What next for the Liberal Democrats?

Posted orginally on the Academy of Government blog >>

Margaret Smith, former Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh West.

Much was expected of the Lib Dems going into this year’s elections.

In Scotland, Willie Rennie confidently told his party’s Spring Conference that they spoke for the majority in Scotland who were for the UK and for the European Union.

In my former seat of Edinburgh West, Lib Dem canvassers were receiving a warmer reception on doorsteps than at any time since 2010. Lib Dem activists dared to dream that voters were starting to forgive them.

While the Scottish Lib Dem campaign message may have been less singularly drawn than the Scots Tories’ one it was bold and clear – stop the SNP’s plans for Indy ref 2.

The Scots Lib Dem contingent of Christine Jardine, Jo Swinson, Jamie Stone and Alistair Carmichael know that they benefitted from the very different election being fought in Scotland. They also know they need to maintain opposition to a second referendum and be a strong voice on Scotland’s distinctive Brexit needs or those gains might be short lived.

Despite the 50% fightback in terms of seats the UK share of the vote fell from the 2015 disaster when the party haemorrhaged 49 seats.

There are a number of reasons for this:

Brexit

The party’s key manifesto proposal was to hold another referendum on the Brexit deal. This was arguably the right policy but it was the  wrong time. The prospect of yet another referendum filled most voters with despair. It was also a position which was open to being attacked as undemocratic and inconsistent with the indy ref 2 position. It led to the sort of pin head dancing which even Vince Cable struggled to finesse.

Truth is Lib Dem members are split on what to do next. Some want the party to accept the EU vote and get on with arguing for the best deal. There’s some optimism that the DUP arrangement will falter, a new Tory leader will emerge and that enough MPs will be prepared to work together to deliver a softer Brexit.  Meanwhile other fundamentalist Lib Dem voices, many of whom have joined since last June, argue that the party was too timid and should have stood on a clear hardline platform of reversing Article 50.

Labour success

The Lib Dems hopes of picking up Remain voters were dashed by a resurgent Labour party. Newly released from a scarring coalition the Lib Dems have failed to capitalise on Labour’s recent difficulties  because too many traditional Lib Dem voters have switched off from even the party’s most redistributive policies. A well run Corbyn campaign and a Labour manifesto which contained positive hopeful policies compared well against the battered compromised Lib Dems. Corbyn was able to go on the offensive and promise young people an end to tuition fees. That Nick Clegg lost his Sheffield Hallam seat as a result of greater numbers of young people turning out to support Labour seemed particularly fitting.

Labour ran a clever campaign when it came to Brexit positioning. The bulk of Remain voters and constituencies went in Labour’s favour despite the party’s support for Brexit. That’s a lot of people who may end up feeling about Corbyn in the future as today’s generation of students feel about Clegg.

Relevance/Leadership

Faced with the swing to Labour the Lib Dems fell into the classic squeezed position of struggling to stay relevant. An embattled Tim Farron ruled out doing a coalition deal with both Tories or Labour because they were both pro Brexit parties but also because coalition has become a dirty word for many Lib Dems.

The newly elected Lib Dem group are on an election footing, looking to take early advantage of the profile raising opportunities of dealing with a minority government to build alliances, win concessions on public services, highlight the ambiguity of Labour’s position and keep pressure on the Tories to abandon their Hard Brexit.  The announcement that they will seek an end to the pay cap for emergency workers is a good example of the populist policies the party needs to pursue.

Following Tim Farron’s announcement that he’s standing down there’s genuine concern that the membership will again be presented with a choice of white middle aged males or no choice at all. One third of the Westminster group is now female but the excellent Deputy Leader Jo Swinson has ruled herself out of the contest. Several senior and life long liberals have already told me they won’t be voting.

Sir Vince Cable is the sole candidate to declare so far. Ed Davey is also thought to be contemplating standing. Both carry coalition baggage which opponents will exploit but the prospect of a further election in the coming months may well play into Cable’s hands as the more recognisable candidate…

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