The local election result presented a conundrum for Change UK. The Liberal Democrats emerged as the biggest winners of the night, with their best-ever local performance. When the results were all in, they had 1,350 councillors, a net gain of 703 on 2015 figures, and controlled 18 councils.
This is a problem for a new party whose existence rests on the idea that the Liberal Democrats are a spent force that cannot champion the anti-Brexit cause. That argument is turned on its head by the fact that Change UK is now polling between 5 and 7 per cent in the EU elections, compared to the Liberal Democrats’ 12 to 15 per cent.
But senior figures in Change UK think their party still has an edge on the Lib Dems. They argue that they are attracting support from three groups: long-term Labour voters who dislike the Lib Dems because of the coalition government; those who have previously voted Lib Dem or Green but were frustrated when doing so made no difference; and people who have never been involved in politics, but are enthused by a new party that’s pledging to do things differently. The party also thinks it can do well in regions where the Lib Dem presence is weak, such as the East Midlands.
What holds the Liberal Democrats back, according to a senior Change UK source, are “the same inherent problems” faced by Tories and Labour. “They are tribal. That tribalism has got to end. […] I don’t think it resonates with people in the country.”
They argued that although the Lib Dems gained some of what they lost in the disastrous 2015 poll, Change UK is “adding to the pool” because “there are people getting involved who have never been involved before” – as well as ex-Labour and Tory candidates and MPs who were looking for a new movement.
“Because we have rejected the established parties by leaving them, there is a perception of us rejecting what they’ve done in the past,” another senior Change UK source said. “Labour members still have an issue with Liberal Democrats because of cuts [by the coalition government].” Sources also said that the Lib Dems had “lost people’s trust over tuition fees” because “they made promises that they wouldn’t do stuff that they then went on to do.”
It demonstrates how Change UK has a difficult balance to strike. It is keen to stress its “unprecedented” cross-party working credentials – tabling joint amendments and opposition day debates, holding joint talks and rallies – while at the same time pointing to the Lib Dems’ flaws as reasons for which people should get behind Change UK instead. The Liberal Democrats want to shed the toxic image they acquired in the coalition years and won’t be thrilled when their supposed allies continue to drag them through the mud.
Meanwhile, in Change UK there is a nervousness that the party has lost its momentum and will fail to make a major mark in the EU elections. Its name change – which was a requirement from the Electoral Commission for it to register as a party – has damaged its recognition. “If you say to people ‘The Independent Group’, they’ll say ‘oh, yeah’, if you say ‘Change UK’, they haven’t got that yet,” one senior party source said.
Party figures emphasise that they have only been registered for a month, and lack the infrastructure and resources of the established parties, yet have still amassed 98,000 registered supporters since February. They had a difficult internal debate about whether to contest the European elections at such short notice. “The easy thing would have been to sit it out – but it wouldn’t have been the right thing, there is an argument to be made. We would have been marginalised and ridiculed if we’d not stood,” one senior source said. “For us this is an opportunity to dip our toes in the water.”