It’s been a good few months to be a Lib Dem. In May success in local elections was followed by triumph in the European Parliament elections, when it beat both Labour and the Conservatives. The party’s support in the polls has surged. Other successes followed, including attracting two high-quality defectors from other parties in parliament and a by election win. And yet this success is fragile. A lot hangs on the next few months.
The party’s current poll share of about 20% is not normally mould-breaking territory. But both Labour and the Conservatives are polling relatively poorly and it is the gap that counts. Two things have created this situation. The first is the rise of Nigel Farage’s new vehicle: The Brexit Party, which has drawn votes from both big parties as well as helping to define the Lib Dems as their polar opposite, with the party’s unequivocal opposition to Brexit. The second is the abandonment of what might be called the “liberal centre” of politics by both parties. Labour were the first to do this under Jeremy Corbyn. The party has attacked “austerity”, meaning cuts to public spending, and promoted anti-capitalist policies, such as extensive nationalisation. Under Boris Johnson the Conservatives have abandoned the liberal centre too. Not only are they going full out for a hard Brexit, dismissing the dangers of No-Deal, but they are spraying spending promises everywhere and tearing up constitutional conventions. They are also banging the populist drum on immigration and crime and punishment. They look more like followers of Donald Trump than sensible conservatives.
So this leaves the Lib Dems with two political gaps that they can fill: being unequivocally anti-Brexit, and taking the liberal centre. Their first task has been to crush rival claims to this ground. This is what they succeeded in doing in May, as the nascent Independent Group collapsed. The Greens remain uncrushed, and are still important rivals in some places, but they are uninterested in the liberal centre. The next thing the party did was to select a new leader, Jo Swinson. She gives the party a fresh face, and looks more like the voters the party needs to attract. But the challenge now facing Jo is daunting. I think there are three main things she needs to do: navigating the Brexit end-game; establishing a post-Brexit profile; and consolidating the liberal centre. If the party fails in these tasks, the two party narrative of British politics will be re-established and the party will be squeezed out.
Firstly, and most immediately, is the Brexit end-game. The party’s clear resistance to Brexit has been its most important defining feature. It owes it to its supporters to fight as hard as it can to fend Brexit off. But this is looking decidedly tricky. Just how tricky was illustrated last week, when Labour launched its plan for a “caretaker” government under Mr Corbyn to postpone Brexit and the fight a general election. This wrong-footed Jo, who called it out as a cynical ploy too quickly, rather than being non-committal and voicing doubts (a position she has tried to adopt since). This allowed Labour followers to suggest that the party’s top priority was political advantage, not stopping Brexit by any means possible. Fortunately the damage not severe, as potential Tory rebels, essential to the exercise, took up the running. Indeed the move has ricocheted back onto Mr Corbyn, who is having to explain why he is a better choice to lead an interim government than a more neutral figure. It has also allowed Jo to garner extra publicity: many may not have noticed the party had a new leader. But this episode is an indication of the treacherous ground ahead.
The enterprise of stopping Brexit, or even the lesser goal of stopping a no-deal, is almost certainly doomed, however. Mr Johnson’s government views it as an existential crisis for their party, and is willing to play fast and loose with the conventions on which the country’s political processes depends. Mr Corbyn, as I discussed in my previous post, wants the same outcome, albeit without any of his fingerprints. So what happens to the Lib Dems after Brexit? Once out most people, in Britain and the EU, will surely want to move on. Getting back into the Union will be a generational project.
But after Brexit Europe will not drop off the political agenda, and especially after a no-deal. Smooth relations with the EU will be essential for many aspects of British life, including the economy, Northern Ireland and freedom to work and travel in EU countries. Such issues will dominate the British political agenda, forcing both sides back to negotiating a deal of some sort. The Lib Dems will have to move quickly from their “Stop Brexit” position to something new, that keeps the party in touch with the key issues, and which keeps the pressure up on the Conservatives and Labour to define their positions more clearly, and so expose their own divisions. Jo will have to do this on the hoof, as there will be no time to use the the party conference to forge it. The obvious choice would be to advocate a Norway plus plus position. This means being part of the Single Market, including freedom of movement, and a customs union. Fisheries would be excluded but some kind of deal will be needed on agriculture. Rural voters are not so important to the Lib Dems these days, but the party needs to keep up pressure on the Conservatives in rural areas. The idea should be to reopen EU markets for British agricultural produce, and to fend off imports from America and elsewhere. And if people say that all this would mean being a rule-taker, the party can simply say that Britain should rejoin as a full member in due course.
This is necessary, but not sufficient. Labour may end up by saying something similar. Many ex-Tory voters will be sceptical. Which is why occupying the liberal centre will be so important. What is it? Liberal for a start. That means embracing diversity, multiculturalism and tolerance. It also means courting younger voters, which in turn means embracing environmentalism, up to and including radical action to stop and even reverse climate change. All that is easy for Lib Dems, but does not particularly help define them against Labour or the Greens, or even more enlightened Tories, of whom there are more than many suppose.
So the “centre” element of the liberal centre is important. And that means a middle of the road economic policy. That in turn means taking fewer risks with public spending and borrowing, and being moderate with tax increases. That means being careful with spending promises for public services. There is a very interesting discussion to be had about whether this is in fact sensible public policy: many argue that this is in fact a good time to take risks with public spending, and that the burden of tax needs to be radically shifted. But that discussion misses the point. British voters have over the generations drawn the conclusion that governments need to be careful with finances, and they have reason to suspect that Labour will not be. Under Boris Johnson they may even be losing trust with the Tories. Somebody needs to make the case for a more cautious approach, and it makes sense for this to be the Lib Dems.
Moderate economics will not sit so easily with many Lib Dem activists, however. They are rightly wary of the party being branded as being centrist and so defined by what the other parties are up to. Many are wounded by Labour’s persistent demonisation of “austerity”, in which the Lib Dems are said to be complicit under the coalition years with the Conservatives. But while the anti-austerity rhetoric evinces passion in many people, I don’t think it is a popular in the country at large as many Labour people suppose. The Lib Dems built up a degree of credibility on economics with moderate Conservative voters during the coalition – and this group will be critical.
What is clear is that Lib Dems cannot rest on their laurels. The accession of Mr Johnson has given a lift to the Conservatives, and this threatens to restore the two-party dynamic that is the natural state of British politics. The Brexit Party is in retreat. The 2017 general election pattern, where the two main parties moved to over 40% each, can happen again. But the public has deep doubts about both parties, and both leaderships are adopting very risky political strategies. This could be the Lib Dem moment. The party has the fight of its life ahead of it.