What happened to the Liberal Democrats?

A week on from Britain’s General Election and I’m still struggling to absorb its implications. The scale of the Conservative victory still hasn’t sunk in: in terms of the stages of grief I haven’t got beyond denial. So I don’t have much useful to say on them yet. Besides, the most important thing in British politics will be that party’s internal tensions as it tries to live up to the expectations it has set, and it is far too early to get a clear sight of these. So far as the next most important thing in British politics, the future of the Labour Party, I’m still in the anger phase of grief. This is partly a reflection of the way that party behaved towards mine (the Liberal Democrats), but also a sort of displacement activity to divert me from thinking about the implications for the Lib Dems. I need to calm down a bit before offering my thoughts on Labour.

What I want to do first is comment on the predicament of the Lib Dems. For them I am through denial and anger, and in desperate negotiation before depression inevitably strikes. Let me share some of that negotiation.

The Lib Dems have dropped out of comment on mainstream media, after some rather superficial analysis on Jo Swinson’s lack of popularity and the Revoke policy. This is right; Labour’s troubles are much more entertaining and important to the general public. Within the party comment is largely of two types: anger at practically every decision the leadership took since the party’s conference in September, and apologetics from those close to the establishment, rehashing the data that was behind those decisions. Both lines are highly unsatisfactory.

Firstly, what happened? This is my personal impression and doubtless can be disputed or improved on. In September the party was on the crest of a wave. It was riding (relatively) high in the opinion polls, and succeeded in drawing in defectors from both Labour and the Conservatives. It was the probably the most popular party amongst Remain supporters, and local polls showed it doing well in Remain areas. Winning forty seats was at the conservative end of projections: 100 or more looked possible. The newly elected leader, Jo Swinson, decided to go for broke to capitalise on this fleeting moment.

There were reasons to hope that the party could maintain its momentum. It was attracting some big donors, and the other parties had used up a large part of their national spending limits. The party would go into a quick election without its usual relative disadvantage in financial firepower, at least when it came to the national campaign (sustaining that across enough constituencies was more of a problem). In Jo the party had fresh-looking front person, who, along with the highly presentable converts from other parties, such as Luciana Berger, Chuka Umuna and Sarah Wollaston, could present the party as something new. There was a lot of evidence to show that voters were fed up with the other main parties.

One step the party chose to take was to adopt the infamous Revoke policy: that the party would simply cancel Brexit in the unlikely event that it won a majority. At the time this looked very popular amongst Remain voters, and it seemed to show up Labour in particular as ditherers on the biggest political topic of the day. A further step was establishing a highly ambitious set of (about) 80 target seats. These included seats like mine (Battersea) where the party polled a mere 7% in 2017. Local polling, membership recruitment and doorstep campaigning showed the party to be popular in these seats, and they would have been winnable if the campaign could somehow be restricted to a few days. The leadership has been criticised for its apparently delusional ambition. But if the party is going to break into the British political big time it has to be ambitious and make the most of its opportunities.

But the party badly underestimated Labour. At first Labour’s conference seemed to underline its muddle and confusion over Brexit, but in the end it committed to a further referendum. This was good enough to shore up the party’s position amongst Remain voters. There was a nonsense in Labour’s Brexit policy, which was the promised renegotiation of Brexit terms, but in the end this proved easier to explain than the Lib Dems’ view that it supported both revoking Brexit straightaway and a further referendum. Remain voters wanted a referendum and didn’t care about the renegotiation. Labour’s campaigning machine then swung into action. They moved behind a “Stop Boris” meme amongst Remain supporters, and promoted “tactical voting” hard. This used the 2017 election result as its base, in preference to more recent polling, which meant that “vote tactically” overwhelmingly meant “vote Labour”, with a few token gestures to Lib Dems. The attack hit home, as we found with even members persistently asking why our candidate wasn’t standing down and promoting Labour, as the tactical sites recommended. National polls showed Labour’s vote rising at the Lib Dem expense.

And with that the whole Lib Dem campaign started to unravel, though whether it did Labour any good is a question for another day. A vicious circle was set in motion. The loss in poll ratings punctured the party’s momentum. It may well have been led in seats not targeted by the Lib Dems, but those targets needed national momentum to succeed, and in the end the squeeze took hold in most of these too. Meanwhile Labour’s rise, and the clamour for a Labour-led government within a hung parliament, raised Tory voters’ fears about voting for the Lib Dems. It wasn’t just that the Labour leadership was toxic to these voters, but they were not fans of a hung parliament either. Many Remainers voted Tory.

This sagging performance in turn put the Lib Dem leadership on the defensive. In the Question Time session Jo was put under constant pressure (not helped by the fact that, unlike the other three party leaders, the BBC did not pick a block of her party’s supporters to put in the audience), and this set the trend. The Revoke policy was painted as undemocratic, raising the passions of Leave supporters and the reservations of Remain ones. And that wasn’t all: the party’s role in the coalition government of 2020 came under scrutiny. Jo’s leadership ratings sagged, and it became fashionable to criticise her: she was too stiff and bossy, it was said (though quite why people didn’t prefer that to a lying cad or a bumbling do-gooder with scary friends these critics did not attempt to explain). It is very hard to disentangle cause and effect here: it is much easier to pick holes in a leader if their party appears to be sinking, than one whose party is doing well. Still a more skilled or experienced performer than Jo, together with a little luck, might have been able to limit the rot. It is not clear that her leadership rival Ed Davey would have fared better. He wouldn’t have been as stiff, and would have been better at handling questions, but he would not have presented as clear a break from the past, and he has his own weak spots. The media were never going to give a Lib Dem leader much space, and they didn’t. The lowlight for me was the BBC Today programme spending so much of its interview of her in the last week questioning her on transgender rights. Pressuring her on Brexit and Revoke, and on the party’s record on coalition was fair game, but trans rights had very little to do with how people were going to vote, and only served to deny airtime to a party that was already not getting very much. Still, all parties bitterly complained about their media treatment, and politicians complaining about media coverage is, as somebody put it, like sailors complaining about rough seas.

The party was forced into an undignified retreat. Battersea was abruptly dropped as a target as a relentless Labour machine pushed the Lib Dems back into their box. In London Labour, who had a good campaign, quickly switched to seats the Lib Dems might take off the Conservatives (such as Wimbledon and the Cities) in order to ensure that the Tories were safe there and that the Lib Dems did not gain a bridgehead (or, at any rate that’s what people in those seats say).

What to say about this sorry story? For all the clever types pointing to poll evidence, I continue to maintain that the Revoke policy was a serious error. The party wasn’t trying to attract Leave voters but it didn’t have to insult them; it took the pressure off Labour’s Brexit policy rather than adding to it; it made the party look arrogant, which then bounced off onto thinking its leader was arrogant. The evidence for this is all anecdotal, admittedly, but the rising dissatisfaction levels the party and its leader attracted from the public need to be explained.

I think this points to a wider strategic problem. Like Labour the Lib Dems focused on gathering up core supporters: Remainers in its case. Some wore unpopularity amongst Leave supporters as a badge of honour. The data analysis supporting the party’s decisions seems to take this as a given. And yet hostility, even amongst people who were never going to vote for the party, was not ultimately helpful, especially from a party that likes to present itself as one that bridges differences. It was a retreat into a middle class ghetto. All seven of the seats the party won in England were in the top quartile of affluence. This contrasts starkly with both the other main parties, who showed an ability to harvest votes from right across the social spectrum.

But for all the tactical mistakes, what the election demonstrated above all is just how difficult it is for the party to break out of the stranglehold the country’s electoral system. I will reflect more on that, and the future of the party, next time.

7 thoughts on “What happened to the Liberal Democrats?”

  1. ” Many Remainers voted Tory”

    True enough, but many leavers voted Labour too. Not all Northern Labour leavers, for example, switched sides. Most, like myself, didn’t. Maybe 30% did and that was enough to tilt the balance in many constituencies. Before the election, the Lib Dems were saying Labour was a Leave party, so it does seem rather dishonest to count the Labour vote as Remain afterwards.

    The electoral arithmetic was always that the Tories were going to get what they got last time, in 2017, plus or minus a couple of percentage points. The only chance of defeating them was for either the Labour Party or the Lib Dems to do very badly indeed. The more equal the opposition split, the bigger the Tory majority. It’s unfair, I know, but that’s the way the electoral system works.

    At the start of the election campaign, there was an article in Lib Dem Voice about the possibility of Jo Swinson being the next prime minister. I wrote “Tell her she’s dreaming” in the comments. That’s a catch phrase from one of my favourite films BTW. The Castle. It’s an Aussie film so maybe not well known here.

    The Lib Dems, and Remainers generally, blew it, in the last Parliament, when they couldn’t organise themselves to install JC as PM for long enough to have another referendum. They chose Brexit and 5 years of the Tories over no Brexit and maybe one year of Labour. Once BJ had his wish for another election, it was game over for the Remain side. There was nothing either Labour or the Lib Dems could do to prevent a Tory win. There’s no point in saying we should have done this or should have done that. It wouldn’t have affected the Tory vote in the slightest.

    1. On the first bit, I agree. I haven’t made the mistake of saying that by totting up the votes for Labour, SNP, Lib Dems etc you get the number of people who wanted a referendum or revoke. What I would say is the for the Tories to win they needed to hold on to a significant number of Remain supporters, which they did. According to some polling evidence they held on to about 60% of their Remain vote. If the Lib Dems had been able to chip this away than that would have taken the total Tory vote down – so I don’t accept that this was just about Labour and the Lib Dems carving up a fixed number of anti-Tory votes. If it was, then Labour comprehensively won that battle. In Battersea the Labour vote share was the same as 2017; in next door Putney Labour’s share went up. The movement of votes was from Tory to Lib Dem. The number of seats the Lib Dems stopped LAbour from winning (arguably Kensington) was very small, though Labour stop the Lib Dems in some seats (Wimbledon and Carshalton). I don’t think that in the Labour seats lost in the north the Lib Dems played a significant factor. To take Bolsover, the Tory vote went up by nearly 7% and the Lib Dems by less than 1%. Overall the Lib Dems took votes mainly from the Tories (after Labour successfully pulled most of their defectors back), while Labour lost votes to the Tories and the Brexit Party.

      The election wasn’t just about Brexit: it was also about the Labour programme, and by implication the Tory record in government. Many people who voted Tory before simply could not bear the thought of letting Labour in. The Lib Dems did quite a reasonable job of picking up many of these Tories in some places, but only by swearing they would not let Corbyn in – a promise that would have been very hard to keep if the Tories had lost.

      I agree that the best chance of stopping Brexit, or getting a referendum, was before the election, and voting in an alternative government. I think many of them hoped that the Brexit Party would split the Leave vote, but as I suggested at the time the Brexit Party was more likely to damage Labour than the Tories. But it isn’t as simple as saying it is because they failed to back JC as PM. Labour could have offered to get behind a less divisive figure – remembering that they needed a number of Tory rebels to get behind them, never mind the Lib Dems. I perfectly understand why Labour did not want to go down that path, and I’m not bitter and twisted about it. The situation was much more complicated than Brexit. It is hard to exaggerate the importance that the toxicity of JC played in this. My perception is that the most important thing for JC and the Labour leadership was to get a foothold in the machinery of government so that they could begin to implement their programme using executive powers; offering a referendum on Brexit was a means towards that goal, not an end in itself. Am I wrong?

  2. Wrong? Yes. I would say Lib Dems and the Tory centre right remainers all made the mistake of believing their own propaganda about JC.

    The real problem for any Remain inclined govt would have been to offer a meaningful Leave option in any referendum. The Labour offer came nowhere near that and it wouldn’t have solved anything politically. I’m pleased that I’m using the past unreal conditional (?) tense. We don’t actually have that problem now!

    The sooner we put all this behind us the better, however, the big problem for the UK economy is the build up of private debt which is slowing the economy sharply. A recession is quite probable, with a collapse of house prices. We all know what it will be blamed on! So the Brexit saga will have some time to run yet.

    1. And you wonder why people like me were sceptical of a JC-led government trying to deal with Brexit? To be fair the Lib Dems foundered on the same problem of the Leave option, which is why they tried to dodge the question with Revoke. It could only have been Johnson’s deal to act as the alternative. And it wasn’t just propaganda from the usual suspects and not just JC that scared me about Labour. In his way McDonnell was even scarier, and a lot of the criticism came from within Labour itself.
      Still, as you say, that’s all in the past and we need to put it behind us.

  3. “what the election demonstrated above all is just how difficult it is for the party to break out of the stranglehold the country’s electoral system.”

    I think we knew that already. To give themselves a chance, the centre left parties have to find a way of appealing more to the lower social groupings in our society. It should be the Labour Party doing that, but instead, the figures show that the Tories are much better at it than they should be!

    ” It was a retreat into a middle class ghetto. All seven of the seats the party won in England were in the top quartile of affluence.”

    More like a retreat into a social class AB ghetto. Or maybe enclave is a better word. Any party which is seriously in the business of winning has to take a look at those it is appealing to and those it is actively putting off.

    From a Lib Dem POV what do you need to do to win back seats like North Devon and Bodmin? From a Labour POV what do we do to win back seats like Burnley, Leigh, Wrexham, Grimsby etc?


  4. Jo’s leadership ratings sagged, and it became fashionable to criticise her: she was too stiff and bossy, it was said

    I knew she was doomed when in, I think, the Sky interview she was asked if she would use nuclear weapons and she simply replied “Yes”. That, to me indicated that she hadn’t been prepared for that line of questioning.

Comments are closed.