Ever since 2015, when a backlash against the coalition Government smashed the Lib Dems almost out of existence, the central mission of the Party has been survival. How can they atone for the past, look to the future, and stay relevant enough in the public consciousness to serve a lasting purpose in British politics?
In the immediate aftermath of the coalition there was no answer to this problem, and the party appeared to be languishing. But then the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, coupled with Brexit, gave them purpose and their own space to operate in. Their target base was pro EU voters and those angry at the direction of the Labour Party, which in theory felt like a lot of people. There were ups and downs, moments when the party seemed to truly be back, like the European elections, and moments when they became existentially threatened again (like when the breakaway Change UK emerged and briefly threatened their territory.) But in the end, the Lib Dem efforts were in vain. They scraped 11 MPs in the 2019 General Election, and with Brexit done and Corbyn gone, the struggle for purpose started all over again.
The struggle for the hearts of progressive voters has gotten a lot harder. Keir Starmer, a moderate, is different to Ed Davey only in nuanced ways. They are both centre-left, competent but uncharismatic, middle aged white men. What incentive do Labour voters have to switch? This time round, the target for Lib Dems cannot therefore be disaffected Labour voters, but disaffected Tory ones. As Johnson’s voter base realigns, and some traditionally working class Labour areas turn blue, the Lib Dems have the opportunity to tap in to ‘leafier’ places, the so-called blue wall. These are voters who have little in common with Johnson; they are typically pro-Europe, pro-internationalism, and sceptical of big Government. The age demographics also means they are likely to be more pro-Covid measures, and horrified by the behaviour of Downing Street during the pandemic. Many of these voters have spent their lives trying to keep Labour out, and may not be prepared to vote for them. But might they be tempted by a little yellow gateway drug….? Perhaps.
The Lib Dems performed well in the recent local elections, which on the surface seems a pretty hopeful sign. We should be sceptical however. Local elections are a poor indicator of national swing, especially when the Lib Dems are involved. Lib Dems are exceptional local campaigners. No one delivers leaflets like them, and the polling day operation utilises technology originally pioneered by the Obama campaign, to ‘get out the vote’ in a way no other party has replicated. When the battle is fought on local issues and an arms race of enthusiasm, the Lib Dems always have a shot. But when the battleground is the whole country, and more focused on a national narrative, it is always much harder for them.
And while a potentially fertile group of voters is there for the taking, how this translates into a coherent narrative remains to be discovered. They can’t just march around Surrey shouting ‘We’re not Boris but we’re also not Labour. Vote for us!” They have to at least pretend there are positive and not negative reasons to vote Lib Dem. So what are they? What is the optimistic sell?
If the Lib Dems were unable to break through when the Corbyn/Brexit era opened up for them, it will be equally hard, if not harder, to do so now. But at the back of their minds, the Lib Dems will be thinking about how to play things even if they are successful. Absolute best case scenario, at the next election the Lib Dems get enough seats to be kingmakers. But as they learnt the hard way, that can be a poisoned chalice! In 2010, they won over mainly disaffected Labour voters and then put the Tories in charge, cue outrage. This time, they might end up winning disaffected Tory voters and then putting Labour in charge. Would that go any better…?
The challenges facing the Lib Dems remain severe. Becoming the force they once were seems a pipe dream, and how to manage their power if they do regain it is an even more complex question. But they are an extremely determined, relentless bunch, and the strength of their local operation is enough in itself to keep them from fading all together. The yellow bird has a damaged wing, but it is hellbent on learning to fly again, and one of these days, maybe it will.