What future for the Lib/Dems? Part one.

You may not have noticed, but the Lib/Dems have been having a leadership election. 

Yesterday, Sir Ed Davey was declared the winner, defeating Layla Moran by winning 65 per cent of the vote. He now has a chance to rejuvenate the battered party’s fortunes. 

As Patrick Maxwell, who is a former member of that party, put it here with very British understatement, 

"Davey has a job on his hands.

A party which was in government for the first half of the decade which has just ended lost their previous leader when she was defeated in her East Dunbartonshire seat in December, and the Lib Dems slumped to eleven seats in the Commons. Their poll ratings have declined into the lower single figures.

The Lib/Dems have now suffered electoral disasters at three consecutive general elections: the first in 2015 was neither surprising nor entirely to their discredit, as the had been party to some very brave decisions in the national interest which were not at all comfortable for their electoral base. 

Their second and third general election disappointments for the Lib/Dems, in 2017 and particularly in 2019, however, were both surprising and should almost certainly have been avoidable.

On the face of it, with the Conservatives natural coalition of support under huge strain because of tensions between the interests of the pro-business and patriotic wings of the party as a result of Brexit, and Labour both facing equivalent fractures and led by a far-left faction under Jeremy Corbyn which was massively repellent to large parts of their traditional voter base, there should have been a golden opportunity for a party of the moderate centre. 

Such a party should have been able to scoop up electors who had shown in the May 2019 elections that they were willing to consider, if not actively looking for, alternatives to the two main parties. The Lib/Dems had performed particularly very well in the final European election, although perhaps one of the lessons of the gulf between their performance in May and December 2019 is that the same platform which is brilliantly tailored to a PR single-issue election with a turnout of less than 40% can be a recipe for disaster in a FPTP general election with a turnout  thirty percentage points higher.

The problem for the Lib/Dems was precisely they were not seen as a party of the moderate centre by a majority of the electorate. On the issue which they made the centre of their election campaign, the revocation of Brexit, they were at one polar extreme of the spectrum with the Brexit party on the other end. Worse, they did not even appear to realise this.

I very rarely agree with Green MP Caroline Lucas on anything at all, but she perfectly summarised why even many Remain voters found the Lib/Dem "Revoke" line on Brexit far too extreme in the first twenty seconds of this clip:  

To quote again from Patrick Maxwell, 

"When I was a member, I warned whoever would listen that a push for extreme Remainerism would only derail the party’s plans to win more seats outside the prosperous south-east. The party ploughed on, and saw the consequences of a toxic mix of electoral arrogance, patronising pledges, and one issue obsession."

He adds of the 2020 leadership campaign that 

"what was missing from both candidates’ offer was a coherent plan to confront the party’s dismal position."

All parties need to adapt or die, and in the face of Coronavirus the need to adapt is stronger than ever - a challenge which not just the Lib/Dems but other parties would be wise to be aware of.

When the next election comes around in 2024, a campaign platform based on Brexit, for any candidate be they on the left or right, pro or anti, will look about as relevant to the current concern of voters as the hundred years war.

If the Lib/Dems want a future, they need to move forward. And so does everyone else.

This is the first part of a two-part post, concludes tomorrow.


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