What’s the point of the Lib Dems?

Published by The i paper (22nd April, 2024)

The vote in Parliament last week to impose the world’s toughest smoking ban was a perfect symbol for the state of British politics. Here was a daft, divisive and illiberal measure proposed by the fag-end Tory prime minister in frantic search for both electoral support and some kind of legacy. Fiercest criticism came from his own side as rivals jostle for his job at the helm of a ridiculously fractious party. Labour, focused ruthlessly on returning to power and fixated by polling, whipped its MPs behind the bill. And the leader and deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats – a party rooted on ideals of personal liberty – traipsed through the lobby alongside them.

This highlights a disturbing question for voters of a liberal and centrist disposition: what on earth is the point of the Lib Dems today? The party claims to be a bulwark against conformity, standing up for “fundamental values of liberty, equality and community”. So it backs the right of citizens to smoke cannabis and has flirted with Portuguese-style decriminalisation of all drugs – a sensible policy when prohibition has proved such a disastrous failure. Then we see Sir Ed Davey and Daisy Cooper – their health spokesperson as well as deputy leader – support a statist plan to stop people born after an arbitrary date from ever buying cigarettes.

Admittedly, the party has never been a model of consistency – to the fury of those fighting its forces on the ground, who find it so frustrating as the Lib Dems change like a chameleon depending on the colour of local foes. Historically, it was the main opposition to the Conservatives and later laid the foundations for our welfare state – then jumped into bed with David Cameron’s Tories to unleash austerity. Yet at least Nick Clegg articulated a vision of social and economic liberalism – before flying off to earn a fortune with Facebook having led his party to crushing defeat. Now it simply serves as a dull echo chamber for Labour – except when resisting much-needed house-building in the Green Belt and other places.

The sad truth is that the Lib Dems are floundering under an insipid leader, wounded by his starring role in the Post Office scandal during his time as a coalition minister. They have failed to win over voters alarmed by the climate emergency, then failed to woo centrists when Labour hurtled left under Jeremy Corbyn. Now they are flatlining in polls with support of about one in 10 voters, sandwiched between Reform and the Greens on a lower vote than they won in the 2019 general election, which resulted in a dismal 11 MPs. One study published last week by Lord Ashcroft even suggested a woeful vote share of just six per cent, below the Greens.

This should be a moment of opportunity to rebuild a shattered Lib Dem brand. The Tories look in free fall under their latest leader as they feud among themselves and public services stagnate. They repel moderates and younger people with their lurch to the populist right; the age at which voters are more likely to choose them over Labour has risen from 39 to 70 since the 2019 general election, suggests one new study. Their landmark policy of Brexit is widely viewed as a disaster that damaged the country. Yet, there is little enthusiasm for Labour under its bland and cautious leadership, so determined to avoid slipping as it plods along the path to power that it offers little to enthuse an electorate desperate for change.

Yet, instead of fighting energetically for freedom, human rights and liberalism when they are under attack from all sides – let alone throwing out bold headline-grabbing ideas to salvage public services – Davey is failing to assert their values or grasp this opportunity. Perhaps this timid leader should heed the warning of his predecessor David Lloyd George that Liberals would be used like oxen to drag Labour’s wagon “over the rough roads of parliament…and when there is no further use for them, they are to be slaughtered”.

Davey talks of “real change” but dares only to demand radical reform of the voting system. The free speech issue has been seized by the right. He poses as a trans ally and tweets that “trans women are women,” then his troops made minimal contribution to the Commons’ debate on a landmark review into gender identity services. Even on Brexit – previously a defining issue for the most pro-Brussels party – the Lib Dems have become so irrelevant that veteran pollster Sir John Curtice bluntly told them last autumn they were being outflanked by Labour.

No wonder 30 senior members were provoked to write to The Guardian after this warning, rightly saying it was not sufficient to mimic Labour’s anti-Tory stance and calling for “confident liberalism” on Europe, the environment and public services to show voters that they deserved their support. The response of party president Mark Pack was revealing. Proclaiming the Lib Dems’ “incredible boldness,” he first pointed to the party’s endorsement of the international aid target – a discredited idea that dates back half a century and is, regardless, a policy nominally backed by all three major parties.

Davey’s strategy is simple: to cling on to the coat tails of Labour in harnessing the mood of despair with the Tories, picking up protest votes in Blue Wall areas where Labour has little hope of electoral success even in a landslide. So now this man who served in Cameron’s Cabinet claims to have fought the Conservatives all his life as he focuses on tactical voting in his target seats.

This stance has paid off in four by-elections. It might succeed in the general election in terms of driving up the number of MPs, winning back the coveted third place at Westminster. Yet, what is the point of this party if it has so little to say at this time of political disenchantment, when we face serious threats to democracy and to their proclaimed liberal values?

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