The Liberal Democrats – where did it all go wrong?

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December 18, 2019 by Paul Goldsmith

The Liberal Democrats snatched an almost existential defeat from the jaws of relative victory with a combination of policy and leadership so self-defeating that it’s worthy of academic analysis. It leaves them, surely, wondering what is their point.

Consider this: Going into the Summer, the Liberal Democrats were staring joyfully into a political open goal. They had come second in the EU elections, were electing what looked like a fresh, popular leader, and had a chance to fill the gaping chasm between the Tories and Labour on a multitude of issues, drawing voters from both in such a manner that over a hundred seats were a distinct possibility. The Tories were a straight Leave vote and Labour were neutral, so if the Lib Dems could give reason for the 16.3m people who voted Remain in 2016 to vote for them they were ‘seats in’.

Now consider this: As dawn broke on December 13th, the Liberal Democrats had no leader, because theirs had lost their seat, fewer seats than they started the campaign with, and were in such a dire position that serious consideration needs to be given as to what their purpose is in today’s political system.

The most striking aspect of this is how self-inflicted their wounds are. The Lib Dems managed, in a way I have rarely seen before, to shoot themselves in the foot and stab themselves in the back. It’s worth looking at how.

Lets get one thing out of the way. Blaming the First Past the Post electoral system is an easy way out for the Lib Dems. It did mean people had to vote tactically for them, or might have not voted for them as the Labour candidate was the only one capable of beating the Tory candidate. However, if the Lib Dems had come up with the right strategy, and the right messenger for that strategy, they could have taken advantage of it and won a lot more seats than they did.

Lets start with the messenger. When Jo Swinson was elected, it was thought she could be the answer to the Liberal Democrats’ prayers. Young and female compared to the Tory and Labour leaders who were older and male. Normal, in a way that Corbyn and Johnson are the type of people you would only find in politics.

Yet she got it all wrong. Again, like with FPTP, its easy to blame misogyny. What was striking was the reaction Jo Swinson got from women. Colleagues of mine (and remember I teach at an extremely woke liberal school) would say things like ‘she reminds me of the worst sort of netball playing Head Girl type who made my life miserable when I was at school’. But that still doesn’t explain why every time she appeared in the media, Swinson’s popularity rating went down. I think there needs to be more study on this, but my sense was that she looked and sounded well out of her depth from the start. For a campaign that focused so completely on her, this was pretty fatal.

There was also the link she had with the Tory – Lib Dem coalition. Labour voices found it too easy to list all the things that she had voted for as a minister in that coalition as proof that a vote for Swinson was a vote for the Tories. It made it harder for Labour Remainers to switch, even if it was to ‘lend’ their votes for one election.

Swinson didn’t help herself by repeatedly insisting she wouldn’t put Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street but not saying the same about Boris Johnson. It would have been better for her to simply say that after the election results were finalised she would pick the course of action that was most likely to stop Brexit. But, she didn’t. It fed into the narrative that Swinson was anti-Labour and pro-Tory and so a vote for the Lib Dems was a vote for the Tories.

But it was the ‘Revoke Article 50’ policy that did for Jo Swinson and the Lib Dems, and in so many ways. Friends of mine who were determined People’s Vote supporters didn’t want to vote Lib Dems because they regarded ‘Revoke Article 50’ as undemocratic, saying that whilst they wanted to Remain in the EU, they knew that to reverse a referendum result you had to have another referendum.

Others argued that it meant that the Lib Dems could no longer position themselves as a oasis of centrist sensibility in a desert of extremes, pointing right at the Conservatives and left at Labour, because its central policy was extreme in itself. It lost any chance of Tory Remainers coming over, because they just didn’t want to Remain through revoke without a referendum. Conservatism is not about being complete sticks in the mud. It means to ‘change in order to conserve’, not radical ideological solutions. So that meant thousands of possible voters were lost from both left and right.

So now here we are. We are going to leave the EU, and the Lib Dems are left with a tiny rump of MPs from which they have to pick their leader. Layla Moran is not going to be the answer for the Lib Dems. She’s not even the question.

The question is, what’s the point? What is the Lib Dems’ USP now? What happens if, as sometimes happen when they actually feel like winning, the Labour Party elect a leader who attracts Lib Dem voters over? As long as First Past the Post is our electoral system, the Lib Dems are just not going to be able to make much difference.

Until someone joins with the charisma of a proper leader, the Liberal Democrats may remain irrelevant. But why would someone join with the charisma of a proper leader? As his former speechwriter said to me when i asked why Tony Blair didn’t join the SDP in 1983 instead of Labour, as the former had policies and political direction he believed in – “because he wanted to be Prime Minister”.

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