The Lib Dems earn their zeitgeist moment

The results of the European Parliament elections in mainland Britain are nearly all in. Excited politicos are over-interpreting them like mad, with the politicians predictably interpreting them to suit their own political preconceptions, in which they will doubtless be followed by most of the public.

For my party, the Lib Dems, the result is a high that is almost unbelievable. The party came second overall, beating both Labour and the Conservatives. It took over 20% of the vote and is predicted to take 16 seats (15 in the bag, with one more predicted for Scotland). The electoral system is a strange hybrid of proportional representation and first past the post. In the previous election in 2014 the party suffered the loss of all but one seat, and took even fewer than its dismal poll share deserved. This time the party had lucky breaks (like its third MEP in London) as well as narrow misses, to end up with something like the right share overall. Of all the parties the Lib Dems most believe in the function of the European Parliament, and its candidates really want to be MEPs, which gives this result a note of extra joy. Whether their terms will end in October or 2024 remains unclear, but this is a happy moment.

Of course it is easy to over-interpret the results. In national terms 20% support isn’t that great, and most of the voters it gained were consciously “lending” the party their vote on a strictly short-term basis. The early wisdom, repeated by supposedly impartial commentators as well as more interested parties, is that most of these temporary switchers were from Labour voters. There were clearly a lot of these, but a lot came from the Conservatives too. Many of the Labour switchers may actually have gone to the Greens, who also had a good election. We should await more data on this.

What can we say? Firstly the good result for the Lib Dems was not an inevitability. The party has repeatedly talked a good game and then disappointed. The party mobilised as soon as it became clear that these elections were likely, and more quickly than any other party save Nigel Farage’s personal vehicle, The Brexit Party (TBP), which out-polled the other parties, allowing lazy journalists to say that they “won”. The Lib Dems mobilised around a simple, clear message, that of stopping Brexit from happening. I saw a lot of this at first hand, with my (voluntary) role in the party’s organisation structure. The mobilisation and teamwork was impressive to watch; from top to bottom the party’s activists understood that this was a moment that the party had to take risks. As regional treasurer in London, where the party topped the poll, I played my small part in this. (Many others worked harder, though my work is not yet done).

The main threat to the party, as insiders saw it, came from the new party, Change UK. This party seemed to be well-funded. It actually outspent all the other parties other than Labour in Facebook advertising, according to the Economist. But the European elections, which it had seen as an opportunity, because it does not demand much local organisation, came too early for it. TBP, also a new party, was able to respond because of its near fascistic command and control organisation. Change UK is a vehicle for a group of independent-minded MPs; coherence and organisation were never going to be its strong-points. Big party disdain for the Lib Dems, inherited from many of its MPs (most publicly Labour’s Clive Lewis) surely led them to underestimate the challenge posed by Lib Dems too. There was no time to organise a joint pro-Remain ticket, which would have been hobbled by Britain’s electoral laws, so the parties were doomed to compete.

The Lib Dems plan was to use local election results in early May to establish the party’s claim to be the standard bearer for opposition to Brexit. I have seen many such clever and plausible plans come to nought over the years; this time it worked. That reflects organisational strength and discipline. But the decisive factor is what I call “zeitgeist” – being in tune with popular feeling, or a substantial strand of it. The party’s last zeitgeist moment was in the 2010 general election, when its leader, Nick Clegg, did unexpectedly well in the television leader’s debate. Since then the party has been out of it. During its coalition with the Conservatives in 2010 to 2015 there was a positive anti-Lib Dem zeitgeist; no self-respecting public figure could afford to have their names linked to the party. I felt particularly bitter about the comedian Sandi Toksvig, who had supported the party, but quickly turned to making cheap and nasty jokes at the party’s expense (if the humour had been good, like the late Jeremy Hardie’s, then I might have been more forgiving). She then co-founded the new Women’s Equality party and said how much she felt that British politics had become to personal and nasty; she was an exemplar of the problem but saw no reason to apologise. The anti-Lib Dem phase in the zeitgeist passed, and collapsed into indifference. Many assumed the party was dead.

But the signs the party was not dead were there for all to see. There was an upward trend in membership and a continuing presence in local government. And now it has proved the point with an organisationally strong response to the European elections which at last hit the zeitgeist again.

Where next for the Lib Dems? The party’s future is far from assured, but it has opportunities. Both Labour and the Conservatives have organisational resilience that will allow them to bounce back from this electoral setback. But both face a strong and unfamiliar challenge that they will have to meet or they will wither.

In by far the worse mess are the Conservatives. Their game plan is to put Brexit behind them and change the conversation to tax and spend, stoking up fear as to what a Labour Party might do if it is elected. But the question now is how to get through that first bit. The obvious solution to many Tories is to countenance a no-deal Brexit, and to manoeuvre it through, notwithstanding parliament, hoping that the EU side will wobble and soften the blow. If it doesn’t do this, the well-organised TBP presents an existential threat. But if it does, many of its supporters will desert it, as they did in the European elections.

Life should be easier for Labour. If they swing behind the anti-Brexit position, they will have little difficulty in fending off the challenge posed by the Lib Dems and the Greens, though less so the SNP. But they will leak voters to TBP, and winning a parliamentary majority looks a tough call. If they continue to try and play both sides, however, they cannot rely on their anti-austerity clarion call to work.

And what should the Lib Dems do? The main electoral opportunity comes from feeding on the carcass that is the Tory party, and providing a strong challenge to it in its heartlands. But it needs to make its peace with Change UK. I would go further and say that it should do the same with the Greens. The party shares much with the Greens, but it is also very different. Political reform and environmental action should be enough of a basis for common ground, though. If the party can find arrangements with these two other parties, it can, with them, claim to be part of a “new politics”, rather than being clearly linked to the old, as it is now.

The next business for the party is to select a new leader. This is a good moment to do it, now that some optimism has broken out. The party has earned its moment of joy.

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