Why are the Liberal Democrats doing so badly?

The third party isn’t even winning a majority of votes from people who agree with its signature policy. 

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The Liberal Democrats are not doing well. The party’s poll share is stuck at around six to seven per cent, a little worse than what they got at the election. In of itself you’d sort of expect that to happen: when the third party is not in government their numbers tend to drop off a bit due to lack of attention.

But the political situation should be more favourable to them: they have a distinctive Brexit position (the only other parties who are as or more anti-Brexit are the SNP and Plaid Cymru, who do not stand outside of Scotland and Wales respectively, and the Greens, who have an even smaller media footprint than the Liberal Democrats do). And there is a large number of people who, when asked to pick between Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May, opt for a shrug. (“Don’t Know” always does well and has now beaten both May and Corbyn into first place for the first time in YouGov’s history.)

Yet the Liberal Democrats are getting a little over one in ten of those who say “Don’t Know” which of Corbyn and May they prefer. They are picking up fewer than two out of every ten people who say they think Brexit should be stopped, and just 40 per cent of those who back the Liberal Democrat position of a referendum on the final deal.

Something has gone very wrong. I’m not going to pretend to fully know what but the Liberal Democrats are not even getting the votes of what ought to be their core. I don’t think it can entirely be the after-taste of coalition, as local election results show that the party is still capable of tapping into localised opposition to both the major parties. (Just last night they notched up a very impressive win in Sunderland off the back of the unpopularity of the local council.) But for one reason or another, the Liberal Democrats are not doing as well as the national circumstances might suggest.

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.

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