The Lib Dems: yellows in peril?

Whither the Liberal Democrats? Or, if you prefer, wither the Liberal Democrats? Can they find a route back to relevance or are they heading for the great committee room in the sky?

The questions remain open because the evidence of their performance is so contradictory. They languish in the polls, with just 9-10 per cent support, down from the 12 per cent they won at the last general election and a far cry from the 24 per cent they won in 2010. When the Conservatives haemorrhaged support last autumn, all the benefit went to Labour: Lib Dem support remained stuck. Game over?

Not necessarily. Politicians often like to shrug off polls and talk about “real votes”, cherry-picking favourable byelection results. And the Lib Dems have a fair number of cherries to choose from: three new MPs who have captured previously impregnable Conservative fortresses in the past two years, and a steady flow of gains in local council byelections. Judging by the polls alone, the Lib Dems are in terrible shape; look only at parliamentary and local byelections, and we see that voters will flock to them wherever they sniff a chance of victory.

Why the discrepancy? Part of the answer is that the party has been marginalised in the national conversation about British politics. Broadcasters used to report them well. This was because it was Britain’s third largest party in parliament and, especially in the periods of relatively high popularity, its MPs would be allocated almost as many slots on radio and TV as their Labour and Conservative counterparts. Now the party’s leading figures appear far less regularly in news bulletins and on programmes such as Today and Question Time.

This went hand-in-hand with their role in parliament. When they made up the third largest party, Lib Dem MPs would be granted two questions at each Prime Minister’s Questions, and given speaking slots early in each debate. This changed in 2015, when they were overtaken by the Scottish National Party, which took over all the third-party privileges and relegated the Lib Dems to the parliamentary sidelines.

Thus the Lib Dems still suffer from their collapse in support after entering coalition with David Cameron’s Tories 13 years ago—and immediately junking their foolish pre-election promise to scrap student tuition fees. But part of their problem is of their own making. In the electorally barren post-war decades, from the 1940s to the 1970s, the Liberal Party (as it then was) was noticed for its fresh thinking on such matters as Europe, civil liberties, the environment and tax reform. It operated as a kind of parliamentary thinktank.

In more recent times Lib Dem leaders have identified themselves with particular policies. In the 1990s, Paddy Ashdown demanded a penny rise in income tax to improve our schools. He also won admirers at Westminster for his passionate calls to help people from Hong Kong who did not want to live under Chinese rule. Twenty years ago, his successor, Charles Kennedy, opposed the war in Iraq. Nick Clegg had, well, tuition fees, which was a short-term success (extra votes in the 2010 election) but a long-term disaster. Clegg’s other passion was electoral reform. In his coalition negotiations with Cameron demanded, and got, a referendum—which he lost by two-to-one.

What is Ed Davey’s big cause—the policy that will cut through at Westminster and, via the media, force the public to pay attention? Rejoining the European Union—a policy with majority public support but rejected by both Labour and the Tories? No. Davey rather likes the notion of returning to the customs union and single market; but at a time when boldness and ambition would have plenty of supporters, he offers subtlety and caution. His plan is not without merit, but it lacks the oomph needed by a party with 14 MPs struggling to be heard.

The Lib Dems remain strong on fighting climate change; but the Greens have cornered this market. Likewise with their historic support for a progressive future that would not be crippled by left-wing ideologues and inefficient state industries. Tony Blair shot that fox in the 1990s, and Keir Starmer has shot it again following the disastrous Corbyn interregnum. And successive Labour and Conservative governments have raided the larder of selective Lib Dem goodies offering to devolve powers from London to the United Kingdom’s nations and city regions.

So what is the purpose of the Lib Dems these days? Their own statements of “beliefs, principles and values” lists them: Liberty, equality, democracy, community, human rights, internationalism, environmentalism, motherhood and apple pie. OK, I have added the last two; but without crunchy specifics, the rest are just warm words. The party lacks the big, fresh ideas that past leaders such as Ashdown, Jo Grimond and even the scoundrel Jeremy Thorpe would have turned into attention-grabbing headlines.

This gap in our political firmament is a pity. Progressive politics needs passion and long-term thinking, without resorting to the kind of abuse that the Conservatives have long practised and Labour has now adopted.

That is not say all is lost. As the Lib Dems’ record in local and parliamentary byelections shows, they can do well when they focus their resources and campaign hard door-to-door. When they get noticed, they win votes. They are also likely to win seats at the coming general election, through tactical voting in constituencies where they are best placed to unseat the Conservatives. 

But their real breakthrough will come if, and when, the party overtakes the SNP and is once again the third-largest party in the House of Commons. Following the recent shenanigans in Scotland, this is no longer an impossible dream. At either the next election or the one after, they might find themselves in a close contest with the SNP, with both parties having between 20 and 30 MPs at Westminster.

In recent days, Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, has urged his followers to vote tactically for Labour candidates where they have the best chance of defeating the SNP. It would be a sweet irony if this Tory-Labour switching is so effective in harming the SNP that the biggest winners turn out to be the Liberal Democrats resuming their traditional place in parliament.

Progressives who wish them well can only hope that, when the spotlight does shine on them once again, they will have something compelling to say.

This blog was first published by Prospect