Five reasons the Lib Dem fightback is failing

Tim Farron’s party has a history of campaign surges, but on 8th June it could lose more seats than it gains. Here’s why

May 30, 2017
Leader of the Liberal Democrats Tim Farron ©NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images
Leader of the Liberal Democrats Tim Farron ©NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images
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Unless their fortunes change over the next week or so, the Liberal Democrats face a disappointing, and possibly terrible, election night. When Theresa May called the general election, Tim Farron’s party was averaging 11 per cent in the polls, three points up on the 8 per cent it secured two years ago. There was talk of their building on that, and recovering some of the seats they lost last time. After all, campaign surges by the Lib Dems (and, before them, the Liberals) have happened a number of times: in February 1974, 1983, 1997 and 2001 they gained at least five points during the election campaigns. A month ago, it seemed reasonable for the party to hope for around 15 per cent on election day and 20, perhaps even 30, MPs in the new parliament (compared with eight in 2015).

That looks like a pipedream now. Far from adding to its support, the party has slipped back to just 8 per cent. Past surges have been well under way by this stage of the campaign; there is no sign of one this time. The party currently looks set to make just a few gains, and could even lose more seats than it gains. What has gone wrong?

Here are five reasons why the Lib Dems have failed to cut through.

They misjudged their ability to win over anti-Brexit voters. True, 48 per cent voted “Remain,” but few of them say that their attitude to the EU is the biggest reason for casting their ballot. ICM’s latest poll for the Sun on Sunday finds that just 17 per cent of voters say Brexit is the most important issue determining their vote. Worse still, most of that 17 per cent wants the UK out of the EU. The proportion of voters who (a) voted Remain, and (b) say that this is their top vote-determining issue is just 7 per cent. The Lib Dems have both misjudged the impact of their demand for a second referendum, and failed to raise the saliency of the issue. They are fishing for votes in a smaller poll than they thought, and have been unable to enlarge it.

The rules for broadcasters used to help the Lib Dems; now they don’t. For some years, before the Greens, Ukip and SNP attracted much attention, broadcasters’ UK-wide campaign coverage was broadly in line with the allocation of party election broadcasts: five each for Labour and the Conservatives, four for the Lib Dems, few if any for anyone else. (Different rules, of course applied for “regional” programmes in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.) The Lib Dems secured almost as much coverage as the two main parties. Attractive leaders such as David Steel, Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy had the opportunity to make a real impact, and sometimes made good use of that opportunity. This year, the Lib Dems still have their four broadcasts, but Ukip and the Greens have two each; and the SNP is part of the Britain-wide, and not just Scottish, conversation. The Lib Dems no longer have a near-monopoly of TV coverage of anti-big-battalion parties. Their voice is being drowned on TV news and current affairs programmes.

The rating of their leader, Tim Farron, doesn’t help. After five weeks of campaigning, and with less than two weeks to go, just four per cent of the public think he is strong, and five per cent say he is courageous. It’s not that he repels many voters—only 9 per cent think he is dangerous and 15 per cent irresponsible. Rather, he has failed completely to exploit what exposure he has had to make any real impression with millions of voters.

Farron’s failure is as much about the party’s identity as his own character. Until 2010, the Lib Dems could present themselves as a party of principle, unsullied by the compromises of power. They could, and did, campaign with clarity on such subjects as Europe, the environment, the Iraq war, higher public spending and student fees. Plainly, Nick Clegg’s decision seven years ago to go into coalition and then abandon his party’s policy on student fees did immense damage, from which his party has not recovered. Now, it faces an extra problem. Jeremy Corbyn has taken on the mantle of the leader who wants a radical break with centrist politics. The Lib Dems have failed to work out whether to compete with Corbyn on the Left, or to occupy the ground nearer the centre that Corbyn’s Labour Party has vacated.

Tactical voting is far less likely to help the Lib Dems next week than in the past. In 1997, the party gained an extra dozen or more seats because many Labour supporters saw a local vote for the Lib Dem candidate as the best way to turf out the local Conservative MP. (By the same token, many Lib Dem supporters switched to Labour in Conservative-Labour marginals.) Tactical voting this time gives Vince Cable and Ed Davey a chance of regaining Twickenham and Kingston by squeezing the local Labour vote. But in most of the Lib Dems’ other target seats, especially in the south west, there are more Ukip votes for the Tories to squeeze than Labour voters who might be tempted to switch to the Lib Dems. There is a reason for this: most people in most Lib Dem target seats voted for Brexit, not Remain.

Things may change in the final ten days of this campaign. Perhaps Lib Dem support will tick up; perhaps effective local campaigning will win them more seats than now looks likely. But if not, the party will need to search its soul more profoundly after 8th June than it did after its collapse in 2015, if it is to reclaim a distinct and significant role in British politics in the 2020’s.