“We're making a terrible mistake”: why Liberal Democrats are starting to worry

Not all is well in Britain's third party. 

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In the final few weeks of the last Liberal Democrat leadership race, there was a sudden outbreak of unease in the party’s upper echelons about their incoming leader, Tim Farron. Their worries? That Norman Lamb, his opponent, had been “too soft” on Farron’s voting record on equality issues and on reproductive rights, and that their soon-to-be leader would be cruelly exposed on that front during an election campaign.

Now the same worries are gripping the party as they elect a replacement for Tim Farron. Senior Liberal Democrats and party activists are concerned both at the lack of a contest – Vince Cable is running unopposed – and at the candidate.

Driving their fears about the former is that not having a proper contest means that the post-mortem about the 2017 election result is being neglected. There is a lively debate even about whether or not the 2017 election was a good night or a bad one for the Liberal Democrats. On the “good night” side, the party won 12 seats, and got within shouting distance in a further five. But on the “bad night” side, others point out that the party lost votes even on its dismal 2015 showing. It is in third place in 15 of the 57 seats it held in 2010, and fourth in a further six. (It came fifth in Bradford East, but that result was partly because the Liberal Democrat former MP, David Ward, ran as an independent, coming third.)

Those who believe it was a bad night are further divided over why it was a bad night. Some solely blame Farron for what one candidate describes as a “fucking catastrophe”, while others believe that the wider context of the election. One of the anti-Farronistas puts it like this: “We had a problem where no one wanted to give him a hard time on the God-bothering  [in the leadership race], but obviously Labour and the Conservatives had no such qualms, so instead of dealing with it internally our election campaign became a theology seminar”.

They say that Farron hurt the party badly with its longstanding LGBT vote and that the conversation about sin crowded out their message, and alienated possible Labour converts. “You clearly had at this election a lot of people who did not want to vote for Corbyn or May,” one Liberal Democrat says, “We should have been the natural home for them, but Tim turned them off, and because we looked like a wasted vote, we got smashed everywhere.”

Some believe that the problem was not Farron, but timing. The party’s anti-Brexit message, they believe, will grow in its appeal but the consequences of Britain’s Out vote are not yet keenly felt – and the reality of Labour’s commitment to a harder exit from the European Union has not yet made itself felt among Remain-supporting voters.

But for another group, the problem is that first-past-the-post means that Remainers will never be able to desert Labour in sufficient numbers to benefit the Liberal Democrats. They believe the party needs a complete rethink of its approach. “We still seem to have this attitude of ‘if we wait in the middle, they will come to us’,” one says.  

There are also growing concerns about Cable himself. My colleague Anoosh’s interview with him made headlines because of his comment that Theresa May’s “citizens of nowhere”  speech channelled Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, but his remark that race and gender “ isn’t an issue any more” is the one that has left party members feeling irritable, particularly because many members were excited about the possibility of electing their first woman leader.

Also alarming senior Liberal Democrats are what some see as his excessive candour. Yesterday, Cable told journalists that Britain’s Brexit vote was primarily driven by elderly voters worried about “Turks” coming to their villages and people outside “first-tier cities”.

“I agree with him,” one said, “But how are we going to win Yeovil without elderly voters? What seats are we going to gain in cities? Labour has a lock on those now. It just feels like he’s going for voters who will never support us. I think we’re making a terrible mistake.”

Not all are of that view. “I think we’re in the brilliant position where we have four people who could have made a great leader, and Vince is one,” says one former Liberal Democrat MP. “Now if you look at the Tories, they can’t find anyone better than Theresa May.” 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.