As the Liberal Democrats’ conference closes in Brighton today, the sense remains that England’s third party is stuck in the doldrums. That is despite a Conservative government beset by divisions over Brexit and a Labour opposition veering to the left, which in combination should provide ideal circumstances for the Lib Dems. Yet the party stands on 10 per cent in the opinion polls, slightly up on its general election performance but too low to suggest a comeback.
Indeed, the Lib Dems have been flat-lining for eight years since their fateful decision to enter the coalition government. The leader, Vince Cable, has announced he won’t fight the next election but will leave once Brexit has been resolved. The hope is that a new leader will clear the decks and revitalise the party’s appeal. But will it work? Is there any way back for the Lib Dems?
The usual fate of “third” parties in two-party systems is not to be the masters of their own destinies but to ebb and flow with the tide of major-party competition. The more successful ones find a role to play within that system and the Lib Dems were a prime example. From the leadership of Jo Grimond onwards, the Liberals adopted a strategy of “realignment on the left.” It involved presenting as an anti-Conservative party and challenging the Tories in constituencies where Labour and trade unionism were weak. The Liberals built pockets of strength in rural parts of the so-called “Celtic fringe”—Scotland, Wales, and the southwest of England. The party appealed for votes from the more left-leaning and liberally-inclined middle classes. In elections where the Conservatives declined, the Liberals could also attract centrist Tory supporters and make advances.
This strategy delivered a breakthrough in 1997 when the Liberal Democrats (as they now were) surged on New Labour’s tide. Later, under Charles Kennedy’s leadership, the Lib Dems positioned themselves to the left of Labour and attracted voters opposed to the Iraq War and students angry over tuition fees. But still, while the party competed with Labour, it opposed the Conservatives.
The coalition government of 2010 changed everything. The Lib Dems won 23 per cent of the vote and 57 seats, attracting support from disgruntled former Labour supporters and students. The election ended in a hung parliament but the arithmetic ruled out a deal with Labour. The leader, Nick Clegg, entered a…