was my fourth Lib Dem conference. My first, also in Brighton, was in 2012. Back then, too, the talk was of the party’s identity crisis. Two years into its coalition with the Conservatives, members were grumpy. Nick Clegg, then the deputy prime minister, had led them into government and was on the back foot after an unpopular budget and a failed referendum on electoral reform. Was the party a centre-left force: a Labour Party without the authoritarian streak? Or was it a force of the free-market centre: an enlightened complement to Tory power? Pamphlets circulated about things like the meaning of liberalism.

Today such matters should all be much clearer. By electing Tim Farron as Mr Clegg’s successor twelve months ago, the party opted for a more centre-left direction. Events since then could not have been more propitious. First Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, dragging the main opposition out of the sort of social democratic ground in which Mr Farron had previously looked like an answer without a question. (Mr Corbyn’s re-election will probably be confirmed on Saturday following a leadership contest that has torn his party’s sinews.) And then there was Brexit. Fully 48% of voters opposed Britain’s flounce, but with Labour out of play and Theresa May’s government careening towards a “hard Brexit”, they have no voice.

So it is hard to imagine circumstances more generous to Mr Farron. And to be fair he has his achievements. While Labour lost seats at local elections in May, the Lib Dems gained 45. And some 15,000 people joined the party after the Brexit vote. Yet nationally there is no sign of a Lib Dem comeback after the party’s abysmal showing in last year’s general election. It remains stuck at the 8% in polls to which it first fell a few months after Mr Clegg took the party into government in 2010. Voters, it seems, simply do not think about it much these days: in a poll by YouGov out today 65% of them—and even a third of Lib Dem supporters—have no positive or negative view of Mr Farron (Mr Clegg should be so lucky).

What has gone wrong? Why have the political earthquakes of the past twelve months had no obvious effect on the party’s national standing? One answer is that it will take much more than one year for the Lib Dems to recover from the bad reputation they (mostly unfairly) acquired in government: as quislings, softies and most of all dissimulators. British voters have long memories. An event at the Brighton conference asked whether the party would return to power before 2080.

Another factor is the party’s sheer smallness in the House of Commons. The Lib Dems may have more than 100 members of the House of Lords, but in the elected chamber they have just eight representatives. An upcoming redistricting exercise may reduce these MPs to four. Thus they are simply not accorded much attention. Television interviews, select committee chairmanships, parliamentary questions do not come their way as they did when, before the last election, there were 57 Lib Dems in the Commons. To recover, the party needs the sort of prominence that will not fall into its lap.

There are two additional explanations that make yet harder reading for Lib Dem loyalists. The first is that Mr Farron may not be up to the task. In a British political landscape dominated by hucksters, authoritarians, isolationists and delusionals he is that rare thing: a moderate, decent political leader who speaks his mind and is not obviously incompetent. But for the Lib Dems that may not be enough. Up is not the only way they can go. Their leader’s task is simultaneously to arrest decline and to propel a new advance. Greater talents than Mr Farron would fail in his shoes. And for all his likability, he does not come across as a heavyweight. Mr Clegg may be widely reviled, but at least he is recognised. A year into his job, Mr Farron enjoys no such scorn. His speech to the party this afternoon offered glimpses of the sort of audacity and swagger needed to change this, but was more impressive on the page than in the hall.

That, at least, the party can do something about. If, in a year, Mr Farron’s party is still on 8% in the polls, it should ditch him and reinstate Mr Clegg. But a second factor transcends such questions: the tectonics of British politics. Demographically, as I have long argued here and elsewhere, Britain is moving in a cosmopolitan direction that should benefit the likes of Mr Farron. Yet the Brexit vote seems to have unleashed forces pulling in the opposite direction: a new hostility to migrants, a triumphalist purism about Brexit in swathes of Westminster and Fleet Street that greatly exceeds anything promised before the referendum and most of all a bring-it-back nostalgia that now infuses the political mainstream (reviving old icons of British power and independence, from Britain’s old blue passports to Britannia, the royal yacht). Little of this touches the Lib Dem electorate, or that minority of voters torn between the Lib Dems and Labour. But in the real centre ground this shift matters and may change the electoral calculus.

Mr Farron’s strategy is clearly to win over moderate Labourites alienated by Mr Corbyn. Hence the praise in his closing speech this afternoon for Yvette Cooper, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna and even (albeit in a qualified fashion) Tony Blair. This may help the Lib Dems pick up some new members. But electorally, the sorts of places where Mr Farron’s welcome blend of social democracy and liberalism does best are safe Labour seats in places like London, Bristol and Norwich. Places where enough people vote Labour for Mr Corbyn’s uselessness, even on the delicate matter of Brexit, to be almost immaterial. If there is any low-hanging fruit for the Lib Dems it is in the south-west of England, where the Tories swept the board last year but where, for deep historical reasons to do with local industry and religion, there remains a strong liberal streak. In those constituencies people voted for Brexit and care little for Mr Blair and his successors.

I fully understand Mr Farron’s thinking. Perhaps, a year into Mr Corbyn’s disastrous leadership of Labour, the Lib Dems can now fruitfully bid for Labour members. Indeed I expect this gambit will work out: I would not be surprised if thousands of Labourites joined the Lib Dems in the next year or so. And in terms of Britain’s political spectrum, the Lib Dems have a more important role—as the guardians of the progressive centre—than perhaps ever before. The question is: will any of this translate into votes, influence, and power? Here I am pessimistic. As things stand I do not see Mr Farron leading the sort of liberal reconfiguration at which he hints. I hope to be proved wrong.

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