It is less than a decade since Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander were sat at the heart of government, as key figures in the “Quad” alongside David Cameron and George Osborne. They were the most powerful liberals since David Lloyd George, their day-to-day negotiations with the Tories determining billions in public spending, their political movements forensically analysed by Westminster journalists.
Eight years—and three crushingly disappointing elections—later, the Liberal Democrats seem little more than an afterthought in Westminster. The SNP took their place as the third-largest party after 2015, stripping them of their weekly opportunity to ask two questions at Prime Minister’s Questions. They continue to bob along on 10 per cent in the polls, which is where they’ve been for years, apart from a brief surge in mid-2019 during the chaos of Theresa May’s collapsing Brexit deal.
Leader Ed Davey is an unknown to most voters. At one recent focus group, the only participant to respond when asked about him said: “I recognise his name, but I don’t know why”. We’re a long way from Davey-mania.
But the Lib Dems could be on the verge of people paying attention again. The 2019 election seemed a disaster for the party, winning only 11 seats—down one from 2017—with leader Jo Swinson losing her own East Dunbartonshire constituency. But under the surface they made progress—coming second in 91 seats, up from 38 in 2017. This had put them in a stronger position for next year’s election, even before the government decided to self-immolate.
Their national poll rating is largely meaningless in trying to assess how many seats the Lib Dems could gain, because they have almost no identity as a national party. Having been burned by Swinson’s passionate pro-EU stance in 2019, they have refrained from taking contentious—or even noticeable—positions on issues that might give them definition.
Instead, they have gone all in on old-fashioned Lib Dem localism, essentially running 60 different campaigns in their target seats. The contradictions inherent in this approach—particularly when it comes to nimbyist campaigning against local developments while favouring more housebuilding nationally—may infuriate opponents, but tend not to bother voters.
In byelections and local elections it’s an approach that has proved highly successful, with another stonking victory in Somerton and Frome carrying them into the summer recess. As long as the Conservatives struggle, they can look forward to somewhere between 25 and 40 seats next year. If the SNP loses ground to Labour, Davey has a good shot of getting his questions to the prime minister back.
Beyond that point, though, things look a little trickier. If everything goes to plan, the seats they’ll win will nearly all be in the south of England, including ones in places like Surrey and Hertfordshire that have been safe for the Tories as long as they’ve existed.
During the Lib Dems’ electoral heyday, between 1997 and 2010, they were a much more national party, with plenty of seats in Scotland and Wales. After Charles Kennedy took over as leader and opposed the Iraq War, they picked up seats in traditional Labour areas such as north London, Manchester and Leicester. This spread created internal tensions, but also gave the party balance and broader appeal, up to the point where Clegg threw his lot in with the Tories.
This time around there will be no balance. Their seats will be wealthy and southern with high numbers of graduates. It’s not impossible that, by 2030, if demographic trends continue and the Tories keep accommodating the aggressively authoritarian wishes of Suella Braverman and Lee Anderson, they could become the dominant party of the home counties and rural southern England.
They have gone all in on old-fashioned Lib Dem localism
Which leaves Davey with an intriguing strategic challenge. How does he define himself against Starmer’s Labour? At the moment they are happily co-existing in an unspoken, if obvious, anti-Tory pact. Davey could keep on with this approach, identifying himself primarily against the broken Tory brand and becoming Labour’s informal southern branch. But this is unlikely to be enough for activists who will, no doubt, be unhappy with Starmer’s cautious stances on Europe and illiberal positions on crime and justice.
Where, in particular, do they go on the economy? If Labour persists with its fiscal rules and with putting the squeeze on public services, can a Liberal Democrat party representing the home counties attack them from the left? Can it call for wealth taxes when much of that wealth will be living down the road from its MPs?
Recovery from the post-Clegg nadir has required the party to be opportunistic and scrappy. But to make a useful contribution to politics it needs to decide what role it wants to play. There are any number of topics around which British politics is caught in a stultifying consensus—including on issues such as Europe and authoritarian social policies—where the Liberal Democrats have had much to say in the past. Perhaps Starmer will turn out to be more reformist in power than his current positioning implies. But if he doesn’t, then we could do with someone to give him a push. The Lib Dems could have a purpose again if they want one, but they’ll need to be willing to take risks.