Of all Britain’s political transformations in the past ten years, the near-collapse of the Liberal Democrats is one of the starkest. As recently as April 2010, the party held 63 seats in the Commons, was briefly leading the opinion polls, and boasted the most popular leader since Winston Churchill. Today, the party is only the fourth largest in parliament with 11 seats—down one from before the election eight months ago. In that vote, Jo Swinson touted herself as Britain’s next prime minister and lost her own seat. Now the party is electing its fourth leader in five years. What is going on with the traditional centre force in British politics and what does it mean?
The party, like so much of the country, remains shellshocked by the 2019 election. As so often, Brexit looms large. After the original sin of Nick Clegg’s broken pledge on tuition fees, the Lib Dems seemed to be facing a renaissance in the last parliament. They had a popular leader in Vince Cable and came second in the May 2019 European election. Then came Boris Johnson and his October deal, Jeremy Corbyn’s unconditional offer of a second referendum, and Swinson’s pledge to revoke Article 50 without a new vote if she won a majority. The Lib Dems increased their share by 4.2 per cent but still went backwards in seat tally.
The party has been blunt about the failures of 2019. Their election report conceded that it was a “high-stakes gamble for a once-in-a-lifetime election, to stop Brexit by winning outright.” They admitted there was no long-term vision. The report also touched upon the sensitive topic of the leader herself. To be frank, the Lib Dems repeated the Tories’ catastrophic decision in 2017 to run a presidential campaign. With little evidence, Swinson (like Theresa May before her) was deemed a guaranteed asset, even adorning the side of the battle bus. That proved both hubristic and counterproductive.
The party now chooses between two quite different candidates. Layla Moran has the obvious star appeal. A confident and charismatic speaker, she is also an LGBT woman from a minority background: a visible symbol of change in a party that has too often returned white men. Ed Davey, for his part, has significant baggage from the Tory coalition, a reputation for occasional media gaffes, and has failed to make a significant impression over his eight months as provisional leader. Some Lib Dem insiders have mocked him as “Sir Six Percent”—a reference to lacklustre polling figures during his stewardship. He does, however, have more experience than his opponent and could offer more stability.
The choice could have significant consequences for the next election. Davey is the more moderate figure who could potentially win over wavering Tories in Lib Dem target seats. Moran is the more radical challenger who could rally voters against the Conservatives.
The key third player may be Keir Starmer. On the one hand, Tory-Lib Dem floating voters, not fearing a moderate Labour prime minister, could back the Lib Dems in key marginal seats. On the other hand, Starmer’s appeal to the centre ground of British politics could drown the Lib Dems out even further. The party has frequently sought to capitalise on one issue: in 2005, the Iraq War, in 2019, Brexit. We do not yet know if it will be coronavirus in 2024, but you can bet that Labour will be chasing the same issue and votes.
The irreducible truth is that there is a co-dependence between the parties. All left and centre-left voters should want a strong centrist, liberal party, not just for the sake of democracy but for their own electoral interests. In parts of the south and west of England, the Lib Dems reach the parts that Labour can’t. The think tank The UK in a Changing Europe found that in the 29 seats the Lib Dems could gain on a 10 per cent swing, just two are currently held by Labour. In 23 of them Labour offers no challenge at all. If Labour poses little threat to the Lib Dems in winnable seats, the reverse is also true. In 2010, 79 Labour-held seats featured the Lib Dems in second place; in 2019 that was down to just nine.
Some Labour MPs dismiss or mock the current contest. One frontbencher told me that “it genuinely makes no difference as the Lib Dems are so irrelevant.” That may prove short-sighted. There is a chance that Scotland, newly independent, will not even participate in the 2024 general election. Even if it does, Starmer will not want to court the SNP as a potential coalition partner. But he will need to court someone. Labour may have significantly narrowed the Conservatives’ lead, but they are nowhere near in front, and there is currently little sign that the Red Wall voters will be deserting their new party. The Lib Dems could mean the difference between a Labour-led coalition and a Tory majority.
Whoever wins the leadership, the Lib Dems’ immediate future looks bleak. Few are predicting a return to the 2005 heyday any time soon. But the moral of 2019 is that the progressive parties must work with and not against each other. The second, fundamental truth is that Labour must back proportional representation or face the possibility of near-permanent opposition.
The Lib Dems have always had to face both ways, opposing the Tories in the southwest and Labour in the cities. They may continue to lose to both. Either way, it is time to find out what they stand for and where they are going. The party is unlikely ever to lead a British government, but may soon determine who does.