What Next for Britain’s Liberal Democrats?

What future for the Liberal Democrats¹

Obscured in the triumph of Boris Johnson’s Tories and the tragic defeat of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the 2019 general election was the simply abysmal result for the Liberal Democrats. A party of government just five years ago, they used to have around 50 seats in the British Parliament. In 2019, they actually lost a seat and now have a paltry 11 MPs. It’s not so much the one-seat loss that made for such a terrible evening for the Lib Dems, it was the high expectations, from themselves and others, that existed until just a few weeks before election day.

Now I’m very much not a Liberal Democrat and the internet certainly doesn’t need another badly thought out piece from someone telling another political party or ideology what is wrong with them (though we could all do with writers and journalists who admit their own bias). I could have written about why I disagree with the Lib Dems, but this isn’t that piece. I only write this because there’s a dearth of coverage on the subject and the political observer in me thinks it’s kind of interesting.

Does it matter?

Well, that’s for you to decide. But it does matter for the Conservative Party and the Labour Party. The Lib Dems have regularly had 1 in 13 seats in the British Parliament and around 20% of the national vote. The strategies that the big two parties employ for getting a majority at the next election will have to take into account how well, or not, the Liberal Democrats are likely to do at the ballot box.

The Coalition

The Lib Dems were almost annihilated in the 2015 general election. They went down from 57 to just 8 seats. Largely because they were held responsible by the public for the policies of the coalition government. Their 2010 voters who disagreed with the Coalition didn’t vote for the Lib Dems of course, and votes that approved of the Coalition largely voted for the dominant half of the Coalition, the Tories.

But it wasn’t just that voters disagreed with the Lib Dems, it was far more than that. The Lib Dems betrayed the people who voted for them by delivering a simply savage attack on the most vulnerable people in society.

They were elected as a largely left of centre, progressive party. They ended up in government with the Tories. Many voters, and lots of Lib Dem voters, did not expect this result. Their younger voters were horrified at the outcome. And if they weren’t at the beginning of the 2010–15 parliament, they certainly were by the end. The Coalition government is charged by its critics with unleashing an almost unprecedented attack on the very poorest of society. The defenders of the Coalition government argue that it was an essential economic program — a vital response to the 2008 crash and the overspending of the Blair/Brown government. Critics counter with — it was all about political positioning, it was all avoidable, it was all a choice.

The Orange Bookers v. Social Democrats

One can argue that they were never the left of centre, progressive party they pretended to be but that is what they got elected as, and that matters. Their progressive stance was the reason for the particular coalition of voters that they assembled. I don’t think the Lib Dems have ever come to terms with this and I wonder if they are capable of doing so. Until they do, they have a big problem.

The Lib Dems were and are a largely economically right-wing, socially left-wing party. There was a slight aberration in this, and a move to be more economically left-wing in the 1990s and early 2000s. This was at its height under the leadership of Charles Kennedy. But the social-democratic wing was always much smaller than the ‘Orange Bookers’ — relatively extreme economic liberals (they would probably describe themselves as something like advocates of both greater personal choice and the importance of market solutions).

When Charles Kennedy was ousted and Orange Booker Nick Clegg became leader, the Liberal Democrats still had some vestige of that social democratic flirtation but it was superficial at best. The Liberal Democrats allowed this appearance to remain. Perhaps this is why they can’t come to terms with what happened. They don’t think they betrayed voters — but their voters did.

The Lib Dems lost a generation of voters after 2010. These people will never vote Liberal Democrat again in a general election. Perhaps the Liberal Democrats could have, indeed still could, apologise for the Coalition. But I wonder if they can see what happened at all. From their perspective, they were never other than what they are.

A successful niche

The Lib Dems filled a niche in politics between Labour and Tory that has ceased to exist and it is hard to see it ever coming back. In the 1990s, the Tories went ever rightward and Labour under Tony Blair from 1994 went rightwards too. Both the Tories and Labour engaged in a strange contest to be the most authoritarian party, with things like mandatory ID cards and overzealous anti-terrorism legislation. The Lib Dems flourished, they were socially liberal and seemed to be making noises about economic fairness too. The Lib Dems were simply not seen as being as nasty as the two main parties. Perhaps people see things about them that they simply wanted to be true. The Liberals had not been in power since the first world war. They had no record in government. They do now.

What now?

I don’t think the Liberal Democrats are going away but I don’t see how they get any bigger. They do have a sufficient critical mass of supporters and elected officials to keep going. It’s easy to dismiss the 11 MPs they have but having any MPs, as a small party, in a first-past-the-post electoral system is something of an achievement.

In 2019 Change UK, and its many different names in its strange, short life tried to replace the Lib Dems. Change UK failed to realise that while you can get MPs from other parties to join you, all of that can be swept away with one general election. Those pesky voters.

But there are thousands of people who really do see themselves as Lib Dems. They are committed to growing the Lib Dems to becoming a significant political force and they are never going away.

A mistake people make, depending on their particular politics, is to lob them in with either socialists (the Labour Party) or conservatives (the Tory Party); they are not either, they are something distinct. And guess I do this too, I think they are a lot closer to the Tories than they are to Labour because they would always tolerate a conservative government more than a socialist one.

Vapid liberalism

Liberalism is as a distinct political ideology and is as different from either socialism or conservatism as socialism and conservatism are from each other. However, I do think their brand of liberalism is, frankly, vapid. Their belief in the market place and individual choice is largely theoretical and it falls away as soon it comes near actual application. It also has little to say about the modern world and people’s most pressing problems. I talked to one Liberal Democrat who said the minimum wage made for an inefficient economy — workers should negotiate their ‘true value’. However, the introduction of the minimum wage worked. It increased workers’ pay and reduced poverty. Most workers are in a terrible negotiating position. No economic textbook theory is going to change that.

Think about this. On issue after issue, what do the Liberal Democrats have to say that is in any way realistic solution to people’s everyday problems. I’ll wait.

There’s a big hole at the centre of the Lib Dems and they fill that space with vapid generalisations or a sports team like commitment to their party. Their 2019 general election campaign launch was particularly poor, it was just a bunch of catchphrases. They repeatedly talked of ‘ambition’ and ‘people who play by the rules’. It was excruciating stuff and completely devoid of substance. It reminded me of Nick Clegg’s appeal to ‘Alarm Clock Britain’ — “I own an alarm clock, maybe Nick Clegg is speaking for me”!?. Please.

Brexit

The Lib Dems thought Brexit could shortcut their need to come to terms with their role in the Coalition and their reason for existing. They would go hell for leather for as big a part of the Remain vote as possible and regain their relevance in politics and secure their parliamentary footing. This was always delusional. Such delusion seemed to be validated by the European parliament elections. They did have a good result along with the Brexit Party but only a third of people voted in these elections. And while people will vote Lib Dem (and the Brexit Party) as a protest vote — they won’t vote for them to win a general election.

The Lib Dems and some in the press started to see the Lib Dems possibly replacing the Labour party as one of the big two parties of government, maybe they would even win the election and their leader Jo Swinson would be prime minister, they would keep the UK in the EU and there would be a generation of Lib Dem benevolent rule.

Such a hope in Brexit rescuing them failed because of three reasons.

1. The biggest miscalculation was that voters for whom remaining in the EU was the most important thing would back the most Remain party — them. But why wouldn’t those voters back the Labour party, who had the best chance of getting elected and delivering a second Brexit referendum?

2. People didn’t trust them on Brexit. The press gave them a pass but the voters didn’t. It was always easy for them to say they were the most Remain party, they had so much to gain. The Lib Dems’ last-minute commitment to revoke article 50 (to cancel Brexit without a second referendum) confirmed voters’ idea that their Brexit policy was all about their own political interest.

3. Many Remain voters accepted the result of the referendum. The Lib Dems weren’t the only ones to make a mistake, and not realise that a large number of Remain voters disagreed with Brexit but accepted it should happen, because they lost the referendum. The idea of revoking article 50 outraged many voters — both Leave AND Remain.

While Remain and Leave did become temporary cultural tribes, their permanence and importance were always overstated by the press. There were always people who saw themselves as neither. Most voters have other issues apart from Brexit. I suspect even more people will forget about their Remain or Leave identity as time goes on.

What is the point of the Lib Dems?

The Lib Dems need to have a reason to exist. And I don’t think they have one. They need to form a coalition of voters and I do not see what that could be. They have nothing to offer younger voters. Their traditional heartlands in the west were particularly put off by their Brexit stance. Which group of voters are they going to win over?

Psychology, politics, history, and moments of realisation and despair. There are attempts at humour.

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