As politics in post-Brexit-referendum Britain is characterised by increasing divisiveness, animosity, extremities and uncertainty, a political party that many had thought is down for the count is likely due to a resurgence due to the prevailing circumstances. The Liberal Democrats (of whom the author is a member) were reduced to eight Members of Parliament (MPs) at the 2015 General Election after having had a total of 57 MPs at the 2010 general election and having partaken in a coalition government with the Conservatives during the 2010-2015 parliament.
Brexit And The ‘Lib Dem Fightback’
The Richmond Park by-election was held on December 1st, 2016, after the Conservative incumbent, Zac Goldsmith, stood down on October 25th, 2016, to rerun as an Independent in protest over the Government’s proposal for a third runway at Heathrow Airport. This saw the Liberal Democrats make the by-election an issue over Brexit where the incumbent (who supported leaving) represented a constituency that generally voted to Remain in the European Union (although exact figures remain unknown, Chris Hanretty, a Reader of Politics at the University of East Anglia, estimates that 72.3% voted to Remain in Richmond Park).
The fact that the Liberal Democrat candidate, Sarah Olney, captured the seat from the Conservative Party is the first, formalised, major electoral example of the Liberal Democrats’ recovery since their time in the coalition government. Indeed, given that the Liberal Democrats are the only major party that vehemently oppose Brexit, they stood to capitalise on the divergent preferences of the Conservative candidate in Richmond Park with his constituents. Even more recent electoral examples of a ‘
Even more recent electoral examples of a ‘Lib Dem fightback’ include Ross Henley, Richard Keeling and Sally Morgan who are Liberal Democrat councillors that won local council elections with significant swings away from the Conservatives. Nevertheless, these causes for optimism and promise of future strength for the Liberal Democrats must be tempered and reserved, given that the party is still in a relatively diminished position.
Moderate Pragmatism’s Comeback
As British politics exhibits increasing polarisation (characterised by the divisions and further swings to the Eurosceptic ‘right’ within the Conservative party as well as an increasingly ‘hard Left’ Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn) to reflect the anti-establishment sentiment and mood for substantial, dramatic change in Britain, moderate pragmatism would seem to be amiss.
However, the Mirror reported that, in September 2016, Lib Dem membership had swelled to approximately 80,000 following the EU referendum. After all, the Liberal Democrats have a perceptual monopoly on being the only (potentially) effective pro-European party and at advocating the admirable values that the European Union has sought to stand for.
Though Labour’s ranks have swelled far more, this does not necessarily reflect the mood of the voting public at-large; by 2020, after an angst-provoking period of uncertainty, voters may prefer preference expression in a moderate, pragmatic fashion to electorally actualise dissatisfaction toward the establishment whilst not seeking complete upheaval and wholesale replacement because of the preceding experience of uncertainty.
Indeed, many voters feel disinclined to become members of a political party because they do not want to inadvertently support parties they may not agree with in future and also because they do not want to ‘tie their hands’ or be treated in a biased manner by those whom they encounter. However, these same voters will consistently vote for the parties that align with their beliefs even if they are not members of them.
Some Potential Allies
During the 2010-2015 coalition government with the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats were vilified, and this was undoubtedly the result of a colossal Public Relations coup orchestrated by the Conservatives and their allies (after all, the Liberal Democrats were merely the junior coalition partner).
A prime example was the National Union of Students launching a politically-biased campaign dominated by Labour members against the Liberal Democrats (the ‘Liar Liar’ campaign). Of course, no-one will forget such misgivings so quickly but even a year or so and a government later is a long time in politics; Sir Vince Cable (the former Liberal Democrat Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and a prominent figure in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government) is actually now leading “a research project for the National Union of Students into how major reforms coming for the sector should be tailored for learners.”
Additionally, it’s not just amongst the ‘left’ that the Liberal Democrats have potential allies either. The centre-right (most recently characterised by Nick Clegg) within the party is still alive and kicking, and they do have several allies. To give just one example, although Britain’s oldest free-market think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs, is traditionally thought of as being affiliated with the Conservative party, this is merely a perception (though not unjustified); the current Director-General, Mark Littlewood was previously chief press spokesman for the Liberal Democrats and, subsequently, Director of Liberal Vision (a Classical Liberal group within the Liberal Democrats) until he took up his position at The Institute of Economic Affairs.
Indeed, the Liberal Democrats come across as a pragmatically-reconciled alternative for Libertarians in the UK who are both economically liberal (and, therefore, do not align with Labour, generally speaking) and socially liberal (and who, therefore, do not align with the Conservative party, generally speaking) but who also despise the anti-free-movement rhetoric of the UK Independent Party (who inconsistently and hypocritically purport to espouse Libertarian politics whilst advocating such positions). One simple example is Nick Clegg’s voiced support for a study by Volteface and the Adam Smith Institute named ‘The Tide Effect‘ which argues “that the market-based approaches being developed in North America are the best way to protect children, eradicate criminality associated with illicit markets and promote public health.”
With their solidified position as a moderate, pragmatic and major historical force in British politics, the Lib Dems are, indeed, in a position to gain far more allies from across the political spectrum and win over the prized ‘median voter’ in a time of massive uncertainty and increasingly divisive and polarised politics; the aforementioned examples above are merely a couple that comes to mind.
As such, moderates and pragmatic liberals who may have previously been disinterested in politics may be spurred to vote for a party that they see as epitomising what they stand to lose if they do not take an active stand in modern British politics as they grow tired of experiencing ridiculous political tendencies.
Labour Will Also Lose
It is not just the Conservatives who have to be worried about losing voters to the Liberal Democrats. There is, furthermore, a section of the electorate that are both for Corbyn and who also support the European Union. However, in many constituencies, though many Corbyn-supporting Labour MPs will be fighting in the 2020 general election, there will also be those seeking reelection who did not support Corbyn at one point or another.
These same MPs will lose a fair few votes for their disloyalty to their party leader who has an unquestionable democratic mandate to lead the Labour party, and such afflicted voters may even prefer to vote Liberal Democrat with Tim Farron at the helm or, at the very least, abstain from voting for Labour. In these constituencies, a centre-left Liberal Democrat party that is loyal and united within itself may be more attractive to such voters when compared to Blairite Labour candidates that epitomise instability, cause havoc and disrespect Democracy at a time when the country is in crisis.
An Effective Vehicle For Change
The two largest parties are the Conservatives and Labour, but there are other, prominent parties and the Liberal Democrats have the most national promise and power of them all. Of course, one might argue that the UK Independence Party is arguably more important; the problem here is that it just factors in one referendum result that they merely played a role in rather than politics as a whole. The Liberal Democrats still have over 100 Lords in the House of Lords who have made conspicuous, substantial and positive contributions to public life.
These life peers have a sense of permanency and, therefore, significant power in Westminster (in an analogous manner to which the Civil Service derives prominence and power from permanency – though also from its functions – the Lords are enshrined with permanent power appropriately, at least for now). They have many alliances and people who favour their causes. These self-reinforcing political and social networks serve to solidify them as a potent force for change in Westminster to challenge the hegemonic political cartel of Labour and the Conservatives. Furthermore, their economic and social liberalism has been a rich part of Britain’s history and it just so happens that ideologies come and go in cycles but also that some cycles take longer to proceed to the next phase than others due to various factors.
The Case Of Tim Farron
Although Tim Farron ascended to the Liberal Democrat leadership as a fairly unknown person and seemed, initially, to be lacking a polished media image like his predecessor, Nick Clegg, he quickly showed his competence and conviction and his media image has steadily improved. However, whereas the swing toward and the solidification of the Lib Dems in parliament at the 2010 general election can be significantly attributed to Nick Clegg’s personality, the same cannot be convincingly argued of the Liberal Democrat resurgence about Tim Farron’s leadership.
Though Mr Farron is a sound, competent and likeable leader who has the general support of the party, the most noteworthy fact is that his leadership has been stable. There is little to no visible infighting, backstabbing and so on that the public is continuously distressed by when watching Labour and the Conservatives in a complete mess while Britain faces a critical juncture that could make or break its fortunes. Stability in leadership, management and unity is viewed favourably in such an environment and the Liberal Democrats are the only serious, national party that offers stability and these periods of instability and internal fractures in party politics will not be forgotten in the run-up to 2020 (or sooner, if a general election is called prematurely).
As such, this means that the Liberal Democrats are backed for far more fundamental reasons beyond personality – that is, policy, stability and, to some degree, even ideology. Indeed, Tim Farron has backed a second Brexit referendum, and the party seems to be united behind him. Sure, the Scottish National Party puts on a united front too, but their appeal is limited to Scotland; the Liberal Democrats have a national appeal and base. The fact that this is not about personality but wider agreement with policy and stability through a solid leadership puts the Liberal Democrats, potentially, on an even more solid footing than in the run-up to 2010.
This also makes sense in light of the fact that the general mood in the country is that the Conservative government’s policies are a mess and generally not working (the Chancellor of the Exchequer himself having eased up on austerity and budget deficit targets), that the Labour opposition’s policies often do not sound convincing or credible and that a moderate, middle ground is necessary to reconcile these competing differences. As such, it is not just a disagreement with Brexit that is enabling a resurgence of the Liberal Democrats but also their policies and character more broadly.
Nick Clegg’s Unpopularity
Although Nick Clegg was derided for leading the Liberal Democrats in a coalition which saw tuition fees increase and his apology for breaking that election pledge was mocked across the internet, the fact that he apologised shows strength of character and the fact that he was returned as an MP for Sheffield Hallam (albeit with a somewhat reduced though still significant majority) tells not only of his competence in the eyes of his constituents (which include the author) but also proves that he was not entirely unscrupulous as the mainstream media bias would have had many believe.
Additionally, whereas previous politicians of comparable seniority to Clegg routinely retire from Parliament, resign when feeling defeated, are granted a life peerage or other such honours, the fact that he chose to stay in the House of Commons and continue serving (despite the general public’s supposedly unfavourable view of him), shows that he is sincere about public service, atoning for previous errors and forging a brighter future for Britain. Indeed, it is the entire party’s image that has been tarnished (though it has improved significantly) and it simply is not the fault of one person nor is it the responsibility of one person to restore it.
Just because there is one personality in the party whom many find undesirable, this will not in and of itself detract from voting for other Liberal Democrat candidates (so long as they prove themselves to be principled, loyal, competent and so on). Indeed, a new leadership and a relatively harsh, decisive punishment in the 2015 general election (which saw reduction to 8 MPs) for their actions in the coalition government may subsequently be viewed as unnecessarily harsh by the appropriate constituents who would then be more inclined to investigate Liberal Democrat candidates’ personalities in addition to party policy, for example. Furthermore, with Tim Farron at the helm, the Liberal Democrats have a sound and largely uncontroversial leader who comes across as an authentic person that speaks sense (of the liberal, moderate variety).
What If Brexit Was Not So Bad After All?
Another distinct possibility is that Brexit is actually negotiated successfully during the two-year period commencing upon Article 50 being triggered. However, even if the Conservatives manage to secure a relatively favourable deal, the EU’s negotiating position is undermined through unfavourable outcomes from various elections across the continent or even if it is actually proven that, in the long-term or medium-term, Britain actually does relatively well outside of an increasingly undermined European Union, the fact is that there is a lot of short-term pain that will be experienced during the implementation of policy and its aftermath; this pain will be fresh in the memories of voters since Brexit is expected to have occurred in 2019.
The Liberal Democrats would, however, perhaps not make as strong a resurgence if more member-states also begin the process of leaving the EU. Nevertheless, the strong possibility of a catastrophic financial crisis this side of a general election will prompt massive swings away from the incumbent party regardless and Labour may not necessarily be the main beneficiaries from that.
Trends In International Politics
Whether it be the election of Donald Trump (who is, the author feels, wrongly perceived to be a far-right, extremist figure) who is deeply unpopular in the UK, the triumph of Brexit in the UK or the rise of the actual ‘far right’ across Europe such as in Austria, France, Greece, the Netherlands and Sweden, extremist tendencies globally have significant swathes of the population very worried about its implications.
Although the anti-establishment tendency in the UK is in favour of Jeremy Corbyn and serves to fortify further the increasing likelihood of him serving as Prime Minister, this is not the only force at work here. An anti-establishment tendency is held to varying degrees by various parts of the population but one will not vote anti-establishment just for the sake of it since ‘votes’ are the currency of power and power must be expended wisely.
Indeed, the other trend is the anti-extremism backlash (anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-xenophobia, etc.) which is gaining far greater momentum in the UK to counteract the rise in hate crimes, for example, that are associated with Brexit. Since the Liberal Democrats are seen as the only major party that wholly opposes Brexit, they provide a route to actualise the voice of this important segment of the British population – though Jeremy Corbyn has also condemned the rise in hate crimes, the Liberal Democrats also have the potential net advantage of appealing to those who want to counteract anti-extremist tendencies whilst also not being as extremely anti-establishment as Corbyn is perceived to be. Indeed, as a relevant aside, the European Union is simultaneously viewed as a ‘Socialist’ institution by those on the ‘right’ and a ‘neoliberal’ one by those on the ‘left’.
Democratic Innovation And Monetary Reform
The Liberal Democrats need to quickly capitalise on the fact that there is a lot of discontent with both Representative and Direct Democracy as it is currently practised. However, flogging the proportional representation horse seems self-serving (since they would be massive beneficiaries) no matter how well-intentioned it may be.
Recognising that discontent with Brexit is not just about the decision to leave the European Union but also to do with the deficiencies of Democratic mechanisms (whether that be through voting system reform, alleviating media bias, keeping special interest groups accountable, controlling government bias, etc.), there needs to be a more significant emphasis on challenging the status-quo power-structures on these fundamental points outside of just calling for a second referendum because the Liberal Democrats stand for electoral reform and therefore, more broadly, Democratic reform and innovation.
This would enable channelling and galvanising the anti-establishment sentiment while also being consistent and reasonable with what they have always advocated by articulating it and building upon it further. A second referendum on Brexit is a start, but it is nowhere near the full story on what needs to be done to reform Democracy so that it works for everyone; the Liberal Democrats have the potential to bring Freedom and Justice back to Democracy – these are, after all, core Liberal Democratic values. In this way, the Liberal Democrats can capitalise on their position and win over both moderates and radicals.
Another core issue is the Liberal Democrats’ economic policy – particularly, a radical rethink of their calls for Monetary Reform. Whereas the Conservatives and Gordon Brown’s governments are most associated with the current form of Quantitative Easing, Jeremy Corbyn has proposed People’s Quantitative Easing.
The Liberal Democrats have already positioned their fiscal stance as not being ‘as harsh’ as the Conservatives or as fiscally irresponsible as Labour but the other, most significant arm of macroeconomic policy is Monetary Policy. Essentially, the Liberal Democrats do well at appealing to particular segments of the population through their specialist manifestoes (for Women, Younger People, Older People, Families, Local Election, Mental Health, BAME, Environment and Disabilities). However, this tailored approach misses a massive opportunity to pursue grand reform (not to mention it also does not fully encapsulate the preferences for intersectionality in contemporary Feminism which is a potent force in modern politics) that seeks to promote the general interest of all these groups by uniting them around these policies. Of course, Monetary Economics and Monetary Policy can be complex, and there are a variety of general interest reforms the Liberal Democrats can pursue to contrast with Labour and the Conservatives.
However, the author will unabashedly suggest his own proposals for monetary reform which would see the Liberal Democrats call to work with Central Banks and Local Governments to facilitate (greater) Monetary Freedom, to help improve ‘the North’ (and thereby hopefully gain greater traction in those key constituencies), to tackle the Monetary Policy Trilemma with a genuine choice of Monies, to introduce multiple, public-private partnership monies, to alleviate the gendered impact of Central Banking on inequality through Free(r) Banking and to enable True Free Trade (Free Trade being a topic which the former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has written on as part of his wider Brexit challenge).
Whom Will The Lib Dems Coalesce With?
There is also likely to be a perceived need for a moderating factor for Corbyn in the same way that the Liberal Democrats were the moderating factor for the Conservatives in the previous government. Anecdotally, an increasing perception prevalent in the UK is that, far from enabling the Conservative agenda, the Liberal Democrats actually moderated it and, in their absence, a purely Conservative government has been pulled further to its ‘right’.
After all, when in a coalition, those at the reins of government can blame their coalition partners for not being able to fulfil the wishes of more ‘extremist’ tendencies within their own party and, thereby, partially appease those very same espousers. However, in the absence of even a junior coalition partner, moderate Conservatives cannot continue directing blame internally toward the Liberal Democrats. Therefore, this swing to the right within the Conservative party has actually been significantly influenced by the Liberal Democrats’ recent diminution – Interestingly then, for moderate Conservative voters, a significant swing to the Liberal Democrats would work to pull the Conservative party back to where they’d like to see it and, conversely, the same logic applies to moderate Labour voters. Therefore, even though there is a general disdain towards the Conservative party and dissatisfaction with their government that has naturally precipitated in a more general shift toward the ‘left’, this may not be as far as Corbyn would have liked to enact his and his allies’ agenda in its uncompromised totality.
Thus, whereas people will want a change and a general swing to the left, they may not want it to be as extreme as an unbridled Jeremy Corbyn government and if Labour joined the Liberal Democrats in a coalition, they would be moderated accordingly (as history has shown most recently to have been the case with the Conservatives) to the degree to which the Liberal Democrats are a coalition partner.
Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron is on the centre-left of the party and he sees the Liberal Democrats as ‘heirs to Tony Blair‘ which would seem to suggest that that is where the Liberal Democrats would be as coalition partners (even if the British public generally dislike Tony Blair for the Iraq War, he is currently receiving applause from some corners for being able to ‘beat’ the Conservative party in elections) and, therefore, a Labour-Liberal coalition is a strong possibility in (or by) 2020.
The Liberal Democrats are likely to make a comeback for the reasons mentioned in this article and more. However, whether that resurgence will lead to a greater number of seats than when the party was led by Nick Clegg or Lord Ashdown is uncertain but still strongly possible.
Indeed, on these views, there is an increasingly significant likelihood that the Liberal Democrats will, once again, be the kingmakers at the next general election. Brexit negotiations will be tiring and, by 2020, the British public will generally be frustrated by ongoing uncertainties and many voters will seek a return to more moderate and pragmatic approaches to politics.
The radical, extremist and alarming tendencies may be viewed as the emerging norm but, by 2020, large swathes of the electorate will grow tired of such politics as it fails to deliver the changes they desire due to imperfect preference-aggregation and transmission and the Liberal Democrats as a political party currently represent the only potent, moderate and pragmatic alternative that Britain has. This much is undoubted – the Liberal Democrats are due and will experience a resurgence.
(Disclosure of interest: While writing and submitting this article for publication, the author has been and will continue to be a student member of the Liberal Democrats and would like to see them make a resurgence in the next general election)