9 May 2019

There’s one thing stopping a Lib Dem comeback


There are two ways of playing in these elections to the European Parliament that make sense. You can, like Nigel Farage, be all-in for Brexit and trust that Leavers thoroughly hacked-off with the entire dismal process will use you as a vehicle for sending a message to Theresa May or you can, like the Liberal Democrats, take the opposite approach and declare “Bollocks to Brexit”, trusting that a wholly different group of hacked-off voters will use their pain to soothe yours.

By contrast, the approach taken by the Conservative party and, albeit to a lesser extent, the Labour party makes no sense at all. There are no prizes in this election for pretending Brexit isn’t the main event. Running away from it, or hoping it will magically disappear, isn’t going to work. The Tories may have the excuse that they’d rather these elections weren’t happening at all but the public is not in any mood to indulge any excuse-making. A hammering beckons.

Likewise, Labour continues to treat its own supporters as fools. A leadership entirely comfortable with Brexit continues to tease its own voters with the thought that if A happens in response to B and, subject to the conditions for C being met in the light of D, then E may yet seem a more plausible response to F which would in turn allow for G — a second referendum! — to take place. Believe in that and you’ll believe in anything.

If Labour avoid a drubbing this month it is only because the Tories are ahead of them in the queue. Even so, the local election results in England earlier this month confirmed something that has been obvious for a long time: the public think the Tories are a rabble but Labour is not trusted to replace them. Faced by a weak, divided, paralysed government Labour still contrived to lose seats all across England. In its way, this was a staggering achievement.

Someone’s misery is always someone else’s joy, however. In the local elections that meant a giddy night for the Greens and, in particular, the Liberal Democrats. Remember them? Just four years have passed since the Lib Dems were actually in government, years in which the party has generally taken the view that silence is the best form of abashed atonement. If we hide, the thinking appears to be, we will be forgiven.

This has always seemed feeble but, given the manner in which so many Lib Dem voters appear to think there is something grubby and disreputable about being in office – that’s not what we vote Lib Dem for! – it may have also been a reasonable response to the predicament in which the party found itself.

Even so, even the Lib Dems must break their silence eventually and in Brexit they have at last found a purpose and the beginnings of a voice. “Bollocks to Brexit” may not represent a highpoint in liberal thought but it captures something of the public mood nonetheless (and, just as importantly, guarantees rather more media coverage than a generic “Building for Britain and the Future” type of slogan might have).

This, twinned with the Lib Dem revival in local government, gave me pause to think. And what I thought was that if the Lib Dems were led today by, say, Charlie Kennedy in his pomp or even the 2010 version of Nick Clegg then British politics might look and feel rather different. Because I strongly suspect a Lib Dem party of that type might be running neck and neck with both the Tories and Labour. It might even come first in some opinion polls.

There are millions of voters who have no time for this government and no time for Jeremy Corbyn either. They have to go somewhere. In some places, alternatives are available which is one of the many reasons why the SNP will win a handsome victory in Scotland this month. But across much of England the Lib Dems are the party best-placed to capitalise on the miseries afflicting both the traditional powers.

This is so despite the emergence of the Independent Group known this week as Change UK and, doubtless, to be known as something else next week. The Tiggers began with a simple proposition: Corbyn is not fit to be prime minister. This had the considerable merit of being true and truth remains an under-estimated commodity even in British politics. Nevertheless, the Tiggers have botched their own debut. It is easier to appreciate what they are against than what they are for. Increasingly Change UK feels like a lightweight operation.

Every action spawns a reaction and the impact of Change UK is felt in the centre, not on the right or left. And here we may discern something remarkable: the Tiggers have woken Vince Cable. The Lib Dem leader has hitherto been a narcoleptic presence in British politics; present but not awake. By contesting the centre ground, however, the Tiggers have reminded the Lib Dems that they too have a purpose.

“We’re still here” is the lesson of the local elections and one that applies to these European Elections too. If you don’t like Corbyn and you don’t like May you have an alternative and it is one whose name you may be able to remember. When Rachel Johnson, one of the higher-profile Tigger candidates, was asked on the Today programme this morning what distinguished her party from the Lib Dems there ensued what tradition demands we deem an awkward silence.

This ought, then, to be a Liberal Democrat moment. Conditions for protest could scarcely be better. That should not be confused with a manifesto for government or even for coherent opposition but, in the present circumstances, it ought to be more than enough. And enough, too, to make you think how much better the Lib Dems might fare with active leadership. That, in turn, might prod or prompt the Conservatives and Labour back towards the moderation each has abandoned in recent times. The alternative voice, it turns out, has always been there even if you have, with reason, struggled to hear it.

Alex Massie is a political commentator.