As a Liberal Democrat I started the General Election full of optimism. Labour looked down and out; people would surely want another alternative to an uncompromising Tory leadership? Those hopes soon vanished, as the party failed to spark, and ended up with even fewer votes overall than in 2015. Existential questions arise. If two party politics is here to stay, is there any point to the party?
There was a silver lining to the gloom. The party has increased its number of MPs from 8 (or 9 counting the by-election win in Richmond Park) to 12. And not just that; the new parliamentary team looks a lot stronger. Three former ministers (including two at cabinet level) return, for the loss of Nick Clegg, who, for all his virtues, does have a bit of baggage. One third of the MPs are now female (none were in 2015), redressing a long imbalance. And I took an extraordinary amount of vicarious pleasure in the election of Layla Moran in Oxford West and Abington. She first stood for parliament here in Battersea in 2010, when I was her agent. That brings to two the number of MPs that know who I am (the other is Ed Davey, whom I’ve known, though not well, since 1990). From a motley collection of surviving old hands in 2015, we now have something much more diverse and dynamic.
But three of the gains resulted from the peculiar shifting of multi-party politics in Scotland. In most of England and Wales, the party failed, losing five out of its eight seats, even if they regained another five. In particular, the party was unable to handle the rise of Labour amongst younger voters, except in Bath and Oxford. There is bitter disappointment. The party had been showing momentum in local elections, and even in an ongoing by election in Manchester, until the election was called. Its membership has grown massively, and it could call on a much larger army of enthusiastic activists than the demoralised bunch in 2015.
What went wrong? Some commentators have blamed the party’s policy of a second referendum on Europe, once the exit terms are known. Most electors weren’t interested in this, but it was critical to the party keeping faith with its core vote, especially those new members, who mainly came from a Brexit rebound. The Lib Dems have done enough betraying of its core support in coalition. And I don’t think the policy actually put many potential voters off – nobody expected the party to be able to actually implement its policies, after all. The problem was that the party had little else to say. It claimed to be the only opposition to the Tories and hard Brexit. As Labour surged, that proved nonsense – Labour had no difficulty in winning votes from people supporting a soft Brexit or even no Brexit at all. The Lib Dem manifesto was quite a decent stab at a programme for government – but it looked like an undistinctive split-the-difference programme when compared to the others. Labour went uncompromisingly for the protest vote, in a way the Lib Dems used to, and found that it worked – perhaps because nobody expected them to win either.
On one issue in particular did Labour manage to skewer the Lib Dems: student finance. By promising free university education, Labour picked up a policy that was popular with younger voters, and which had been a Lib Dem flagship until 2010. The Lib Dem reversal on this in coalition continues to haunt the party, and Labour’s policy was the most dramatic possible demonstration of this. That this policy presents major headaches for any government trying to implement it (Labour’s manifesto is comically vague on this) is beside the point when nobody expects you to win. Digging their way out of that hole will be a major headache for the Lib Dems.
The party’s leader, Tim Farron, did not help. He lacked gravitas – he was prone to overblown rhetoric and did not look like a cabinet minister in waiting – even compared to the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Labour campaigners successfully employed distraction tactics over his religious beliefs, and how these might or might not affect his views on gays and abortion. Tim has now resigned as leader – based on the issues around his faith. It was the right decision for the wrong reason – and I will come back to the issue of liberals and religion in a future post. Tim had a solid grasp of the party’s long term strategic priorities (core votes, more women and ethnic minority MPs, community campaigning and so on) but he had too many other weaknesses.
A further problem was weak organisation. There are honorable exceptions, but there were many horror stories from the campaign trail about disorganisation and opportunities lost. For example in more than one seat inexperienced campaign managers exhausted themselves organising the Royal Mail free delivery at the start of the campaign, while neglecting the advance organisation required for polling day, which they then became too tired to do properly. It is likely that organisational errors like this, and gaps in communication between local and national campaigning, cost the party as many as four seats (including seats in Wales and Cornwall, which would have given the party a better geographical spread). This is particularly disappointing given that the party had a head start on candidate selection. This points to serious organisational weakness in the party that successive leaders have failed to address. It has is an out-of-touch national management, chaotic local management and weak middle management, all reinforcing each other’s ineffectiveness. I exaggerate – there are islands of brilliance – but strong organisational leadership needs to be a priority.
But is it worth it? Does the party contribute value to British political life? I still think it does because the party has two historic functions that the election has not changed.
The first is as a beacon for liberalism and democracy. Both major parties are taking these for granted. They are fragmented coalitions only interested in seizing a parliamentary majority by whatever means, and then using it to impose a divisive policy agenda. The Conservatives have taken pragmatism past the point of bankruptcy. They continue to peddle failed ideas because they know no better. Labour have collapsed completely into a party of protest, pretending that hard choices do not have to be made.
The second historic function of the Liberal Democrats is to bridge the tribal divide between the two main camps, and attract support from both. It looks as if neither of the major parties can establish a decent governing majority – they are just cancelling each other out. The deadlock can only be broken by a third party. This is what happened in 2010 with the coalition government. Disastrous as that was for the Lib Dems, rebuilding a new coalition is probably the only way that Britain will achieve a government that is “strong and stable” in the language of the Conservative election campaign. That poses a major strategic problem for the Lib Dems – but that is surely the party’s destiny. By the time the party is next given the chance – perhaps after Labour attempts a minority administration – public attitudes may have moved on.
There is a further possibility – that the party becomes part of a new movement that governs without Labour or the Conservatives – in the manner of Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche movement. That was my hope when I joined the predecessor party, the SDP, in 1981. It failed then, but who knows?
Meanwhile the party needs to pick itself up and move on. It must continue to fly the banner for Remain, and tap the growing anger over Brexit – even if the end game is unclear. But the party also badly needs to move on to explain what it is for beyond Brexit. With problems for Britain piling up in all directions, the voters surely need to be offered liberal solutions.