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Why has it all gone wrong for the Liberal Democrats?

The party's hopes of a rapid revival look to have turned to ashes. 

Before they entered coalition with the Conservatives in 2010, the weeks ­running up to a general election used to be kind ones for the Liberal Democrats. Given some time in the media spotlight, their poll ratings would turn upwards like flowers in the spring.

This year, however, that pattern has not held. The Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron, is ­appearing on television and radio. Their policies are being covered in the national news. They are lucky in their opponents, too. On the right, there is a Conservative Party that has abandoned many of the liberal shibboleths it embraced under David Cameron and is fully committed to a hard exit from the European Union. And on the left there is a bitterly divided Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn.

Yet the long-awaited “Lib Dem revival” has stalled. The party lost 28 councillors across England and Wales in the local elections on 4 May, when it had expected to gain seats. The latest polls have the Lib Dems barely troubling double figures nationwide. According to YouGov, in the south-west of England, once a stronghold and where many of their former seats are located, the Lib Dems have increased their vote share by only 1 per cent since the 2015 general election. To make matters worse, the Conservatives – their main rival in the region – have increased their share of the vote at the expense of Ukip, which has collapsed.

The Liberal Democrats, who have only nine MPs, are gaining some votes, but mostly in areas where they cannot hope to dent thumping Labour and Conservative majorities. The one region where the party might hope to gain seats is in and around London, but even there, its strategists fear defeat in Carshalton and Wallington, where the Lib Dem chief whip, Tom Brake, faces an uphill battle to hold his seat.

Outside the capital, the Conservatives hope to gain North Norfolk from Norman Lamb, Farron’s rival for the party leadership, and are even more optimistic about taking Southport, where the 68-year-old sitting MP, John Pugh, has opted to stand down. The cold reality is that the Liberal Democrats have no safe seats – even Tim Farron could plausibly lose his own in Westmorland on a really bad night – and when an incumbent stands down, the party is particularly vulnerable.

Pugh’s retirement is also a blow to the party’s press office. At the start of the parliament, he was keen to increase his profile and he gave Lib Dem headquarters permission to use his name whenever it needed to respond quickly to events. That helped bolster the party’s reputation for speed, efficiency and an eye for a good gag, which has boosted its stock among political journalists. (The Lib Dem official Twitter feed offered a live commentary on Eurovision; not something the Conservatives would do.)

If the Lib Dems can make gains elsewhere (Cambridge and Twickenham spring to mind) they might come out of the election in no worse shape than they went into it. But that’s not the result their activists and strategists hoped only a few months ago, when they expected to ride an anti-Brexit wave. Just four days before Theresa May surprised Westminster with her decision to call the general election, Farron visited Manchester Gorton, a Labour stronghold since 1935. There he told journalists that he expected a strong second place in the by-election that had been planned following the death of Gerald Kaufman, and, perhaps, even to add a tenth MP to his flock. That optimism has now evaporated.

What went wrong? The obvious answer is that Farron bet heavily on casting the party in opposition to Brexit, and lost. That is a problem in seats such as Carshalton and North Norfolk, where a majority voted to leave the EU. The evidence suggests that few on either side of the referendum divide regret their decision, but since 23 June a distinct bloc has emerged. According to YouGov’s Marcus Roberts, formerly an adviser to Ed Miliband and Sadiq Khan, many Remain voters believe that Brexit is a calamity but accept that the government has a democratic duty to enact the referendum result. He calls them the “Re-Leavers”, and they are not at all receptive to the Liberal Democrat message of a second referendum. 

Even more troubling for Farron is that the Lib Dems are not making headway among voters who want the vote for Brexit to be overturned. Although that’s a smaller group than the Re-Leavers, pollsters estimate that it accounts for close to 20 per cent of the electorate. So why aren’t these hard Remainers flocking to the yellow banner?

Part of the problem, simply put, is credibility. As one senior Liberal Democrat puts it, “voters can count”. No matter how angry you might be about the referendum result, it’s still a stretch to believe that nine Lib Dem MPs could prevent it. For Remainers who usually vote Labour, the prospect of undoing austerity with Jeremy Corbyn is more realistic than stopping Brexit. And Farron himself, though instrumental in driving through the decision to back a second referendum, is not a natural salesman for it. His evangelical Christianity, a repeated issue on the campaign trail, puts him at odds with the bulk of the diehard Remain vote, which tends to be aggressively secular. That Farron's voting record is not an immaculate advertisement for the separation of church and state only compounds that issue. 

Among Conservative Remainers, the ­Liberal Democrats have another problem: the struggles of Labour. That might seem counterintuitive, but it reflects a widespread belief among voters that given a free choice, the Liberal Democrats will always opt to support Labour, rather than the Tories. If Labour is unappealing, then so is voting for anyone who might strike a deal with it to govern Britain. The former coalition minister David Laws, by no means a natural friend of Labour, has long argued that his party does best when Labour is strong and attractive to swing voters.

The fates of the two parties are thus intertwined. We saw that at the last general election when a weak Liberal Democrats, tainted by coalition, collapsed in the south-west and Scotland, delivering a Conservative majority. Now, it is Labour’s turn to toxify its fellow progressives. Corbyn’s troubles have not benefited Tim Farron: while voters fear a Labour Britain, they will not risk a Liberal England.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

Photo: Getty
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The EU’s willingness to take on Google shows just how stupid Brexit is

Outside the union the UK will be in a far weaker position to stand up for its citizens.

Google’s record €2.4bn (£2.12bn) fine for breaching European competition rules is an eye-catching example of the EU taking on the Silicon Valley giants. It is also just one part of a larger battle to get to grips with the influence of US-based web firms.

From fake news to tax, the European Commission has taken the lead in investigating and, in this instance, sanctioning, the likes of Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon for practices it believes are either anti-competitive for European business or detrimental to the lives of its citizens.

Only in May the commission fined Facebook €110m for providing misleading information about its takeover of WhatsApp. In January, it issued a warning to Facebook over its role in spreading fake news. Last summer, it ordered Apple to pay an extra €13bn in tax it claims should have been paid in Ireland (the Irish government had offered a tax break). Now Google has been hit for favouring its own price comparison services in its search results. In other words, consumers who used Google to find the best price for a product across the internet were in fact being gently nudged towards the search engine giant's own comparison website.

As European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager put it:

"Google has come up with many innovative products and services that have made a difference to our lives. That's a good thing. But Google's strategy for its comparison shopping service wasn't just about attracting customers by making its product better than those of its rivals. Instead, Google abused its market dominance as a search engine by promoting its own comparison shopping service in its search results, and demoting those of competitors.

"What Google has done is illegal under EU antitrust rules. It denied other companies the chance to compete on the merits and to innovate. And most importantly, it denied European consumers a genuine choice of services and the full benefits of innovation."

The border-busting power of these mostly US-based digital companies is increasingly defining how people across Europe and the rest of the world live their lives. It is for the most part hugely beneficial for the people who use their services, but the EU understandably wants to make sure it has some control over them.

This isn't about beating up on the tech companies. They are profit-maximising entities that have their own goals and agendas, and that's perfectly fine. But it's vital to to have a democratic entity that can represent the needs of its citizens. So far the EU has proved the only organisation with both the will and strength to do so.

The US Federal Communications Commission could also do more to provide a check on their power, but has rarely shown the determination to do so. And this is unlikely to change under Donald Trump - the US Congress recently voted to block proposed FCC rules on telecoms companies selling user data.

Other countries such as China have resisted the influence of the internet giants, but primarily by simply cutting off their access and relying on home-grown alternatives it can control better.  

And so it has fallen to the EU to fight to ensure that its citizens get the benefits of the digital revolution without handing complete control over our online lives to companies based far away.

It's a battle that the UK has never seemed especially keen on, and one it will be effectively retreat from when it leaves the EU.

Of course the UK government is likely to continue ramping up rhetoric on issues such as encryption, fake news and the dissemination of extremist views.

But after Brexit, its bargaining power will be weak, especially if the priority becomes bringing in foreign investment to counteract the impact Brexit will have on our finances. Unlike Ireland, we will not be told that offering huge tax breaks broke state aid rules. But if so much economic activity relies on their presence will our MPs and own regulatory bodies decide to stand up for the privacy rights of UK citizens?

As with trade, when it comes to dealing with large transnational challenges posed by the web, it is far better to be part of a large bloc speaking as one than a lone voice.

Companies such as Google and Facebook owe much of their success and power to their ability to easily transcend borders. It is unsurprising that the only democratic institution prepared and equipped to moderate that power is also built across borders.

After Brexit, Europe will most likely continue to defend the interests of its citizens against the worst excesses of the global web firms. But outside the EU, the UK will have very little power to resist them.

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