How is Brexit changing the Liberal Democrats? The fear that a minority of Liberal Democrat members have is that the party is losing something of itself, both because of its openness to parliamentary defectors who do not share its values, and because its surging membership – up from around the 50,000 mark to over 120,000 – is turning it into what one activist described to me as “the electoral wing of FBPE”, the social media movement of angry Remainers.
Of course, the nature of the Liberal Democrats is that “losing its identity” means different things for different people. The party has always been something of a trolley with a wobbly wheel – a party that nominally goes in a straight line down the middle but lists in one direction or another. For most of its life, that has made it a party of the liberal centre to centre-left, and some of its members fear that its new intake will mean it shifts permanently to the liberal centre to centre-right. Others fear that it will shift permanently to being a party of the liberal centre to centre-left. A third group worries that it will become, just as Labour for much of its life has been a centre-left party with some genuine socialists in it in Tony Benn’s phrase, a centre-left party with liberal characteristics.
Who’s right? Are any of them right? Well, we just don’t have enough to go on. That Liberal Democrat members opted today by very narrow margins to back measures to tackle obesity and alcoholism that draw heavily from its liberal-left traditions rather than its libertarian-right ones gives us an idea of where it is at the moment: finely balanced, but essentially in the position it has occupied for decades. That the party rank and file seems, anecdotally, to be fondest of its Labour defectors also suggests where it is at the moment: again, in a centre to centre-left liberal position.
Its future direction might yet be different – but at the moment, the curious quirk of the Liberal Democrat party is that it hasn’t changed all that much – even though most of the members here have never attended before.