Vince Cable’s party conference speech was a plea for relevance

The Lib Dems have still not recovered voters’ trust. The danger is they never will

September 19, 2017
Vince Cable speaks to the Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth. Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire/PA Images
Vince Cable speaks to the Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth. Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire/PA Images

Vince Cable’s rather sedate first speech as leader to the Liberal Democrat party conference in Bournemouth was a plea for relevance. The Lib Dems made net gains of only four seats in June’s general election, giving the party just 12 overall, while their vote share actually declined to 7.4 per cent. It’s a long way from the 62 seats Charles Kennedy won in 2005 or the 23 per cent vote share achieved by Nick Clegg in 2010. With the reassertion of two-party politics, Cable leads a party that, for many voters, is almost an afterthought.

Cable’s plan to make the Lib Dems relevant again is the same as his predecessor, Tim Farron’s: to focus on opposing Brexit. Although long passages of the speech—perhaps too long—were devoted to the economy, the NHS, education and climate change, the section on Brexit will garner the headlines. Despite Cable’s insistence that the Lib Dems mustn’t become a single-issue party—“Ukip in reverse”—that is precisely what they have become. In truth, it is the most they can currently hope for.

Any third party in a two-party system must be able to explain its purpose for existing. From the late-1950s, the Liberals presented themselves as an anti-Conservative force in areas where Labour was weak—the South-West of England, rural parts of the “Celtic fringe.” This strategy of “realignment on the left” brought the Liberals (and the successor Liberal Democrats) electoral gains in the 1970s and most spectacularly in 1997. It relied on enticing left-wing tactical voters and anti-Tory protest voters to support the party in targeted seats.

This strategy was destroyed by the Lib Dems’ decision to join the Conservatives in coalition in 2010. It was a blunder of historic proportions, removing the incentive of anti-Conservative voters to support the Lib Dems—even though Cable today claimed “it was the right thing to do.” As the 2017 election showed, they have still not recovered voters’ trust. The danger is they never will.

Opposing Brexit at least gives the Lib Dems a purpose, and Cable put it at the forefront of his speech today. As a party of European true-believers, the Lib Dems wish not only to avert a hard Brexit by staying in the single market and the customs union; but to pitch themselves as “the party of Remain,” as Cable put it. He called for a second Brexit referendum—except he insisted it wouldn’t be a “second” referendum, but a first referendum on the terms of the negotiated deal. That is merely spin: the first referendum offered a choice of leaving or remaining in the EU, and so would Cable’s first—i.e. second—plebiscite.

"Despite Cable’s insistence that the Lib Dems mustn’t become a single-issue party—'Ukip in reverse'—that is precisely what they have become"
Remainers have argued that another referendum would be justified because voters have the right to change their minds and Cable accused Brexiteers of believing in “the slogan of dictators everywhere: one person, one vote, once.” In reality, that is the difference between elections and referendums. Elections proceed in a never-ending sequence in which each outcome is only temporary. Referendums by contrast are typically once-and-for-all affairs. If they are to be repeated, that has to be argued for, and without any public consensus on holding another one, their proponents can be labelled as bad losers who won’t accept the outcome. Indeed, Cable declared he was a “proud saboteur” of the plans of the “Brexit fundamentalists.”

But what is the alternative for the Lib Dems? This policy gives the party a unique selling point at a time when they’re desperate for public and media attention. Cable senses a greater opportunity than Farron to create cross-party alliances to resist the government (particularly on EU citizens’ rights, where he won loud applause). The Conservatives no longer have a parliamentary majority and the election has demonstrated that Jeremy Corbyn is not necessarily the voter repellent many thought he was. Farron was at pains to distance himself from Corbyn, but Cable can afford to get closer. Labour’s position on Brexit is evolving and Cable urged Corbyn to “get off the fence.” He joked about the Tories’ public schoolboys, drawing laughter from conference delegates. And he claimed that the country needs “political adults,” declaring his hope that he could work with “sensible grown-ups” in the other parties (the old Liberal tradition of moral superiority dies hard).

There’s no guarantee any of this will work. Labour is mercurial on Brexit. Areas of former Lib Dem strength in the South-West of England largely voted “Leave.” Even if there were a second referendum, what would the Lib Dems do if they lost that too? But Brexit does at least give the party a temporary purpose. If that enables it to hold on until better times, it will have achieved something—even if it doesn’t stop Brexit.