By Robert Birch
September 2012. Nick Clegg has just released an apology speech over the whole tuition fees debacle, only for it to be autotuned and remixed into a song that reached the top 40 almost as soon as it was released as a charity single. What was an attempt to regain some sort of humanity – after breaking one of the biggest promises a politician has ever made – ended up making the third party of British politics a laughing stock, an episode from which it has never fully recovered.
What’s worse, the refusal by their leadership to accept the result of the EU referendum has prevented them from taking advantage of a chaotic scene for party politics. A scene that has allowed for the rise of UKIP in certain previous strongholds of liberal voters, such as in the South West
This takes us to today. When both major parties are viewed so negatively by so many people and when there is such a huge gap in the market for a centrist party to do well, why is it that the Lib Dems are unable to exploit this? All that remains in the centre ground are the feeble remnants of a once-powerful party led by an ageing 74-year-old, which has lost most of its core constituencies in the rural South West due to its stance on Brexit.
Gone are the Ashdown days in which vast swathes of Cornwall, Dorset, Somerset, and Gloucestershire would stay orange on polling day, with the Conservative party mopping up every seat except certain major urban areas (Bristol, for example, which has always been firmly in the hands of Labour). Whilst hopes of a liberal resurgence in the 2017 snap election were revealed as not completely hopeless by victories in Bath and Oxford West, an inability to win in key target constituencies such as Cheltenham (which had been Liberal from 1995 to 2015, and had a 55% remain vote in the referendum, with a high percentage of young people in the town) perhaps gives a good indicator of the biggest problem the Liberal Democrat party has: it is deeply unfashionable.
Writing as a party member, the sheer number of Facebook memes mocking the irrelevance of the party and the mockery that I have received highlights the fact that the Liberal Democrats are no longer being taken seriously as a political force. Who knows what Vince Cable said in a recent press conference? Who cares? Arguably their only having 12 seats in parliament might mean they don’t have a great deal of actual political power.
But that’s not really an answer either – look at the impact that UKIP has had despite only holding a maximum of 2 seats at any one time. Farage has never even been elected as an MP yet every time he speaks it is treated as the Second Coming of Christ.
So what can be done to solve their identity crisis? Firstly, a rebrand is necessary. We need something new, something sexy. Policies aside, the major parties have created a major gap in the market: May is a robot and Corbyn makes jam. Recent reports over the formation of a new centrist party are exciting but until something concrete is actually declared this may just be a pipe dream – this kind of thing has been rumoured before in the past few years. The Liberal Democrat brand has been destroyed by the reputation it garnered during the coalition years alongside the inability of certain party figures (read: Tim Farron) to answer easy questions.
The other major change the Lib Dems need is to stop their insistence on a second EU referendum. It can be argued that identity politics (the gulf between the ‘somewheres’ and the ‘nowheres’ of David Goodhart) is becoming more and more important in the UK: Theresa May, for example, said in 2016 that ‘If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere’. Working-class voters are flocking to the Conservatives, who don’t traditionally represent their economic interests but instead are getting their votes over issues like the EU, whilst rich seats like Kensington are tending to Corbyn’s socialism. Although framing itself as the only true ‘remoaner’ party may play well among young people, these are the same people who regularly mock the Liberal Democrats over past betrayals like tuition fees during the coalition government. And Corbyn’s pro-student agenda and the absolute removal of tuition fees makes a youth resurgence to the Lib Dems less likely.
Only through these two changes can the liberal democrats become electorally relevant again. The Brexit-voting former heartlands of the South West will never accept the party again until it drops its unsustainable call for what was, unquestionably, the will of the people. Students will never vote Liberal Democrat again until the party can completely throw off its image crisis and adopt a new post-coalition form. To me, through these two remedial acts, the third party of British politics can return. We are beginning to look like we will need it more than ever.
Photograph: David Spender via Flickr.