Election notebook #10: What’s gone wrong with the Lib Dem strategy?

by Stephen Tall on May 17, 2017

There’s been a slew of “whither the Lib Dems” articles in the past few days, with polls showing the party settling at 8-10% in the polls, little better than our 2015 nadir.

Given the Conservatives have hoovered up the Ukip vote and Theresa May’s ratings, buoyed by the fan-girling media, are stratospheric, it’s not impossible the Lib Dems could be utterly wiped out on June 8th. Which perhaps isn’t the optimistic opening some of you would have liked to read.

First, a caveat: let’s remember the Lib Dems are often slow starters in election campaigns. At every election in my living memory, there’s been a panic a week or two in, worrying about the lack of a polling surge. There rarely is one, at least until the manifesto is launched and not usually until voters start to feel the impact of the campaign, both the ‘air-war’ (media coverage) and the pavement politics (leaflets through letterboxes).

But the past is no predictor of future performance. The party flatlined during the campaign in 2015. It could well do so again in 2017.

I’ve seen some pundits blaming the Lib Dems’ stance on Brexit, arguing that by adopting an ultra-Remainer stance and promising a second referendum they’ve misread the public mood. I don’t buy that criticism.

As I’ve previously written, I have my reservations about this approach. It risks the party looking like “an anti-Brexit cult led by a milkman” in the cruel caricature of one of my Lib Dem friends (who I’ll happily credit in public if they wish).

But strategically it makes good sense. And besides, what alternative is there? Sure, the Lib Dems could (and do) advocate for a ‘soft’ Brexit, retaining the UK’s single market membership; but Theresa May has ruled that out, so the only way of rejecting any deal she brings back is by overturning last June’s plebiscite.

If the Lib Dems are guilty of anything in this election, it’s in thinking it’s about Brexit. That may be, officially, why Theresa May called it (in truth, it was to get her own mandate for her own policies; not, by the way, an unreasonable wish for an unelected prime minister). But, really, this election is, as they nearly always are, about leadership and competence. And given that contest pitches Mrs May against Jeremy Corbyn there can be only one winner, as all of us (except Momentum) know.

There is no realistic chance of the Lib Dems being in government, in spite of the Conservatives’ desperate (but probably quite successful) attempts to spook the voters with the spectre of Corbyn’s ‘coalition of chaos’. Tim Farron has explicitly ruled out a coalition, either with Labour or the Tories. And he has also pointed out that Theresa May will win the election with an outright majority.

Both statements are blindingly obvious and a necessary counter to the Tories’ spin. But they do unavoidably undermine the party’s central pitch that Brexit can be stopped by voting for the Lib Dems. How can it, after all, if we’ve promised we won’t be in government?

There are, of course, other reasons which make the Lib Dem campaign harder in 2017 than it’s been for some time. Talk of the death of two-party politics (which I’ve often indulged in) has proved to be premature. Seven years ago, the Lib Dems were in first or second place in almost half the UK’s constituencies; currently it’s just 71 seats, which will mean the party’s vote risks being squeezed as voters’ decision-time nears in our first-past-the-post system.

And while I remain a fan, it’s undeniable that Tim Farron’s campaign has become mired in the controversy about how his personal Christian beliefs can be squared with his party’s liberal policies. It began with gay sex, today it’s abortion (which a decade ago he labelled “wrong” though he’s since re-affirmed his pro-choice position).

Sure, Theresa May doesn’t get asked these questions. But, then, her views aren’t out-of-steps with her party activists’. In a campaign where he’ll get little chance to shine in front of a mass TV audence, Mr Farron can’t afford to become known as the one with some iffy views on touchstone issues for the educated, urban, secular, middle-classes who should be the party’s best demographic.

And then there’s Labour. As I (and others) have argued before, the Lib Dems do best — think 1997 or even 2010 — when voters aren’t scared by the prospect of a Labour government. Loose talk of a progressive alliance now (by people who should know better: yes, I’m talking about you, Vince) is almost certain to backfire.

In short, it’s all rather depressing. Just as well we’re liberals, really.