May 5, 2017 by Paul Goldsmith
Rumour has it there were high fives in Liberal Democrat headquarters when Theresa May announced she would be calling a General Election on June 8th. Finally a chance to ‘right’ the ‘wrong’ of the 2015 General Election, where they were punished for having been in Government with the Tories and for their U-turn on tuition fees and people just didn’t see a reason to vote for them. Now, it would be so much better, after all the Lib Dems are the party of ‘Remain’ and were the UK party in opposition who were not led by Jeremy Corbyn. So now they could get the protest vote and they could get the ‘stronger opposition’ vote too. The Parliament elected in 2015 no longer represented the political reality on the street. This was the time for the official #libdemfightback. Or is it?
The Lib Dems face a number of obstacles. These can be summed up as the lack of geographical concentration of their voters, questions about their own leadership, and the electorate’s memory, which is longer than some might think.
The problem of geographical concentration is actually the biggest issue. Having received only seven percent of the popular vote in 2015, they could well double that yet receive barely any more seats. Under the FPTP election system you can get 10,000 votes in all 650 seats and barely win any seats, but get 20,000 votes in half of them and none in the others and win almost half the seats. Labour has that geographical concentration, so do the Conservatives, so now do the SNP, but the Lib Dems don’t. They used to – in the South West of England, but many there voted to Leave the EU, so one can’t be sure what will happen there.
Tim Farron is not the leader I imagine the Lib Dems were hoping they would have going into an election as important as this for them. His born-again Christianity does jar with his supposed liberalism (although I would imagine he is from the ‘social democrat’ side of the party). His record on gay rights and marriage has been rightly questioned, but also he seems to lack the gravitas needed to uphold the type of ‘strong’ opposition he claims he can provide to Theresa May.
Which leads us to the electorate’s memory. Whilst he has had a major resurgence as the Lib Dems’ Brexit spokesman, former leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is finding it difficult to shake this memory. Clegg, ideally, would be Lib Dem leader right now, but when he appears in public he is still challenged on that tuition fees u-turn (in case you don’t know, the Lib Dems signed a public ‘pledge’ to abolish tuition fees before the 2010 election, only to give away that pledge and support a tripling of them once in Coalition Government). Even this week he was reminded of that by Piers Morgan on ITV’s Good Morning Britain and could only respond by calling the presenter ‘pompous’.
The Liberal Democrats’ core constituency included students and university towns, but that u-turn lost them those places. On the night of June 8th, watch Cardiff Central, which included Cardiff University. It was lost in 2015 but it may be that the party of ‘Remain’ may have put that issue above their tuition fees debacle in the minds of those voters.
Also watch Carshalton and Wallington. The Lib Dems’ Tom Brake does not hold a large majority there, and it is part of the London Borough of Sutton that voted 53.5% to Leave. The Conservatives are targeting that seat, and if it turns blue on June 8th then that will not be ideal for the Lib Dems.
Overall, the biggest problem for the Liberal Democrats is that we are a Liberal Democracy and the policies that their Liberal predecessors pushed for are part of the Labour and Conservative programmes, giving people fewer reasons to vote for them. They HAVE found an issue which sets them apart (the only national party to unilaterally support Remain), but whether that will get them seats in Parliament on its own, under this election system, is another matter.