It’s not that the public take a dim view of the Lib Dems; it’s that they take no view at all

Vince Cable and his party have a serious visibility problem. To make a comeback they must take opportunities where they come and avoid embarrassing unforced errors

July 17, 2018
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It seems difficult to believe, but just eight years ago, the 2010 general election campaign featured no fewer than six published polls putting the Liberal Democrats in the lead, and 27 polls putting them on at least 30 per cent of the vote in Great Britain. Even after Cleggmania faded and the polls turned out to have been a bit optimistic, the party still took its highest ever share of the popular vote (including the party’s predecessors, its highest since 1983). And yet within six months, the party was polling in single figures. For the most part, it has stayed there ever since, prompting perennial questions about the likelihood and timing of a recovery. When I last wrote for Prospect about about the Lib Dems, things looked much brighter for them. It was during the period following the party’s spectacular gain at the Richmond Park by-election, and at that stage there was no indication that a general election was imminent. The 2017 election even looked at first as though it was going to be a huge break for the Lib Dems. In the event it turned out to be, at best, a missed opportunity, with only a handful of seat gains and a vote share slightly lower even than the disaster of 2015. In fact, the snap election was arguably a negative for the party. Though the concept of “momentum” politics is usually a mirage, the Lib Dems had been enjoying improved poll ratings and a more favourable narrative. The 2017 campaign then intervened, with the Labour surge winning votes from just about everywhere.
"Asked what the Lib Dems stood for, only a third said they knew"
The campaign itself didn’t go to plan, with Tim Farron’s media round—intended to make the case for the party’s anti-Brexit platform—becoming dominated by questions about his views on homosexuality. Aside from being a distraction, those views were a particular problem among the intended audience, as staunch Remainers are often also staunch social liberals. Aside from the election, the obvious explanation for the tepid recovery in Lib Dem fortunes is the political baggage of the coalition years. That’s undoubtedly true for many voters—YouGov polling in September last year showed that a majority of hard Remainers thought the Lib Dems were wrong to go into coalition with the Conservatives and that about a third had not yet forgiven them for doing so. But the same poll highlighted another problem. By this time Farron had stepped aside and Vince Cable had taken the helm. It wasn’t so much that the public took a dim view of Cable, as much as them taking no view at all. On four separate questions about the Lib Dem leader, about half of respondents answered “Don’t know.” But the party as a whole has a visibility problem. Asked what the Lib Dems stood for, only a third said they knew. Since the Lib Dems are no longer the third party in terms of seats, the familiar practice of the media getting quotes from Lib, Lab and Con is generally not now followed. This presents a barrier to exposure both at and between elections. It is therefore even more important for the Lib Dems to capitalise on opportunities when they arise. When might that happen? The traditional driver of Lib Dem advances has been Westminster by-elections, of which there are now fewer than there once were, with fewer deaths of sitting MPs than in the past, and perhaps fewer avoidable MP resignations given the tight parliamentary arithmetic. The result at Lewisham East last month was solid enough given the size of the Labour majority coming in, as well as the short campaign. But big swings to come second won’t change the game—that requires wins. Local elections tend not to have the same impact on the narrative as Westminster by-elections, but that’s not to say they don’t still matter. They help build up local presence both politically and organisationally. Some recent results in contests with the Tories in the south of England have been particularly impressive. Other opportunities may present themselves, for example if Brexit goes badly wrong. However that is not to say that such a scenario would be an open goal. The Lib Dems would still need to win over Remainers, even if Brexit creates more of them, which itself is far from inevitable. In short, there is no Lib Dem surge. There will be opportunities, and the party needs to be ready to seize them while avoiding unforced errors like what happened in the Commons yesterday. But it will probably require some good fortune with the occurrence of by-elections. And even more than a year ago, it will probably require a good deal of patience too.