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 coalition with the Conservatives, citing the need to provide stability amid worries about the public finances. Once in government, the Lib Dems supported austerity and backed the trebling of tuition fees. After appealing to left-leaning voters, the party’s decision to put the Conservatives in government led to an immediate plunge in its support. It has not recovered since. It was a devastating act of self-destruction of the Lib Dem brand.
“Even damaged brands can recover under new leadership, as Ruth Davidson’s success shows”
After the 2015 general election, when the Lib Dems were reduced to just eight seats, there was a real danger the party could soon disappear. Brexit offered a way back by letting the Lib Dems resume their historic anti-Conservative function. Victory in the Richmond Park by-election in 2016 saw the party win support from middle-class “Remain” supporters defecting from the Tories. But it did not prove a harbinger of things to come and in the 2017 general election, the Lib Dems increased their tally to only 12 seats. Cable became leader and put opposition to Brexit at the heart of his strategy. But despite calling for a second referendum in the hope of appealing to “Remain” voters, he has been unable to turn things around. The coalition years continue to define the Lib Dems.
So, is there a way forward? Choosing Cable’s successor will be a crucial decision. Smaller parties need energetic and charismatic leaders who can draw media attention away from the larger parties. A succession of Liberal and Lib Dem leaders from Grimond to Jeremy Thorpe, Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy were able to do that. Even damaged political brands can recover under new leadership, as Ruth Davidson’s revival of the Scottish Conservatives shows. The Lib Dems’ 12-strong parliamentary party doesn’t leave much room for choice and so plans have been floated for a non-MP to become leader. That would widen the pool of available talent.
Strategically, the best long-term bet for the party would be to return to the road-tested strategy of “realignment on the left.” That would involve building up local strength in council elections in areas such as the west country and challenging the Conservatives in constituencies where Labour cannot win. Trust will have to be re-established with groups that previously supported the party, including students, public sector professionals and more generally, those who thought they could safely vote for the Lib Dems without fear of putting the Conservatives in government. If the Lib Dems try to pose as a purely centrist party willing to cut deals with either major party, they will struggle to win the support of the left-leaning voters they need in Tory-Lib Dem marginals.
“A possible split in the Labour Party offers an opportunity”
Labour’s shift to the left under Jeremy Corbyn does not really help the Lib Dems because it weakens any impulse by centrist voters to defect from the Conservatives. If those voters fear a Corbyn government, they may be more likely to stick with the Tories as the only defence against it. That would harm the Lib Dems in the Tory marginals they need to capture.
On the other hand, a possible split in the Labour Party offers an opportunity. There has been talk of some moderate Labour MPs seeking alliances or arrangements with the Lib Dems. The experience of the SDP-Liberal Alliance in the 1980s, which also followed a Labour split, was not encouraging for Labour moderates who dreamed of supplanting their old party. But it arguably boosted the Liberals and after the merger of the two parties in 1988, there was a platform for later success. Labour defections after Brexit could perhaps provide a similar boost.
The Lib Dems will also need new policy tunes. To the extent that ordinary voters know anything about the party’s policies, it starts and ends with their opposition to Brexit. The post-Brexit landscape might provide an ideal opportunity to offer fresh thinking on policy areas that have been neglected since the referendum, from public services to solving the housing crisis.
The Liberal Democrats are down, but not yet out. However, they will need to act quickly. There is a sense that the current poll ratings of the major parties represent a temporary stalemate. It could be transformed by the arrival of a new Conservative leader after (or perhaps before) Brexit. An early general election also cannot be ruled out. The Lib Dems will never be complete masters of their own destiny. But they can at least lay the ground, with a new leader and new policies, to give themselves the best chance to seize any opportunity that does come along.