What’s the point of the Lib Dems?

The Guardian - Journal - - Front page - Martha Gill,

The Lib­eral Demo­crat party: a dead par­rot or a phoenix? Po­lit­i­cal road­kill or cock­roach sur­viv­ing a nu­clear win­ter? Lib Dems them­selves don’t quite know. Ask a lo­cal cam­paigner, and the an­swer will be rather op­ti­mistic. The party has done well in this year’s by­elec­tions, and the mem­ber­ship, gal­vanised by Brexit, has re­cently risen to al­most 100,000. Cru­cially, the me­mory of the toxic coali­tion years ap­pears to be fad­ing: the dis­heart­en­ing phrase “tu­ition fees”, cam­paign­ers say, is not heard so of­ten on doorsteps.

But staff at its Lon­don head­quar­ters are frus­trated, not least as the party is now plan­ning to make a quar­ter of them re­dun­dant to save money. They are all too aware of the dou­ble op­por­tu­nity the party has been handed: Bri­tain’s po­lit­i­cal cen­tre, along with some 16 mil­lion re­main vot­ers. Here is a chance – one, surely, in sev­eral life­times – for the party to take a big leap for­ward. Yet it strug­gles to rise above 10% in the polls, and its

MPs get lit­tle air­time. So why can’t the Lib Dems seize the mo­ment?

It may not be en­tirely the fault of the cur­rent team. Tra­di­tional Lib Dem vot­ers don’t nec­es­sar­ily love Europe, says An­drew Rus­sell at the Univer­sity of Liv­er­pool, and the party’s heart­lands are mostly in leave ar­eas, mean­ing its anti-Brexit mes­sage has an uneasy re­la­tion­ship with the ex­ist­ing base. The party may have had the chance to emerge glo­ri­ously as a new po­lit­i­cal force, but many feel this chance was used (and blown) by Nick Clegg – now, sym­bol­i­cally per­haps, flee­ing to a new ca­reer in Sil­i­con Val­ley. Vot­ers are now fa­mil­iar with the Lib Dems, and can­not see them as some­thing rad­i­cal or ex­cit­ing. Then there is the peren­nial prob­lem of be­ing one of the mi­nor par­ties, which al­ways strug­gle to get much me­dia at­ten­tion be­tween elec­tion cy­cles.

But the party is miss­ing some tricks. One for­mer staffer com­plains that the party, famed for its nice­ness and for wear­ing socks with san­dals, has failed to po­si­tion it­self in “the an­gry space” the times de­mand. Its new slo­gan – “de­mand bet­ter” – is a start, but the party isn’t nearly strong enough on Brexit: strate­gists get bogged down in the tech­ni­cal­i­ties of a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum, rather than match­ing the in­sou­ciance of their Brex­i­teer op­po­nents. They could also do bet­ter at mar­ry­ing their na­tional mes­sage with their lo­cal ones: mak­ing it clear, for ex­am­ple, that it would serve fish­er­men and farm­ers to stay in Europe, and point­ing out how Brexit might af­fect the money avail­able to lo­cal ser­vices.

But it is a party’s leader who re­ally de­cides its fate. Re­main­ers – in­clud­ing the 700,000 peo­ple who marched in Lon­don last month – are gal­vanised, and cry­ing out for some­one to rep­re­sent them, but Vince Cable is not the per­son to do it. He may please the mem­ber­ship – who agree more with him than they did with Tim Far­ron or Clegg – but he is not charis­matic enough to cap­ture imag­i­na­tions out­side this sphere. His im­age is that of an age­ing fusspot, ob­sess­ing over party process while bungling more im­por­tant mat­ters (un­for­giv­ably, Cable and Far­ron failed to turn up to op­pose the gov­ern­ment in a key Brexit vote in July that passed with a ma­jor­ity of three). Some­one else should lead the party.

The trou­ble is find­ing them. Emerg­ing tal­ents such as Jo Swin­son and Layla Mo­ran have been tipped for the lead­er­ship, but party mem­bers say they have yet to act on any am­bi­tions they may have: “If they want it,” one says, “they must seize it.” The hope that out­side can­di­dates might come for­ward hasn’t yet yielded much ei­ther. The Lib Dems re­cently an­nounced a rule shake-up so that peo­ple other than the party’s 12 MPs could run for leader, but the most keenly an­tic­i­pated name, Gina Miller; quickly ruled it out.

Cable, to be fair, doesn’t seem to be stand­ing very firmly in any­one’s way. He may have an­nounced in­ten­tions to stay in post un­til Brexit is “re­solved”, but mem­bers tell me this is partly be­cause he is “try­ing to cre­ate the con­di­tions for some­one to come for­ward”. “He has been quite ma­ture about the fact his job is to pave the way for the next per­son,” they say, and will prob­a­bly step down when they emerge. In any case, if he does not, “the knives will be out”. Un­til this hap­pens, the party is un­likely to take the leap for­ward it hopes for.

The Lib Dems are good at cop­ing in hos­tile en­vi­ron­ments. They re­cov­ered from their low mo­ments in the 1950s, when they held just six seats; they re­cov­ered from their “dead par­rot” years un­der Thatcher; and they will re­cover from their cur­rent predica­ment. But now they must show they can cope with an op­por­tu­nity too.

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