For the Liberal Democrats, looking back at 2017 is very much a question of what could have been. Despite an increase the generally pro-European student vote, the Lib Dems only won 12 seats in the “Brexit election”. Ultimately, they were hampered by Tim Farron’s clumsy leadership, an arguably foolish manifesto promise of a second Brexit referendum, and the surge of “Corbynmania”.
As the Brexit countdown approaches twelve months, the party are seemingly stuck in a time-warp which could seriously undermine their future in British politics.
The Lib Dems, who fundamentally oppose leaving the European Union, have struggled to significantly influence even the Brexit debate. Sir Vince Cable has so far been unable to capitalise on Theresa May’s haphazard Brexit strategy and Jeremy Corbyn’s constant flip-flopping on key European policies.
Under Cable, the Lib Dems have remained committed to campaigning for a second referendum, albeit with a slightly different question[i]. However, despite the growing public support to stop Brexit, holding a second referendum is an increasingly unlikely prospect in the remaining time frame[ii]. Such a commitment risks jeopardising the opportunity to negotiate a better Brexit deal for the UK.
On key debates aside from Brexit, the Lib Dems have also struggled to get their voice heard. This is particularly disappointing for the party given the instability that has defined much of May’s time in Downing Street. A period which has seen various social care controversies, a continued failure to address persistent issues, such as the lack of affordable housing, and even a handful of ministerial sackings. For a party founded to campaign for equality and social justice, their stubborn focus on Brexit appears myopic.
Finally, the Lib Dems have been largely unable to appeal to key demographics, especially younger and less well-educated voters[iii]. In their absence, Labour has proved adept at harnessing the support of an increasingly politically aware and indeed active young population. Much of this can be attributed to Corbyn’s strong social media presence, promoting the idea of a Labour party working for everyone. This has further undermined the Liberal Democrats, whose leader admitted to relying on his niece to help run his twitter account during last year’s election campaign[iv].
Looking forward, the next few years will be critical for the Lib Dems as they fight for their political future. On the issue of Brexit, Cable must look to work with other parties and opposition MPs to halt the Conservatives’ push for a “hard Brexit”, and instead focus efforts on negotiating a better exit deal for the UK. Domestically, there is further opportunity to gain real momentum by campaigning on some of the core issues behind the Brexit vote, and to win the support of many who turned to Labour in last year’s election.
Creating the image of a party more in-touch with all aspects of society, perhaps through a stronger social media presence, should be top of the to-do list for the Lib Dems however. In a political environment crying out for a representative, centrist party, the Lib Dems must seek to appeal, not only to well-educated voters, but crucially to ethnic minority and younger voters.
With the support of several promising ministers, the onus will be on Vince Cable to offer an effective opposition to Brexit and to hold the government accountable for some of the deep social divisions plaguing the country. Otherwise, it is a real possibility that the not-long removed coalition members will disappear into relative political obscurity.
[i] Jessica Elgot, “Lib Dems call for a second EU referendum in December 2018”, The Guardian (Wed 20 Dec 2017) https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/dec/20/lib-dems-call-for-second-eu-referendum-in-december-2018
[iii] YouGov (13 June 2017) https://yougov.co.uk/news/2017/06/13/how-britain-voted-2017-general-election/ ,
[iv] Mentioned when speaking to constituents in Abingdon, 24th July 2017
Article by Alexis King
Photograph – The Economist