Recent landslides in Chesham and Amersham and North Shropshire might suggest a party on the rise, but the Lib Dems are still a shadow of their former self.
There is more than a whiff of Ozymandias about the Liberal Democrats these days. It is easy to forget that the party’s history is littered with giants of British politics.
William Gladstone was Prime Minister four times between 1868 and 1894 and became a national figure (his record as a slave owner and anti-abolitionist who expanded British colonies abroad is less well documented); Asquith and Lloyd George introduced the state pension and laid the foundations of social security provision; Beveridge wrote the report that would birth the post-War Welfare State; and the so-called ‘Gang of Four’ spearheaded the creation of the Social Democratic Party, which would later merge with the Liberal Party as facilitated by its leader David Steel.
Reinvigorated as the Liberal Democrats, the party would go on to produce a new generation of formidable politicians. Paddy Ashdown, Charles Kennedy and Vince Cable emerged as some of the most thoughtful, well-respected and benign figures in the modern political landscape.
Now that these figures have stepped away and with few of its sitting MPs seemingly ready or able to fill the breach, people may well ask: what does the party stand for now? Its leader Sir Ed Davey talks like Liberal Democrat leaders have done since the days of Blair: the party offers a genuine alternative to Labour ideologues and uncaring Conservatives.
But is that enough?
In a world where Scotland (traditionally fruitful ground for a would-be Lib Dem MP) is dominated by the Scottish National Party, and English and Welsh constituencies are increasingly polarised, is it enough to base your political appeal on being the ‘sensible, moderate’ option?
There are undoubtedly lessons to be learned from the party’s brief time in, or close to, government. At two points since 1945 the Liberals have been in that position, and both times they were burned.
In 1977, with Labour struggling to stay in power, they entered into an agreement that became known as the Lib-Lab pact. In actuality, it worked mainly to the government’s advantage; Labour agreed to look at a number of Liberal policies but then stalled for 15 months, at which point the Liberals saw the writing on the wall and terminated the agreement.
In 2010, the party went into formal coalition with the Conservatives on the understanding that, again, their policies would form a portion of the government’s agenda. Famously, their flagship pledge of scrapping tuition fees was dropped and the Conservatives pursued austerity, cutting public services tremendously. The Lib Dems would argue that they served as a ‘check’ on these cuts, ensuring the Conservatives did not go so far as they might have otherwise done.
But the damage was done; they lost 49 seats at the next general election, leaving them with only eight sitting MPs. Their fair-minded, straight-dealing principles have been known to betray them, and so any future shot at government would need to be meticulously handled, ideally by someone who remembers what went wrong the last time. It’s unlikely that Nick Clegg could be prised away from his role at Facebook — or that the party would even want him — but he is perhaps the ideal candidate for consultant on what not to do when you are in with a chance of gaining power.
The other problem is policy. Since the 2015 wipeout, the Liberal Democrats’ policy platform has felt phantasmal. When Clegg fought the election in 2010, he had several key commitments that made the party appealing to the electorate: reduced taxation, a greater focus on the environment, more powers for local government, a commitment to scrapping Trident, and a promise to get rid of tuition fees. In that year the party won 23 per cent of the vote — the highest since its inception in 1988.
The emergence of a robust policy platform from a party of the ‘radical centre’ (Clegg’s words) resulted in its greatest victory: a seat in government. Today’s party, with its conviction that in order to wrest control they must simply be anti-Boris and set up camp in his own backyard, seems opportunist and uninterested in shifting the argument and achieving a genuine electoral victory.
What is more, since the Lib Dems’ time in power the political landscape has changed beyond recognition, and the party has failed to change with it. They remain fundamentally stymied by the outcome of Brexit — an internationalist party operating in a country that is more inward-looking and unwilling to see the bigger picture. Their arguments about decency and liberty, however honourable, feel either intangible or irrelevant.
To put things back on track is not easy: trapped in a system that means parties do not get rewarded for their share of the vote (in 2010, Labour won six per cent more of the popular vote than the Liberal Democrats but over 200 more seats), and in an increasingly polarised world where genteel, thoughtful politics is beginning to look dated, the Lib Dems often seem at sea.
What they must do to recover is therefore based around three things: firstly, they are partly right to target seats where they can topple soft Tory majorities by appealing to voters who do not like Boris Johnson; that much of their strategy is sound.
But in order to regain their mantle as the third party of British politics, they need a proper policy platform that addresses the real issues people are facing — the rising cost of living, an unfair tax burden, lack of affordable housing, a pervasive sense of loss of enfranchisement within lives and communities, and securing sustainable jobs and careers.
Third and finally, they must return to the radical centrism that has always stood the party in good stead; they must define themselves not by what they are not, but by what they are. This is the party that led the way on liberal democracy, social welfare, and constitutional and political reform. They are the party of big ideas, but they must remind themselves that thinking big does not have to mean a refusal to attach these ideas to basic problems in today’s society.
This will all be for nothing, though, if the Lib Dems cannot re-learn how to play the political game in the age of Trump. The art of politics is adjusting to be what people want to see.
If the Liberal Democrats deny their mistakes and fail to evolve to meet the new political settlement, they will end up being consigned to the history books as a party that was once great, with not very much to say about the problems people are facing today.