In an Italian restaurant on the edge of Chippenham, a bustling Wiltshire market town and a key Lib Dem target, the manager is complaining to me about Brexit. He’s a British citizen, but is worried about staff who aren’t. Running costs are already going up, he says, and he predicts things will get worse. He is not sure who he will vote for in the election, but is interested to hear that one party is opposed to leaving the European Union. He thinks he has heard of them, but he isn’t sure what they stand for. Who are the Lib Dems, exactly?
Tim Farron’s party is supposed to be surging right now, uniquely standing up for the 48 per cent of Britons who found themselves on the wrong side of the referendum result. But instead it is struggling to stay at 10 per cent in the polls, while the Tories have soared to 50 in some surveys. In the locals, the Lib Dems actually lost 28 council seats, and it is rumoured the Conservatives are doing even better on the doorstep than in the data.
So why aren’t the Lib Dems doing better? There are three theories. With just nine MPs, they must work to be taken seriously, not only with voters but with the media, which often covers them as an afterthought. (The Tories won’t make the mistake of allowing a proper television debate this time, which in 2010 sent Nick Clegg rocketing in the polls). The pending destruction of Ukip will release many votes to the Tories, killing Lib Dem hopes all over the map. And, in Farron, the party has a strangely illiberal, uncharismatic leader who is prone to gaffes.
But these challenges are not insurmountable. The Lib Dems have been handed their most promising opportunity in decades. Its potential supporters—centrist, liberal, moderates, are still Britain’s largest political group—and they are no longer absorbed by the two main parties, who have retreated to the left and right, Labour nearly collapsing in the process. A broken pledge on tuition fees which has haunted the party since their coalition years may at last be fading from memory, overshadowed by more recent broken promises, such as the Leave campaign’s £350m a week for the NHS.
But most importantly, Labour and the Tories have abandoned “Remain” voters, and there are 16 million of them. In 1997 Tony Blair won the general election with 13.5m votes, in 2015 David Cameron won with 11.3m. A party that captured the “Remain” vote could win by the biggest landslide in recent history.
A snap election must have looked like a Godsend for the Liberal Democrats. Party membership had reached its highest ever level. The Lib Dems had some 400 candidates ready, 300 of them selected a year earlier. A by-election victory in Richmond Park and a good second place in Witney seemed to hint at a return to relevance. But despite all this, the Lib Dems are on course to do badly in this election. Their strategy is wrong.
They are messing it up in two ways. First, their focus is on a comeback in the south west. You can see the appeal. This is the former heartland, insofar as there ever was one. In 2005, with Charles Kennedy bouyed by his opposition to Iraq, they had taken 16 seats across the broad region; in 2010, as Clegg-mania swept the country, they won 15. So when, in 2015, they lost the lot to Cameron’s decapitation strategy, it seemed like an aberration. And, as I picked up on the doorstep in the Gloucestershire target seat of Thornbury and Yate, Labour is seen as a lost cause here. “I’m instinctively Labour, but they came fourth here, so there’s no point,” one voter, a mother with young kids, told Claire Young, the Lib Dem candidate. If a surge is on the cards, the reasoning goes, surely it would start here.
But this reasoning is off. Since 2010, the landscape has shifted. A decline in party loyalty means that votes could come from anywhere: everyone is up for grabs. Big surprises—there have been several in recent years—tend to come from the sudden appearance of aggrieved, disenfranchised voters, who want to make their point. This time the angriest, least represented voters will be those who voted Remain, so it is worth spreading the net wide. Glen O’Hara, an expert on political history and polling at Oxford Brookes University, predicts “massive swings in unpredictable seats.” He says the Lib Dems will lose in some key Leave-voting targets such as Eastbourne, where they are only one point behind the Tories, but could make strides in Remain seats which would otherwise be hopeless, such as Enfield North, where the party was fifth in 2015. They could also win back some Scottish seats. The crucial question, he says, is how the constituency voted in the referendum. The south west mostly voted to “Leave,” which means there is little to fuel a Lib Dem surge. The old Lib Dem battle maps are now useless. In each of Cornwall, Devon and Somerset where campaigners so hope for a resurgence, the party lost council seats in May.
This brings us to the Lib Dem’s second problem: it is losing its nerve as the anti-Brexit party. The anger of Remainers has faded since the referendum; in order to re-awaken it, Farron should spend the next month hammering home Leave betrayals and the grim economic outlook. Instead, the warnings about a hard Brexit have been strangely soft. “We believe that Britain’s best chance to succeed is within the EU,” the Lib Dem campaign website states. “The terms of Brexit will have a huge impact on jobs, security and the opportunity to travel and live abroad.”
Compare this to warnings from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which said that Brexit would cause the tax burden to soar to its highest level in 30 years. The Centre for Economics and Business Research said a hard Brexit would damage “almost every sector in the economy,” and the Institute of Public Policy Research said it would “profoundly reshape the UK… painful trade-offs are almost certain. Growth is expected to be lower, investment rates worse, and the public finances weaker as a result of Brexit.”
And while the party has said it supports a referendum on any Brexit deal, it has failed to explain how this would work. A floating voter in Thornbury and Yate asked the Lib Dem candidate whether, if people disliked the Brexit deal, we’d merely try for a different deal, or actually stay in Europe? The candidate replied, strikingly, that she was not sure what the process would be, but more would be covered in the Lib Dem manifesto. The conversation then moved on to schools and the NHS.
The message has been muddied, too. In a bid to appeal to pro-Brexit voters in the south west, Farron recently told an interviewer he had “resigned from the Liberal Democrat front-bench about 10 years ago because I am a bit of a Eurosceptic.”
Locally, the message is diluted further. In Thornbury and Yate, which voted 55 per cent for “Leave,” Brexit only seems to come up on the doorstep when it is mentioned by voters. Even in constituencies like Chippenham, which, with a 52 per cent Leave vote is exactly in line with the national split, candidate Helen Belcher says her primary message is not about Brexit.
“People will vote Lib Dem more as an objection to austerity than Brexit,” she says. “Road quality is poor, and there is no real investment in infrastructure. Key issues are things like the NHS, and schools. I then explain how Brexit will be bad for them.” But this approach is unwise. Even in places where “Leave” is strongest, such as Yeovil which long elected Paddy Ashdown and later David Laws, there are enough angry “Remain” voters to take parliamentary seats. Around half of “Remain” voters see the issue as the most important.
All is not yet lost. Despite dropping seats in the local elections, the Lib Dems have increased their vote share in key “Remain”-leaning constituencies, such as Oxford, Cambridge and St Albans. Their strategy of resurrecting well-known MPs, such as Tessa Munt, their candidate in Wells, seems to be working. And large by-election swings from the Tories to the Lib Dems in Remainer seats—19 percentage points in Witney, 21 in Richmond Park—give grounds for optimism. A month of the right campaign could still, just about, produce the surge the party is hoping for.
Where will Theresa May’s surprise ballot leave the government, the opposition and a divided country? Join us for our big election debate on the 6th of June 2017. Tom Clark, Prospect’s editor, will be joined by Nick Cohen, Matthew Parris and Meg Russell of the Constitution Unit.