Following the fortunes of Britain’s Liberal Democrats is a niche interest these days. So much so that this Lib Dem blog spends most of time commenting on other things. But the party conference in Bournemouth has just ended, and I was there. Something needs to be said.
The party’s fall from mainstream politics has been dramatic. It peaked when the party was in coalition, with four cabinet ministers, in 2010 to 2015. At that time the party was scarcely out of the news. This year the party’s autumn conference rates hardly a mention. In yesterday’s London Standard, on the day of the the leader’s closing speech, the party got no coverage in the news pages. Absolutely nothing. This is not especially surprising. The party has but 12 MPs, a a tiny scattering of council leaderships, and single-figure poll ratings. In much of the country it can’t even scrape together enough votes to retain its deposit. Still, its position is much stronger than other minor parties that have hit hard times: Ukip and the Greens.
Why is that? The party’s infrastructure is much diminished, but it still dwarfs that of the other minor parties. It has even seen a membership surge, meaning that the conference was well-attended and lively, even if all the lobbyists and sponsors were absent. The party has been here before and progressed – notably when I attended my first conference in 1990, when it polled at a similar level to the Greens, the continuing SDP and the continuing Liberals. Furthermore its team of MPs has more government experience than Labour’s entire front bench. And its ideological space, internationalist liberalism, is unchallenged in Britain’s political system. And yet it is very hard to deny the pessimistic conventional wisdom, nicely summed up in this Economist Bagehot column.
But the party’s leaders remain determinedly optimistic. Could this be a Battle of the Marne moment? This was the early turning point in the First World War, after the Germans had driven the French and British armies into headlong retreat, and the fall of Paris beckoned. The French general Ferdinand Foch was promoted to lead the fightback, and famously said: “My centre is yielding. My right is retreating. Situation excellent. I am attacking.” The tide was turned, and France saved. The wider point here is that retreat can bring opportunity. Your opponents become overstretched and exhausted; meanwhile your own communication lines are tighter, and you become more cohesive. There are at least some elements of this for the Lib Dems.
The party’s main opponents, the Conservative and Labour parties, do show signs of overstretch. The former are stuck with a mediocre leader because they can find nobody better; they are saddled with implementing Brexit, and with being on the wrong side of demographic trends. The easiest votes for Lib Dems to win these days are disillusioned Conservatives. Labour are in many ways in much better shape but remain a fragile coalition with incompatible views; I will write more of them after their conference next week. And the Lib Dems’ main competitor on the political fringe, the Greens, look in even worse shape. They made a serious strategic error to occupy more conventionally left-wing social justice territory, and have been crushed by Labour’s revival, after briefly threatening to eclipse the Lib Dems in the coalition years.
Also the party itself is more cohesive. It is not constantly undermined by the pleas that this or that policy line will upset this or that local community in a Cornish Lib Dem seat. Those conservative rural voters have now gone elsewhere. As have inner city voters. The party is now more tightly focused in Britain’s suburbs, allowing it to sharpen its appeal and take greater risks.
And the party has its General Foch too, under its new leader, Vince Cable. As even the Economist admits, he is easily the more intelligent that the main party leaders. That intelligence was on display in Bournemouth. There was practically no question thrown at him to which he did not have an intelligent answer. Unlike his predecessor, Tim Farron, he is no tub-thumper; you would not call his speeches rousing. But he is facing up to some of the most difficult issues that confront the party. The biggest of these is the party’s stance on funding higher education. Up to 2010, the party did well amongst students by promising to abolish tuition fees, including a dramatic pledge by almost all MPs not to vote for any increase. The party promptly ditched this in coalition, and Labour has exploited this ruthlessly ever since. Vince’s fingerprints were very much on the volte-face, unlike Tim. At the time he argued that the new policy was a graduate tax by another name, but to no avail. This demographic of younger voters will be vital to the party, and it fits well with its liberal-international outlook. It will hardly be easy to turn the corner and win them back, but at least Vince is tackling it head on.
Vince’s speech yesterday was quite remarkable in another way. We see a lot of dumbing-down in modern politics. This was evident in the deliberate obfuscations and lies in the campaign to leave the European Union (not really made better by claims that the Remain side were hardly better…), and above all by the triumph of Donald Trump in the United States. And yet Vince Cable persists in treating his audiences as if they are intelligent human beings. Surely the politics of misleading sound-bites, fake news stories and hyping victimhood must play itself out? Vince is betting that it will.
Still, the challenges for the Lib Dems remain huge. They need to rebuilt the party’s base in local government – but with a new membership who so far are showing little interest in such patient and painstaking politics. The party’s internal organisation remains weak, and it is not clear that the new leadership know how to address this. And, of course, the other political parties’ commanding position is based on the ruthless logic of Britain’s first past the post voting system.
I can offer sceptical observers no hard evidence that the Lib Dems can change their fortunes. But I do know that I will continue to work for it.