Thanks to Brexit and low voter approval ratings for Corbyn and May, the Liberal Democrats think there is a clear space opening up for them in politics. They hope to capitalise on it at the next general election.
There are 20 constituencies where the party needs fewer than 10,000 votes to win, and it has selected candidates in 15 of them so far. Of the 20 target seats, 14 are held by the Tories, three by the SNP, two by Labour, and one by Plaid Cymru. Most of them voted to Remain, but some narrowly backed Leave, including several in South West England where the party has traditionally fared well.
Professionally, they’re like current Liberal Democrat MPs
Several candidates have backgrounds in international affairs and development, while others have worked in journalism, teaching and law. Three are former MPs who lost their seats.
Kirsten Johnson, a pianist who is contesting North Devon, said she entered politics to push for more money for mental health services and reduce the gap between rich and poor. “The Liberal Democrats stand for equality across all sections of society, whether economic, gender or any other equality. I think we need to have more people from all walks of life.”
Daisy Cooper, who has a background in international affairs and is standing in St Albans, described herself as the anti-Brexit, pro-People’s Vote candidate. “I’m internationalist, pro-business, pro-environment – increasingly these are the values that will guide the future of the country.”
They want to be more than the anti-Brexit party
Several candidates said they were concerned about being typecast as the anti-Brexit party, a brand that failed to win them many new votes in the 2017 snap election.
“We’re not harvesting a great return from the Brexit crisis in the way that I think logically we should,” one candidate in a Tory-held seat said. “There are so many other things that we need to be getting across. We have a stock line which to the media is very boring: exit from Brexit, things can only be resolved by putting the matter to a People’s Vote… we’ve said it enough times, I don’t think we need to keep on saying it.”
“You can’t be anti Brexit forever,” another added. “If it was up to me and we picked one policy area to own, it would be education.” A third candidate agreed that the party should push its message on health and education in “one sentence, not a 28-page document”.
They disagree on whether to go into coalition…
In their 2017 manifesto the Lib Dems ruled out coalition with either Corbyn’s Labour or May’s Tories, and expressed an ambition to become the official opposition instead. Candidates are now divided on whether the party should revisit this question and consider going into coalition after the next election.
One prospective MP was adamant that “our position is that we will not go into coalition”, and said the most the major parties could hope for was a confidence and supply agreement. “We tried to do what was best in the country in 2010 and it ended up hurting us.” Another candidate agreed that he was “not enthusiastic about jumping in with” Corbyn’s Labour or Brexiteer-led Tories, and backed confidence and supply.
But a third candidate was “not against going into coalition. If there’s a chance to get hold of the levers of power you’ve got to take it.” Another said he had no qualms about governing with either Labour or the Tories under their current leaderships. “You make a difference by getting stuff done, and sometimes that means working with people.”
A fifth candidate ruled out coalition “with any Conservative party looking like it is now”, but said the same did not apply of Corbyn-led Labour. “A lot of his values and principles I don’t have a problem with. It’s question of how responsible we would appear to be for decisions that we fundamentally disagreed with.”
… but sense that there’s ‘coalition nostalgia’
Several candidates reported a wistfulness on the doorstep for the days of Cameron and Clegg, particularly among Tory voters. “What we’re finding is that in more Conservative areas of the seat, people are becoming increasingly open to the Lib Dem message. I’ve got no hard evidence, but my feeling is they are longing for the more stable coalition government.”
“There’s quite a lot of coalition nostalgia and a softening of views,” another agreed. “People are looking back more and saying the country was really well governed by a moderate government and, above all, we didn’t leave the EU by mistake.”
A third candidate said: “People have […] looked at what happens when there aren’t Liberal Democrats in government with the Tories, and have decided they like that less.”
Candidates contesting Tory-held seats that voted to Remain were the most optimistic about their prospects. One candidate said he was “quietly confident” of victory at the next election.
They are suspicious of TIG
None of the candidates were opposed to working with the Independent Group, which is in the process of registering as a party called Change UK. But most were sceptical of it and several of its MPs. “There are worries about their policy stances,” one said.
Several candidates brought up Chuka Umunna’s call for a form of national service, which liberals would be “aghast at”. They also mentioned Joan Ryan’s deputy chairmanship of the ‘No to Alternative Voting’ campaign in the 2011 referendum that would have changed Britain’s voting system.
Candidates argued that TIG has yet to develop its own policies. “We’re clear what we stand for. We need to know what they represent,” one said. “With some of them it’s clear they were leaving something rather than going towards something,” according to another.
But some candidates stressed that the most important thing for the Liberal Democrats is “that we are seen to be part of something new”. “The only logical approach is to work with a new broadly moderate, centrist, liberal, pro EU, internationalist movement,” one said.
They want a new leader who can raise their profile
Vince Cable, who has led the party since 2017, will step aside for a new leader in May. Three MPs – Jo Swinson, Ed Davey and Layla Moran – are said to be vying for the post. Most candidates are keeping an open mind about the contestants but want their new leader to raise the party’s profile.
“The Liberal Democrats are almost completely out of the story,” one prospective MP said. “I’m like anyone else who wants to change things for the better and get these Tories out and more of us in. We need someone who is going to give us more of a profile, at the moment we are almost invisible.”
Another candidate, who said his preference was Moran, said the party should choose “someone with a new way of thinking and a new energy. We need the next Paddy Ashdown rather than the next Clegg”.
Several candidates backed Swinson because they saw her as the most able to communicate with the public. “There’s the reason she was the first Lib Dem MP that the Independent Group wanted to talk to,” one candidate said. “It’s about the way Jo can communicate with the outside world,” according to another.
Though Davey was also popular amongst the candidates, several of them stressed that the party would benefit electorally from being led by a woman. “We’ve got two very good female candidates,” one prospective MP said. “If they were overlooked in favour of a man that would not look good.”