The Liberal Democrats are torn between the need for radicalism on Europe and moderation on everything elseby Rafael Behr / September 13, 2019 / Leave a comment
It is a curious twist of recent political history that the Liberal Democrats will fight the next election under a 39-year-old leader with more ministerial experience than the 70-year-old leader of the Labour Party. She has some; he has none. Jo Swinson was an infant when Jeremy Corbyn was first elected to parliament. Three decades later, he was still on the back benches, when she was working for the coalition government.
Corbyn’s professional absence from front-bench responsibility is part of what recommends him to his supporters. He is uncontaminated by the icky trade in bodged solutions and grubby compromises that departmental politics demands. For the same reason, Swinson’s stint as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Business Department is unlikely to feature prominently in her party’s general election campaign. The whole coalition episode haunts the Lib Dems like a failed marriage. It didn’t last long, it soured quickly and ended bitterly.
The party alienated swathes of its supporters by collaborating with the Tories. Nick Clegg believed the public would come to respect Lib Dem maturation from perpetual protest faction to grown-up party of government. That bet never paid off. Coalition brought the Lib Dems to the brink of political bankruptcy.
Their recovery comes from organisational doggedness, activist patience and a large dollop of luck. The Tories actively repelled liberal-minded pro-European voters and Labour took them for granted. Change UK, the new centrist venture by refugee MPs from the two main English parties, failed. The Lib Dems emerged as market leaders for a burgeoning anti-Brexit vote. The party surged in local council elections in May and again in the European parliamentary ballot a fortnight later. Opinion polls are not hugely reliable in such volatile times but it appears that the Lib Dems have grown their base substantially in the past year. They have also expanded their parliamentary representation, gaining six MPs since the 2017 general election; five of those were defections from other parties. Others are expected to follow. (The total is now 17.)
Another encouraging metric for Swinson is the persistent popularity of “don’t know” in surveys of voters’ preferred candidate for prime minister. Boris Johnson scores much higher than Corbyn, but around a third of the electorate is equally unimpressed by both. In the absence of some unprecedented electoral earthquake, the Lib Dem leader…