By Mason Boycott-Owen
If my task were to inspect the state of the 3 main parties in Westminster, the Liberal Democrats would be absent from that list. Both the SNP with 42 more seats and UKIP with almost double the Lib Dem share of the vote, would be better candidates for this. Yet given the rich history of the Party and the dramatic nature of their descent from power, they do deserve some sort of eulogy.
The Liberal Democrats descended from coalition partners to the same number of seats as the DUP in a single night. It will be for many in the Party, a bad dream – but not one which they can forget. As with any natural disaster the rebuilding effort needs to start from the ground upwards: grassroots and core principles both have to be readdressed. They have the luxury (if it can be called that) of thinking far beyond the next general election.
In terms of what went wrong, it is a lengthy list – yet few of them come as a surprise. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the Conservatives in their Coalition tenure was how they themselves took credit for more popular policy and shifted blame for unpopular policy onto the Liberal Democrats in the minds of the electorate. Tuition fees is the first which springs to mind and seen by many as indicative of why the Party lost the trust of the electorate – slashing their voting percentage by two thirds.
Their student base, usually a bastion of their core votership has been damaged perhaps beyond repair. The full extent of which may be apparent in the years to come as it is dangerous to make an enemy so early on in the voting lives of so many of the electorate. Even if they did vote for the Lib Dems in 2010, many are unlikely to ever consider it again. These aren’t simply voters of other parties who can be shepherded towards the yellow flock, these are votes which are unwinnable. With Farron however they have someone largely untarnished by the tuition fees fiasco, as he was vocal in his opposition. Having said that, collective responsibility may well dampen that reputation.
Those angry with the Liberal Democrats propping up a Tory government, something many Party voters and activists spent a lifetime trying to prevent, voiced their frustration in an interesting way. They voted Conservative. These 27 seats that made she shift from yellow to blue indicate that for many former Liberal Democrat voters would do anything not to vote Labour. Their reason? The economy, on which there seems to be a Liberal Democrat-Conservative consensus. The watch-word for the election seemingly capable of severing party ties. Others, albeit to a far lesser extent, voted UKIP and for the Green Party. Seen by some as the ‘other choice’, a protest vote of sorts, in the same way as the Liberal Democrats were viewed in the 2010 election, UKIP and the Greens seem to have taken a share of the votes of those dissatisfied with the two-party system.
In the fallout from the election, what voice therefore do the Lib Dems still have? A voice on Europe? Perhaps. A voice on voting reform? Certainly. A voice on issues of diversity? Certainly not. Out of the 8 remaining Liberal Democrat MPs there are no women, no ethnic minorities, and none who identify as LGBTQIA. Though the Party themselves cannot be exactly blamed for this, as they had no control over who would survive the onslaught from the electorate, it still shows they are somewhat limited in the scope of issues they can engage with.
Farron himself has gone some way towards rectifying it saying that 50 per cent of target seats would field female candidates as well as 10 per cent fielding BME candidates. Yet this is likely to remain a problem for another 5 years, an exceedingly long time without women or ethnic minorities being represented in the party.
Upon his appointment, and to some extent today, many voters’ reaction to the name Tim Farron was ‘who?’ Though not of political insignificance he has much to prove – adorning his website profile with more than the accolade of “a true ally of farmers”. For a party with saturated press-coverage such as Labour or the Conservatives this is less of an issue, yet for a Party now fading into political obscurity, their leader needs to be very much vocal.
Perhaps the best way to go about this may surprisingly not be a readjustment of their principles but an act of embracing one of their most closely-held – Electoral Reform. Though it was UKIP who was more unjustly served by the current voting system the Liberal Democrats have 8 times that voice in parliament. Coming off the back of rumoured talks with Jeremy Corbyn about a possible alliance on voting reform, it looks as if that may indeed be on the cards
The United Kingdom needs the Liberal Democrats, despite how many turned out to say that this country doesn’t want them. The Party represents the interests of a great many people in the UK, and although during their time playing second fiddle in government they were seen by many as incapable of delivering on or standing up to those interests, perhaps with a return of faith in the Party there will also come a return to the heady heights of ‘the third party in the UK’.
Photograph: David Spender via Flickr