The Lib Dems have still not recovered voters’ trust. The danger is they never willby Tom Quinn / September 19, 2017 / Leave a comment
Vince Cable’s rather sedate first speech as leader to the Liberal Democrat party conference in Bournemouth was a plea for relevance. The Lib Dems made net gains of only four seats in June’s general election, giving the party just 12 overall, while their vote share actually declined to 7.4 per cent. It’s a long way from the 62 seats Charles Kennedy won in 2005 or the 23 per cent vote share achieved by Nick Clegg in 2010. With the reassertion of two-party politics, Cable leads a party that, for many voters, is almost an afterthought.
Cable’s plan to make the Lib Dems relevant again is the same as his predecessor, Tim Farron’s: to focus on opposing Brexit. Although long passages of the speech—perhaps too long—were devoted to the economy, the NHS, education and climate change, the section on Brexit will garner the headlines. Despite Cable’s insistence that the Lib Dems mustn’t become a single-issue party—“Ukip in reverse”—that is precisely what they have become. In truth, it is the most they can currently hope for.
Any third party in a two-party system must be able to explain its purpose for existing. From the late-1950s, the Liberals presented themselves as an anti-Conservative force in areas where Labour was weak—the South-West of England, rural parts of the “Celtic fringe.” This strategy of “realignment on the left” brought the Liberals (and the successor Liberal Democrats) electoral gains in the 1970s and most spectacularly in 1997. It relied on enticing left-wing tactical voters and anti-Tory protest voters to support the party in targeted seats.