The Liberal Democrats' claims to the centreground are being tested—here's what they must do

Opposing Brexit isn’t enough—the party must think more strategically about how to win back disenfranchised moderates

September 18, 2017
Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable during a question and answer session at the party's Bournemouth conference. Photo:  Andrew Matthews/PA Wire/PA Images
Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable during a question and answer session at the party's Bournemouth conference. Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire/PA Images

Above the entrance to the Bournemouth conference centre is a video advert for an upcoming show by Squeeze, the 80s band. As the Liberal Democrats gather beneath it, this reminder of the party’s fate at the 2017 general election, as the electorate divided between Labour and the Conservatives, could be making them wince. But instead the Lib Dems, ever the unnatural optimists, are pretty chirpy.

The delegates are pleased with Vince, their new leader. And the party’s unity on the major issue of the day provides a warm, comforting feeling. On the beach, someone has scrawled “EXIT BREXIT” into the sand in giant capital letters—you can read it from the promenade. There are ladies wearing blue berets decorated with the stars of the European flag, and a lot of sagacious nodding about, as Cable put it over the weekend, the “appalling treatment” of EU nationals.

But being the unashamedly anti-Brexit party is both a welcome opportunity for the Lib Dems, rebuilding after a second electoral pummelling this June, and, potentially, a bit of a trap.

An increase in parliamentary seats from eight to 12 (and three very near misses), cannot conceal the underlying trend, which is for the Lib Dem share of the vote to be stuck in single figures—this has been the case ever since Nick Clegg decided to campaign as the anti-Farage in the European election of 2014.

Longtime party strategists worry that there can only be a future for the UK-wide third party if it develops a broader appeal—a core vote up at 20 or even slightly more. This means thinking more systematically about what motivates the disenfranchised voters of the centre ground—the number one topic of conversation in the Bournemouth bars and in fringe meetings.

“On the beach, someone has scrawled ‘EXIT BREXIT’ into the sand in giant capital letters”
But it also means accepting that most of the country will not be attracted by the Exit from Brexit slogan. Moreover, the crusading could seriously hamper the Lib Dems’ long-term recovery and relevance if it alienates exactly those “sensible, moderate” voters of the centre who Cable says he wants to represent. Detailed polling for British Future shows that most voters would, for example, support a compromise deal on immigration.

To the most ardent Remainers, this is heresy. And they may be right, if a hard Brexit does turn out to be a disaster. With hindsight, once the dust settles, Cable and the Lib Dems would then be seen in Churchillian light, bravely re-defining patriotism as an attempt to ward off national self-immolation.

Continuing in this vein may, simply, be the right and honourable thing to do. And Cable is well cast as an Old Testament Prophet, as one activist wryly observed. The downside risk is becoming, over a relatively short period of time, the Ukip of Remain: a fringe player with a single defining issue.

Pacing the corridors, Paddy Ashdown and other restless veterans of more electorally successful years tell packed meeting rooms that the Lib Dems should try to refashion their old radicalism for future challenges—this could be promising if the party tackles some of the conundrums thrown up by automation and Artificial intelligence, an ageing population, healthcare funding and the horror show of UK housing policy.
“Cable is well cast as an Old Testament Prophet”
With the 2015 general election battering still fresh in Lib Dem minds, most have no desire to go back to that “split the difference” positioning of a potential coalition-partner, small-party brake on the extremes of left and right.

But taking the radical path also contains its own dangers. One of the reasons moderate Labour types (and indeed “wet” Conservatives) have traditionally wanted nothing to do with the Lib Dems is that they see all this self-conscious radicalism (including long-espoused policies like changing the drug laws) as a bit silly. The signs of a party that can’t grow up.

Two weeks ago, at the FT Weekend Festival, Vince Cable produced a convincing diagnosis of the nation’s “malaise and disenchantment” post-crash, and its appetite for change. But with the referendum and general election demonstrating such dramatic polarisation, he also admitted that being in the centre was “uncomfortable and dangerous.”

For now, campaigning against Brexit offers a way to gloss over some of the strategic dilemmas the Lib Dems face. But it won’t work for ever, and it may even make the problem of how to reinvent the centre ground even worse.