Vince Cable is right to gamble on picking up the anti-Brexit voteby Peter Kellner / September 15, 2017 / Leave a comment
Poor Vince Cable. A decade ago, when he was the interim leader of the Liberal Democrats, he led a contingent of 62 MPs. Now, as his party’s real leader, he leads just 12. For five years he was a cabinet minister, pronouncing with authority from the despatch box. Now, he cannot even be sure of being called to ask anything at Prime Minister’s Questions. Despite winning, net, four more seats this year (including Cable’s own seat, Twickenham), the Lib Dems’ share of the vote across Britain, 7.6 per cent, was the lowest since 1959.
So: should the Lib Dems finally admit defeat and disband? At his party’s annual conference in Bournemouth, should he tell his activists, “go back to your constituencies and prepare for oblivion”?
He won’t, of course. But, actually, I don’t think he should, either. The Liberal Democrats still have an important purpose. But to define it, they need to rid themselves of the illusion that they have hit rock bottom, that as the Brexit negotiations stumble, they are bound to become popular once more.
The rock-bottom, only-way-is-up hypothesis sounds plausible. This year’s share of the vote was just slightly down on 2015, so it looks as if there is a core vote of around two million loyal Liberal Democrats who share the party’s outlook on liberalism, Europe, decentralisation, the environment, electoral reform and so on.
“When the Lib Dems have done well, the surge in support has had little if anything to do with their policies”
Sadly for the Lib Dems, that’s not true. The polling evidence suggests that this year, as in every election going back decades, there was a huge churn: the party lost more than a million of the people who voted for it two years ago, and gained a million-plus new voters this June. Theirs is a story of easy-come, easy-go that hasn’t changed for half a century.
Moreover, when the Lib Dems have done well, the surge in their support has had little if anything to do with their policies. Many of their “supporters” have been anti-EU and anti-Immigration. In other elections (for example to the European Parliament), many of them have voted for Ukip. Theirs has always been essentially a protest vote, especially when they have harvested five million votes or more. Sometimes the protest has been mainly anti-Conservative (as in the Blair landslide in 1997, when the Lib Dems gained seats as a result of ferocious tactical voting); sometimes it has been a more general anti-big-battalion protest (such as in 1983, when the Liberal-SDP Alliance tally reached seven million, with Margaret Thatcher and Michael Foot equally unpopular with many voters).