Britain’s political system is in turmoil, and each political party faces distinct problems. For now the Conservatives seem to be weathering the crisis best; the referendum result was the right one for them, in party management terms at least. Labour’s crisis is looking terminal, “the reek of death” as this excellent article by Nick Cohen has it, describing the particular lunacy of the political far left. But what of the party that has already suffered death: the Liberal Democrats?
Death might sound a bit strong. It continues to bob along at 8% or so in the opinion polls, win the odd local election, and its membership is resurgent. But the party has regained little of the political traction it lost during its coalition with the Conservatives from 2010 to 2015. And so much of the human capital and community connections it built up in its growth years in the 1990s and early 2000s has gone. Locally I can’t get over the fact that the Lambeth party has lost all its councillors – I remember so well the process by which the party took de facto control of the council in 2002, a process that will now have to restart almost from scratch. The party is now almost completely ignored by the mainstream media. In David Cameron’s valedictory Prime Minster’s Questions last week the Speaker saw fit not to call any of the party’s MPs, in spite of the important role the party played in his premiership. Only Lib Dem activists noticed.
And yet new life is stirring. Last year, after the calamitous General Election, party membership surged, and the Autumn conference was one its best attended, though ignored by lobbyists and media. But that is as nothing compared to what has happened in the last month – after the referendum. Membership has surged again (my local party has grown by about 60% – this may be the strongest it has ever been), but it is very different from last year. In 2015 the members were sorry for the party; they were interested in it, but few were up for a fight. In 2016 they are boiling. Membership events are better attended than ever; new and recent members want to get involved. The party is benefiting from a general increase in political engagement, which is benefiting most other parties too.
What is happening? Last year the party celebrated the membership surge under the hashtag #libdemfightback. This made me cringe. The old party is dead. A new party is being born. Not enough of the party’s remaining old hands recognise the difference between a fightback and a rebirth. With the latter you are dealing with a new party.
I want to say something about what I suspect about the reborn party. This is unashamedly based on my local experience in this part of cosmopolitan London, plus reading the odd blog and social media comment. I may be proved wrong – this year’s party conference in Brighton will be an important test. But here goes anyway.
First the new party is cosmopolitan, well educated, and, as a generality, distinctly younger than the old one. Many in the old party, including me, find the new members to be kindred spirits. But much of the old party was built through local campaigning, and drew in a distinctly less cosmopolitan crowd. Many female activists reported casual sexism that would be anathema to the new membership. The new party may find it harder to rebuild in its old rural strongholds than many suppose, but it should be less dominated by white male representatives.
Second, the new party is not very tribal by British political standards. The need for political alliances to achieve wider political ends is often mentioned. The wider political scene, and especially the promotion of cosmopolitan values, is more important than the party’s own fortunes. Old hands need to be conscious of this, though the party leader, Tim Farron, has clearly picked this up.
Third, the new party is distinctly more centrist than the old one. After the coalition with the Conservatives ended in 2015, many old hands thought they could put those years behind them, and recover the party’s old standing as part of the “radical” left, which peaked in 2005. The new members will give them a shock. They may cringe at the tuition fees debacle, but they do not regard the coalition government, and its austerity policies, as a betrayal. They are largely private sector in employment and outlook. The more left-wing types have joined Labour. Members of the old party who think the former leader Nick Clegg should be erased from the party’s history will not find a receptive audience.
So, those are the main elements of the new party that is taking shape. What about its political opportunity? So far there is little evidence of traction with the public at large; but with the Conservatives embracing Brexit and Labour showing suicidal tendencies, that could easily change. At this point I just want to posit one negative and two positives.
The negative is shared with the emerging Labour Party, which is undergoing its own rebirth, except that in their case the old party hasn’t died yet. The social base of its membership is narrow. It will be a huge challenge to broaden the party’s appeal to less cosmopolitan groups – and yet that is what the party must do to succeed. At least the Lib Dems, unlike Labour, who are victims an overblown sense of political entitlement, can have few illusions about the scale of the challenge.
The first positive is that the referendum has proved to a cataclysmic political event, that has helped erase memories of what went before it, or at least changed their perspective. This gives the Lib Dems the chance to move on from its recent traumas more speedily that otherwise.
The second positive is that the referendum result has changed the political dynamic in the party’s favour, just as the country embarks on a course that it thinks is profoundly wrong. Previously being against the EU was a central organising theme of anti-establishment politics. All sorts of ills could be blamed on EU membership, and it was very hard to refute these claims. Now that dynamic is reversing. The country’s ills can plausibly be blamed on Brexit, and life in the EU can slowly be built into a sort of promised land. Being pro-EU and pro-immigration will become anti-establishment. That is a much easier dynamic for an up and coming political party to play with, whatever the justice of it.
The media will continue to treat the Lib Dems as if their party was dead. The survival of the reborn party is certainly not assured. But something interesting is happening.