There may not be a future to come back to for the Lib Dems. Now is the time for planning and policy focus.
The Liberal democrats are in a bad spot at the moment. This isn’t an argument. It’s pretty much a fact. As recently as three months ago the group was riding a wave of decent success. Claiming a dominant second place in the May European elections, enjoying the highest levels of paid membership in the party’s history, successfully negotiating a non-aggression pact with other remain parties and as a result, winning the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election in August and gaining ten MPs that chose to defect from other parties to them.
Most importantly, they established themselves as the main force to represent the Remain voting population of the country. A position that some argue Labour should have adopted in order to defeat the Tories.
This position turned out to be somewhat of a poison chalice to the party.
The December 2019 general election result saw them lose half their MPs, including all of the ones that defected from other parties. They also lost their leader, Jo Swinson in a close defeat to the SNP.
The concentrated support they needed to win seats in the UK Parliament simply wasn’t there. The proportional representation from the European Parliament election suited them much better and created a false mentality that such success could be repeated domestically.
More than three months on, It could be argued that there was one main thing that the Lib Dems shouldn’t have done after the collapse.
That one thing is: Nothing.
They couldn’t afford to fade back into political irrelevance. To once again become unknown to the majority who don’t have the time or interest to follow politics on a regular basis.
The question now is where do they go from here to rebuild and get back to the heights they were at during the coalition government?
The easiest thing for the party to do would be to stick to the main policy that grew their membership to what it is today over the last four or five years. By focusing on Britain’s relationship with the European union.
Rejoining the European Union for Britain is pretty much out of the question at this point. At least not for another generation when the party could push for a referendum on rejoining. That’s assuming that in thirty years or so the EU or some similar organisation still exists. This isn’t a viable option for the longevity of the party or even a short-term strategy, given the ifs and buts.
To continue to focus on the idea of the EU, the party must accept that Britain has now left and we cannot go back. Instead, they could push for the idea of a close working relationship while Britain negotiates its future with its European neighbours and other nations to secure trade deals, movement of people, environmental policies, healthcare etc.
This idea of promoting a close EU relationship would probably still encounter similar issues to that of regaining membership. An overwhelming majority voted Conservative at the election. A move that is largely seen as support for Brexit. The support for Britain remaining close to the EU is not concentrated enough to be a viable path to success. The party would eventually fade into a position similar to what UKIP was like when they first formed. A fringe, single-issue group but on the opposite side of the argument.
The party could potentially go back to previous policies that they didn’t support long enough for them to gain any sort of traction. Policies that were ditched after election campaigns ended and were often created solely for general election manifestos.
These could include ending imprisonment for the possession of illegal drugs if they are only for personal use. A divisive policy that was adopted by the party in their 2017 general election manifesto under Tim Farron. And one that was picked up too quickly and dropped even quicker when it failed to produce the immediate staggering results that the group wanted. Only gaining the party four seats in that election.
Though the idea would be divisive. It could pull in a class of recreational drug users or a new wave of more liberal-minded voters. This policy would take time to be accepted by society but could grow to a larger political movement that has the potential to push for meaningful legislation at a future date.
Another idea could be resurfacing the argument for a voting system with more proportional representation. An issue that the party supported in the alternative voting system referendum in 2011. The issue was dismissed with a comfortable win for the No campaign with a more than two-thirds majority.
This would pose a similar problem to pushing for a second EU referendum. They would need to wait for another opportunity in a generation’s time for the issue to become fertile. The difference this time however, is that it may not take as long. Since that referendum, there has been more indication of how the system didn’t work effectively. (The 2017 general election produced a minority government). That’s twice in a decade.
There’s also a large number of supporters of minor political parties that would back the opportunity to make their views and votes have more meaning. This could gain real traction especially with the recent failure of the Labour Party at the general election. If the country continues on its path as effectively a one-party state, this idea could gain potential if it’s given time to develop.
I think a good quote for the Liberal Democrats in their current situation is that Rome wasn’t built in a day.
If they want results, they have to give their ideas time to grow. And if they don’t start to develop these ideas soon, they risk sinking the party beyond the point of no return.
Presently, the party is divided over its deferred leadership contest. Instead of choosing a new leader quickly and beginning the work of rebuilding, they have opted to delay the contest in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Though the reasoning is justifiable, given the potential cost to human lives; this isn’t what they need. A simple online poll sent to members via email would act as a sufficient gauge — even if it was agreed that this would only be a temporary leadership position until the pandemic subsides.
It would be wise for the party to support the government in its stance on the current situation. This isn’t really the time to be scoring party political points. Even if they did try this predictable tactic they’d still be decimated in the polls, as Boris Johnson holds a massive advantage no matter whose data you decide to consult.
Policy should be prioritised over leadership at this current time. Unite behind the candidate with the most support, rebuild to the point of security, then and only then contest the leadership. This is a time for development and rebuilding. Not for aggression. And this is something that should be adopted by all of the losing parties in the 2019 election. We’re seeing it with Labour with the election of Sir Keir Starmer. It would be wise for the Lib Dems to follow suit.
In a nutshell. The party should support the government through this state of emergency and get some definition back through either new or returning policies, and a new leader. (The policies are more important than the individual who announces them at this moment in time). Once this pandemic is over, then and only then should they get a more permanent and properly elected leader who can start to go on the offensive and try to claw back points in the polls.
A constant theme of all the Liberal Democrat manifestos and leaders’ intentions since 1988 was that the party wanted to be seen as a ‘viable third option in British politics’. But if things carry on the way they currently are, they’ll be lucky to even be considered as that.