23 September 2016

Could Britain get a truly liberal party?


You’ve got to be pretty hardy to have attended the Lib Dems’ conference in Brighton this week.

While the party can proudly point to some genuine success in council by-elections, it is a paltry force in Parliament, gets consistently pulverised in national polls, and (for the second time in the space of a few years) was on the losing side of a referendum on one of the issues dearest to its members’ hearts.

I know, as a former Lib Dem member, that the result of the EU referendum will have really rocked them. The nation has rejected core principles of the party, the broad internationalism and pro-Europeanism that were at the core of the Lib Dems’ identity.

As with the AV referendum, the Lib Dems have fought a referendum on an issue of fundamental principle, and lost decisively. That’s got to make any political party question itself, surely?

As the party’s leader, Tim Farron, put it in his conference speech: “The [EU] referendum result to me was like a bereavement. I was devastated by it. We Liberal Democrats worked harder than anyone else in that campaign, we put blood, sweat and tears into it.”

It is a sentiment i’ve heard echoed by other Lib Dems, at all levels of the party. They are used to losing elections – and you can always come back to fight again four years later – but the EU referendum was something else entirely.

In fact, so important is the issue of the EU to the Lib Dems that they are determined to refight the battle that they so clearly lost.

The problem is that while positioning yourself as the party of the 48 per cent is strategically understandable – especially when you are at eight per cent in the polls – it is not much use when so many of your former strongholds voted Leave. Cornwall, for example, voted to Leave by 56.5 per cent to 43.5 per cent, slightly higher than the national margin.

For the Lib Dems to continue to demand a vote on the final Brexit package makes them, rather than the Conservatives, look like the party that is always banging on about Europe – particularly when they are on the wrong side of public opinion.

And yet, ironically for a party at such a low political ebb, the opportunity for the Lib Dems has rarely been greater.

I see Lib Dems across the country throwing themselves into campaigning week after week. The party’s membership has soared too. And the political landscape looks more promising than many realise.

On one hand, we have got an unelectable Labour Party whose members are about to reappoint as leader a man who can never be prime minister. On the other, we have a Conservative government in a tangle over delivering Brexit, and a prime minister who is entirely credible and highly competent but who also appears to have rejected the metropolitan liberalism that made David Cameron and George Osborne so appealing to so many.

Add to that mix a UKIP without any real reason for being any more, and it becomes clear that there remains a real opportunity for a national party in the fiscally responsible, socially liberal centre ground. Nick Clegg realised this long ago – although it helped that he also instinctively believed in those values.

So will this be a moment of genuine revival for the Lib Dems?

There has always been a tension between the centrist, classical liberals in the party – known as the Orange Bookers after a publication co-authored by many leading figures on that wing of the party, such as Clegg and David Laws – and the more left-leaning members, many of whom joined via the merger with the SDP.

I personally think that there are more votes to be gained right smack in the centre, away from the more high-tax approach that, led by their left wing, the Lib Dems often default to.

Farron clearly comes from the left-wing of the party. For example, while one has to admire his honesty, I suspect that the clip of him on stage proudly shouting the phrase “Lib Dems will raise taxes” will come back to haunt him. (The full context was a promise to increase spending on the NHS.)

Yet to Farron’s credit, he did also try and hit the some key centre-ground notes during his conference address, attempting to pitch the Lib Dems as the pro-business, pro-entrepreneur party: “There is only one party now that believes in British business, large and small, that believes in entrepreneurship and innovation: the Liberal Democrats. We are the free-market, free-trade pro-business party now.”

It may seem unlikely, but if the Lib Dems can position themselves as a viable alternative, wavering centre-left voters may start to get tempted by them once again.

In any event, I can say with some confidence that the Lib Dems are not just going to shut up and go away. They are the cockroaches of British politics – an analogy they rightly take as a compliment. (I remember some members proudly marching around conference with cockroach badges on one year.)

It may seem a long way off now, but if Farron’s party can harness their liberal instincts, and avoid slipping too far to the left, people might just find that they end up agreeing with Tim…

Charlotte Henry is a journalist and broadcaster covering technology, media, and politics.