18 May 2017
What will happen to the Lib Dems?
“Big Beasts return to Lib Dem Front Line” announced the press release. Gosh. Obviously not Gladstone or Asquith or even Rosebery, all of whom have the disadvantage, for the campaign trail, of being dead. So who can they mean?
“The Liberal Democrats have announced a new General Election Campaign Team, with former ministers including Jo Swinson, Vince Cable, and Ed Davey all returning to the Lib Dem frontbench” they go on to say. Cynics among you may note that this is a very broad use of the expression “frontbench”, as Sir Vincent Cable, Ms Jo Swinson and Sir Edward Davey are not actually members of either House of Parliament, though they are all hoping to be back in the Commons after June 8th. Sir Vince probably stands the best chance of achieving that – he was a popular and exceptionally hard working MP for Twickenham, until in one of the shocks of the last election, he lost the seat to the Conservatives. He had announced that he would not run again (he is 74), but cannot resist the opportunity, and in any case Mrs May had announced that she would not hold an election, so his broken promised is cancelled out by hers. Whether he can win is not clear though; Twickenham was fervently for “Remain” in the Referendum last year, as is Vince, but polls suggest the seat is likely to stay Conservative, albeit very narrowly.
If the Lib Dems want to increase their Commons representation (eight), to get their numbers of MP’s up from a people carrier load to a bus load, they are going to have to win Twickenham and several adjoining seats, which although look like Tory heartlands but were, like Twickenham, strongly for “Remain”. The party already has a foothold at Richmond Park, which they won in a by-election last year when Zac Goldsmith had a fit of principles and stood down over the Heathrow expansion approval. Zac is as much a Leaver as Vince is a Remainer, but, although his constituents seemed to be solidly behind him on stopping the growth of Heathrow, they thought Europe more important than increasing aircraft movements and chucked him out. (He is standing again this time at Richmond.)
It is this victory last December that really is the basis of the whole Lib Dem campaign. The party has sunk from sight after the last election, damaged by being in coalition, damaged by that broken promise on student tuition fees, damaged by the low profile of its new leader, Mr…er…, no, don’t tell us, Mr…um. Alright, it is Tim Farron, and he is by all accounts an amiable, intelligent, and amusing man, but he has failed to raise the profile of his party from the catastrophe of the 2015 election. With only eight M.P.’s to choose from, and Nick Clegg ruling himself out of continuing in the job, there really wasn’t a lot to choose from, and one suspects that Farron would have preferred not to take the job, but did the decent thing.
So the strategy has to be to find causes and places where the Lib Dem message might sell well, and build on those. As the party has one core and uniting belief that the other major parties are divided on, that Britain’s future should be in Europe and in long term political integration into a European state, the obvious thing is to make that the major cause in those seats that voted Remain. Except that, as voters tend not to vote on single issues at General Elections, reverting instead to natural party loyalties, this may not be enough to overturn natural Conservative majorities in those targeted seats. And it creates further complications in that another natural Lib Dem target is its traditional West Country heartland; but that area was strongly for Leave. Also the demographics of the West Country have been suggesting a drift from Liberal tendencies to Conservative support; the radical elements seem to be declining (maybe moving to Twickenham in search of work?) and the reasonably well off retired are moving in.
And another flaw: the theory that south west London seats were all strongly Remain is not that well based. Sutton and Cheam was a Leave majority; so was Carshalton – which is a Lib Dem seat, and Eastleigh – not London, but with a big young population a seat with Lib Dem characteristics.
But there has to be a strategy, and given the lack of a protest vote – Tories who are fed up with a Tory government but would never vote Labour have carried many a by-election for the Lib Dem party in the past – focussing on the Brexit issue is probably the best one.
And the Lib Dems do have a slight secret weapon. Actually, it is not secret at all but it is amazing how the other big parties fail to use it. Work very hard at a constituency level. Select the candidates early, try and dominate the local news, make many waves about local issues (even if nothing to do with Parliament), and try to get as many local councillors elected as possible. Oh, and as many stickers and flags and placards as possible. Any visiting alien, almost anywhere in the country, would assume the Lib Dems to be the dominant part of government by the amount of orange in front gardens and hedgerows. That dedication to hard work on the ground can win seats, especially where the sitting MP, of either party, is not well organised.
Mrs May, even if she is not a calculating sort of politician (she says), must have reflected that the advantage of surprise is often a winning one. In this instance, it means that the opposition parties had not raised money for such an early campaign – or done much about selecting candidates in some seats. Labour to some extent can rely on the unions to stump up financially and, like the Conservatives, usually has candidates in place, or certainly available and approved, but the Lib Dems are still struggling under the costs of the 2015 engagement. They have struggled to get money and personnel in place and at the moment it is showing.
The principal focus of the Lib Dem campaign so far has been Brexit, but most of the rest is not obviously aimed at winning easy votes. The Lib Dems will put extra tax on alcohol and on tobacco, and will put a penny on the income tax to help the NHS. They rather worryingly say that if the housing industry cannot provide the housing required, then the Lib Dems will. Not, apparently by armies of orange volunteers with picks and shovels, but by creating a public lending bank to fund the 300,000 houses needed and encouraging local authorities and housing associations to build more houses for low income families. They do not explain how this will be achieved at local planning levels where the Lib Dems are usually the lead objectors to housing development. Proportional Representation voting in all elections remains a party policy, although it was defeated 68% to 32% in the 2011 referendum. They want a fairer tax system and the benefits system to be more generous – to those who deserve it – so at least that sounds like a vote winner, if a Treasury buster.
The truth is that this is probably not the time for the Lib Dems. Their reputation was damaged by the realities of participating in government, they have no easy popular cause to fight, they lack charismatic leadership, and they have been caught on the wrong foot by timing. They may win some of those carefully targeted seats where they are putting much work in at local level, but equally they may lose some. Indeed it is not too difficult to see them once again reduced to a taxi load of M.P.’s as in the 1960’s. But there are three weeks to run yet; maybe the Big Beasts will capture the public imagination, or perhaps, as sometimes happens, unexpected events will conspire to change everything. That’s probably their best hope this time.
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