Back in business: how the Liberal Democrats turned their luck around

The next challenge for the party is to cut through on issues beyond Brexit

July 24, 2019
Ed Davey congrats Jo Swinson as she is announced as the new leader of the Liberal Democrats. Photo:  Isabel Infantes/EMPICS Entertainment
Ed Davey congrats Jo Swinson as she is announced as the new leader of the Liberal Democrats. Photo: Isabel Infantes/EMPICS Entertainment

When on 14th March Vince Cable announced his intention to resign as leader of the Liberal Democrats, the party’s prospects looked fairly bleak. The Lib Dems still showed little sign of rising much above the 7-8 per cent at which they had been stuck in the polls for the last five years or so. At the same time, they faced an apparently significant challenge to their role as Britain’s principal socially liberal but economically centrist force from a new party, Change UK, formed by a prominent group of Conservative and Labour defectors.

But by the time that Jo Swinson accepted the congratulations of her colleagues on her decisive victory over Ed Davey, the outlook for the party had been transformed. It now stands at an average of 18 per cent in polls of Westminster voting intentions, its highest rating since it entered into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. In contrast, Change UK is hardly registering in the polls at all. Indeed, the most prominent of the party’s founders, Chuka Umunna, has since opted to join the Liberal Democrats.

The reason for this transformation is simple: the party has been a beneficiary of the Brexit impasse—and, above all, the European elections that had to be held in May, in the wake of Britain’s failure to leave the EU on 29th March. Even at the time of the English local elections held just three weeks before the European contest, the party’s average Westminster poll rating was still no more than 9 per cent. Gains made in those local elections—when the party was defending its worst ever local performance four years previously—threatened to flatter to deceive.

However, the European election served to focus voters’ minds on Brexit. The Liberal Democrats were campaigning for a second referendum in the hope that this would produce a majority in favour of staying in the EU. They were not unique in holding this position—so also did Change UK, the Greens and the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales. However, the Labour Party, which hitherto had been by far the most popular party among those who voted Remain, was still advocating a compromise position. While this compromise did not rule out the possibility of another referendum, it envisaged that a Labour government would attempt to negotiate a Brexit deal, which, though “softer” than that negotiated by the Conservative government, would not be put to a plebiscite. With polls suggesting that around two-thirds of Remain voters were in favour of another vote, Labour’s stance potentially left it vulnerable.

The Liberal Democrats seized their opportunity. Lacking any organisation on the ground, Change UK proved unable to mount an effective campaign. Labour, meanwhile was unable to stop much of its vote haemorrhaging to the Liberal Democrats. According to polling by Lord Ashcroft, the Liberal Democrats outpolled Labour among Remain voters by 36 per cent to 19 per cent (with Change UK picking up just 5 per cent). Over one in five (22 per cent) of those who voted Labour in 2017 switched to the Liberal Democrats. Meanwhile, some Conservative Remainers switched to the party too.

Crucially, however, in seeming contrast to the local elections, these voters were not simply being lent to the party for the occasion. As the party’s support rose during the European campaign, so also did its standing in intentions for Westminster. The party’s 20 per cent vote in the former was eventually accompanied by a rise to 18 per cent in polls for the latter, a figure that has so far shown no sign of diminishing and puts the party neck and neck with Labour among Remain voters alone.

As a result, the party can be said to be back in business. With support for both Labour and the Conservatives hovering at no more than a quarter or so, the party could reasonably hope to win some 40-50 seats in an immediate general election, not far short of what it achieved in 2010. Moreover, its enhanced standing in the polls—and the collapse in the Change UK vote—means it now looks like a more attractive potential new home for any further Conservative or Labour MPs who decide to defect over Brexit (or, indeed, any other issue).

Yet there are also limits to what the party has achieved. Virtually all of the increase in its support since the spring has occurred among those who voted Remain. While this potentially provides a foundation for expanding on the foothold it has in southwest London, it leaves it ill-equipped to recapture its former strongholds in the pro-Leave southwest of England. Much of its former support in the latter rested on the party’s ability to present itself as the champion of the Celtic fringe in the corridors of power in London rather than on any enthusiasm for the EU.

Indeed, more generally, the party’s recovery is best described as partial. It is still short of the 23-24 per cent that it won in 2005 and 2010. Its performance in May’s local elections—the equivalent of 19 per cent of the vote—was still well short of what the party regularly achieved in such elections before 2010. It still has a long way to go to repair all the severe damage done to its local government base during the coalition years.

But perhaps above all, the biggest question facing the party is, what happens after Brexit? Whether Britain eventually decides to Leave or Remain, once that decision has been made the political agenda—and voters’ interest—is likely to move on. The party will need to develop a stance on domestic policy that enables it to retain—and attract—the socially liberal, university-educated electorate it has begun to win back to its ranks. It was, after all, the party’s record on domestic affairs in government—not least on university tuition fees—that brought it to its knees in the first place. It now needs to win anew a reputation as a potential party of government.