Every honest Liberal Democrat member will agree that the last decade was not an easy or enjoyable one. It seems bizarre to think that Clegg-mania and the possibility of the Liberal Democrats becoming the main opposition was just 10 years ago. Fast forward to the present day of embarrassment where they have just lost their leader in a General Election, and the number of MP’s has fallen from 13 to just 11. Therefore, one has to ask whether the Liberal Democrats have a legitimate future in British politics.
In 2015, it was a matter of completely rebuilding the party. Nick Clegg’s Lib Dems had just suffered a truly disastrous General Election result after 5 years of coalition government with the Conservatives. Although Liberal Democrats would argue that they held back the Tories’ austerity cuts and had tried to build a balanced economy aligned with a fairer society; the voters didn’t agree. The collapse from 57 seats and 23% of the vote in 2010 to a terrible 8 seats with just 8% of the vote was unprecedented.
Surely the only way was up for the Liberal Democrats after the 2015 General Election? Then along came Brexit in 2016 and this was both a curse and a blessing. The EU-loving internationalist party now had something genuinely worthy to fight against. Moments after the referendum result was announced there were already calls to have a second referendum on whatever deal the Conservatives would agree with the EU. However, before the Lib Dems had truly got their act together, Theresa May called the 2017 General Election. This was the chance for Tim Farron’s pro-EU party to recover from the last election and make huge gains across the country in remain-voting constituencies! The opposite happened; with the Lib Dem vote share falling 0.5% and their number of MP’s increasing by a mere 4 to total just 12 seats.
Although the 2017 General Election was disappointing for the Lib Dems, the national picture still allowed them to recover. A hung parliament and the genuine prospect of a second referendum was an opportunity. Furthermore, they had replaced the interim old-timer Sir Vince Cable with a fresh and dynamic woman, Jo Swinson. Boris Johnson was forced to call a General Election and quickly it became apparent that Labour were failing to represent the views of remain voters. Therefore, one would assume that a Boris Johnson Brexit deal and a hard-left Corbyn manifesto would leave huge numbers of centrist voters with no home for the Lib Dems to take…
A prime constituency example of this is South Cambridgeshire; 64% voted to remain and it is one of just 5 out of 47 constituencies in the whole of the Eastern region to vote to remain. Moreover, the expansion of Cambridge in the South meant the constituency’s suburban metropolitan vote was eating into the traditional rural Conservative vote. Even more helpful for the Liberal Democrats was that the defector Heidi Allen was the sitting MP, and despite not standing for the Lib Dems, she had a loyal following in the constituency. Nevertheless, the Conservatives defeated the Liberal Democrats with a majority of 2000. If the Liberal Democrats couldn’t win these type of seats, then something was seriously wrong in their election campaign formula.
Their failure to capitalise the remain vote was crucial to their poor performance, and with Boris Johnson’s significant majority, where do the Lib Dems go from here and what is their purpose? A crucial factor in their future success is that of the next leader of the Labour Party. If the favourite, Sir Kier Starmer, wins then there is a real possibility that the Liberal Democrats become irrelevant. Starmer is widely respected and he has the potential to bring the centre and the left together. Moreover, all of the Labour leadership candidates have accepted that Brexit is going to happen via Boris Johnson’s deal. If the Lib Dems bizarrely decided to now campaign to re-join the EU, then that would finish off the party.
The debate regarding Brexit has finished, and therefore the Liberal Democrats need to find a unique position on another issue. However, it appears that climate change and the issue over Scottish Independence will be the short-term debates for the next five years. One area that the Liberal Democrats could shine is their policy on social care and the NHS. The UK has an ageing population and therefore social care will come into prime political eyesight reasonably soon.
Moreover, if the Liberal Democrats find a new area to be prominent campaigners, they also need a new leader. Sir Ed Davey is the current interim leader, but he comes across as an arrogant and grumpy history teacher. Layla Moran is the obvious choice for Lib Dem leader; she has a safe seat, is part of the LGBT community, and is relatively young. However, a radical proposal should be that the leader does not have to be an MP. The old official rule was that a leadership candidate, who had to be an MP, needed the backing of 10% of Lib Dem MP’s, Hilariously, this meant a Lib Dem leadership candidate would currently need just one other MP to support them for nomination. The Liberal Democrats need fresh faces amongst the leadership and not the same old folk who have been in parliament for years.
A combination of a fresh young leader and a new policy agenda could prevent the Liberal Democrats from becoming irrelevant. The Lib Dem’s record in government is what many voters still use as a factor for not voting for them. If the Labour Party elect Sir Kier Starmer, then the Liberal Democrats are in trouble. Furthermore, if they keep ranting about Brexit and keep Sir Ed Davey as their leader, then why anyone would vote for them is a genuine question. The days of the Liberal Democrats consistently winning 50+ seats in General Elections are over. The party is on the verge of irrelevance, as their record in government is what prevents many voters returning to them, and their 4 choices of either interim or permanent leader since Nick Clegg have been terrible. Radical change is needed for the Lib Dems, but it is far easier said than done!