Have the Liberal Democrats lost the centre ground of British politics?

By Jack Taylor

On April 8th The Observer broke the story of a new centrist party, with £50 million in potential backing. The new organisation, led by the multi-millionaire founder of LoveFilm, Simon Franks, is said to have already existed for a year. The impetus for creation was the ideological shifts of Labour and the Conservatives, with the Liberal Democrats unable to take advantage of the polarisation. This party is described as being ‘frustrated by the tribal nature of politics and the standard of political leadership on both sides’, in a similar vein to French President Macron’s En Marche.

Comparisons have already been made with the SDP, formed in 1981 by the ‘gang of four’ defectors from Labour due to the party going further left under Michael Foot. The Observer stated the problems of First-Past-The-Post system and low numbers of MPs willing to defect, identical with each organisation. However, the real comparisons in message should be with the Nick Clegg era Lib Dem party, after all, Franks’ new movement would be taking the likely Lib Dem voter.

In Clegg’s opening statement in the 2010 leadership debate, he made the case for a centrist party, a call to arms for those sick of Westminster Politics. “Don’t let them tell you that the only choice is between two old parties” could be straight from the manifesto of Franks’ new party, but instead these are the famous words of Clegg that started ‘Clegg-mania’.

We all know what happened after the election. A coalition was formed and the Liberal Democrats went back on many campaign promises. Tuition fees were raised and radical constitutional reform was absent.

Now in subsequent elections, the Lib Dems have been minimised in Westminster. Their 57 MPs in 2010 were diminished to 8 and then 12.  A Corbyn led Labour party saw a resurrection in 2017, at a time when pollsters and commentators saw a place for a centre party, where the Liberal Democrats should have been capitalising on New Labour seats. This never occurred and instead those historically liberal seats like Yeovil, Sheffield Hallam and Southport fell to the Conservative Party.  With Clegg siding with Cameron’s Conservatives and then Tim Farron failing to make substantial gains in 2017, Vince Cable has inherited a party in doldrums. No longer the 3rd largest party in Westminster, losing their guaranteed 2 questions at Prime Minister’s Questions to the SNP, the Liberal Democrats are in danger of slipping into political ambiguity.  They are losing the centre ground of mainstream British Politics.

This isn’t a question of the Liberal Democrats no longer ideologically being in the centre, granted Clegg bought the party to the right. It’s a question of the party not having Ashdown/Kennedy era of Westminster representation to make a dent in national politics. In the Welsh Assembly there is only 1 Lib Dem and in Stormont only 5 of 129 MSPs.  At a national level of politics, the party appears to be making little change. A Liberal Democrat-led campaign succeeded in March in adding major amendments to cold calling bills and the Westminster party machine constantly campaign in favour of another EU referendum, but no major events have seemingly reached the national media.

The party is now instead focused on one of their core ideals, local level political change, through Council Elections. In 2017 the Lib Dems achieved 18% of the national vote in Local elections but only .4% in the General election. Vince Cable knows this is the base of Liberal Democrat support. In his launch of the campaign, he stated the Lib Dems were “on the way back” through these elections and are a “well-kept secret”. The party has won 15 council seats since the 2017 General Elections and may win more in the upcoming locals,mainly through campaigns for more investment to schools and a radical homes policy. At a local level the Lib Dems still have a claim to the centre ground, but does this mean they still could nationally?

Currently, the party doesn’t have the Westminster power to make a change and therefore will always lose out to Labour and the Conservatives in elections, parties with larger media profiles and more opportunities for large changes and campaigns. Franks’ new centrist party, with its financial backing, could prove a huge challenger for the Liberal Democrats. However, what the Lib Dems do have in their favour is historical local council support, a known national brand and financial backing, that in 2017 saw a larger donation total than Labour.

Only time will tell what will happen in the centre ground of British Politics. The Liberal Democrats may have failed to regain it in national politics, but that doesn’t mean anyone has of yet claimed the space either. The SDP had to form its liberal-alliance in 1983 to win a combined 23 seats, a similar deal would have to be seen from Franks’ party for short-term results in elections. The SNP have become the 3rd largest party in Westminster with a centre-left message that could take Lib Dem voters but for now, is restricted to Scotland, whilst other ideologically similar parties are in political obscurity.

Vince Cable still has time to reverse damage to the party done by Clegg and Farron. It’s a tough task and these upcoming local elections will point towards a possible resurgence. If not we may soon see a new party challenging for the centre ground, Franks’ organisation and the Lib Dems could be relegated to another chapter in the history book of Liberal politics, a throw-back to the SDP-Liberal Alliance of the 1980s.

Photograph: NCVO London via Flickr

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