Canada, France and Ireland prove there is an appetite for progressive politics—it's up to the Liberal Democrats to provide it hereby Vince Cable / June 24, 2017 / Leave a comment
Tyre marks and the smell of burning rubber have been spotted in Whitehall this week. On this occasion it has not been due to some stunt by Top Gear, but instead some dramatic u-turns by Theresa May.
Despite being elected (just) only two weeks ago, the Conservative party has already dropped significant parts of its manifesto: from a vote on fox hunting through to creating more grammar schools—not to mention its “dementia tax” plans for funding social care.
How the Conservatives managed to win the Copeland parliamentary by-election in February, to make significant advances in the May’s local elections, start the General Election with such a commanding poll lead, but end up so close to being thrown out of office, will be a continual source of amazement for psephlogists and political commentators.
Yet, after such a dismal result for Theresa May, there is another legitimate question to be asked: why the Liberal Democrats made so little progress. Yes, we increased our number of seats from 8 to 12. We also came painfully close to picking up a few other seats: in Richmond, neighbouring my seat of Twickenham, we were just 45 votes away from winning. We were just 312 votes short of winning St Ives and regaining our foothold in Cornwall. Incredibly, we were robbed of winning Fife North East by just two votes.
Yet there is no denying that we also saw a very small decrease in our national vote share compared with the 2015 General Election.
Give how little confidence Labour MPs have had in their party leader over the last two years, and that a significant section of the electorate are opposed to the Conservative’s plans for a hard Brexit, we must look seriously at why the Liberal Democrats weren’t able to pick up more votes.
What we got wrong
In trying to explain this situation, I would make two observations.
Firstly, while Europe is in fact a huge issue for this country—and, in time, it will play a key role in the shape and composition of our Parliament—right now we are in the lull before the storm. While we have already seen prices creeping up, with a painful effect on some people on low incomes, it has to be said the real impact of Brexit for many people is still down the line. To give just one example, the slow drift away of international companies, who are no longer so keen to base their European head offices in London, has only just started. The loss of many well paid jobs for people in London and the South East is yet to really bite, but when it does, people will know and many will be angry.
While it is right that our party set out a position in the General Election designed to ensure that the UK electorate would have the final say over the terms negotiated by our UK Government, it has to be said it was an issue not at the forefront of everyone’s mind. People were talking about plenty of other issues on the doorstep.
My second observation is that a significant number of people who voted remain, and who care deeply about the abyss Theresa May, David Davis and Boris Johnson are pushing us towards, decided to line up behind Labour on 8 June.
In many respects, this is surprising considering the Labour party’s recent voting record—and indeed its historical divisions on Europe. Some of the people who voted Labour, especially many young people, undoubtedly face a deep shock when they begin to realise their hopes and aspirations are not matched by the party they have put their trust in.
Hope for the future
Yet despite the Liberal Democrats failing to hoover up new voters at the election I am in fact hopeful for the future of my party.
To start with whoever is the new leader of the Liberal Democrats inherits from Tim Farron a party that is significantly larger in membership and is far more motivated than at the time he started his leadership. For that, we owe him a great deal.
The immense volatility in British politics also offers another opportunity. Political allegiances are far more fragile than they once were. Just look at the dramatic rise and fall of Ukip’s support in the 2010s, or the changes in Scotland between 2011 and 2017. Any suggestion that Britain is set to return to two party politics ignores the fact that British politics has never been more fluid.
A credible, progressive alternative
A further window of opportunity for the Liberal Democrats will be created by the growing realisation that Labour’s economic programme is simply not credible. During the General Election, it was not scrutinised as it should have been—indeed, any debate on the economy was largely lacking. However, in time Labour will be rumbled. Yes, we do need to invest in our infrastructure, such as through projects like Crossrail 2 and of course social housing. At a time of historically low interest rates this is actually good economics.
However, to pretend that a huge increase in day-to-day government spending can take place with no impact on the vast majority of taxpayers is simply cuckoo land economics.
Looking at Canada, France and Ireland we can see that there are real opportunities for a progressive political party that is economically credible. And to suggest that the winds of change in these countries cannot also occur in our country is as nonsensical as claiming that we can be protected from global weather changes.
My message to you
My final message is specifically to current and future party members of the Liberal Democrats.
Predicting what will happen over the next five years poses many challenges. If we searched the UK, I doubt we would ever find a single person who accurately predicted back in 2012 the current situation we face today.
However, what I am certain of is that the opportunities for the Liberal Democrats are immense. We can, and indeed must rebuild and grow at every level of government.
With the exception of just two years, I have represented Twickenham constituency since 1997. I would not have been able to do so without the bedrock of Liberal Democrat councillors. They have helped provide a team on the ground and ensured that I am constantly kept in touch with local issues that matter to the electorate.
If the Liberal Democrats are to step up and make significant gains in Westminster we need to quickly rebuild our local government base, and in addition our presence in the National Assembly for Wales, the Scottish Parliament and the London Assembly. As party leader this will be my top priority.
It would be a privilege to be take up the mantle and lead the party in this exciting period of history.