Change UK are facing a new reality: one in which the Liberal Democrats are a serious force

The new party has been privately split on how to handle the Liberal Democrats – but now the decision has been taken for them. 

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The argument for Change UK rests on two foundations. The first is that the two major parties are inadequate for the challenges the country faces and that neither has any business running the country. The second is that none of the existing challenger parties are capable of filling the gap.

The case against three of the United Kingdom’s four challenger parties is, from a Change UK perspective, open-and-shut: the SNP and Plaid Cymru are pro-independence parties while Change is a unionist party, or at least all 11 of its current MPs are. The Green party is an explicitly ecological party while Change UK is not.

But the case against the Liberal Democrats is more complicated: they are competing for broadly the same political territory, though there are a number of important policy differences between the two groups. And so there are a range of views among the 11 members of Change UK’s parliamentary group as to how best to deal with the Liberal Democrats.

The dominant view among Change’s former Labour contingent was that the Liberal Democrat brand is irretrievably tainted thanks to their participation in coalition, and that their overall message that politics is broken and needs a new force to fix it applies equally to the Liberal Democrats. When the original seven founders announced themselves to the world, they ruled out pacts or deals with other parties.

But that theory wasn’t universally held by all of Change’s Labour contingent, or the three Conservatives who joined later that week. Heidi Allen, the party’s interim leader, works closely with her local Liberal Democrats in South Cambridgeshire and is of the view that co-operation rather than conflict between the two groups is the best way forward.

Until last week, the dominant view – and the one that influenced a strategy memo that was leaked to the Mail – was that Change had to first knock the Liberal Democrats out of contention, before turning to the other parties. As one of their MPs said to me: “The prize is that seven, eight per cent saying they’ll vote Liberal Democrat. There will always be a Liberal Democrat party but the challenge is to signal to most of their voters that we are the better option.” The plan to do it? Entice away the party’s donors, the majority of their MPs, their activists and councilors and leave a husk behind.

Viewed in February, when the founding seven split off to establish the Independent Group, that account of the Liberal Democrat position wasn’t necessarily wrong. Of the six elections (three locals, two devolved, one general election) the the party had fought prior to then, the party had enjoyed a small recovery in four, went backwards in one and trod water in the sixth. The evidence that what used to be the United Kingdom’s third party could be relegated to an afterthought, while not a slam-dunk, was not non-existent either.

There is a lot we still don’t know and properly understand about last week. But we do know for certain that the Liberal Democrats are not going to die out, at least not at the speed that Change UK would need them to. It’s not just the scale and breadth of the gains they made in the local elections – it is the level of entrenchment around their sitting MPs. Of the eight Liberal Democrat MPs in England, all of them now represent seats where a majority of their own wards have Liberal Democrat representation at every level, from parliamentary on down. That’s a formidable infrastructure to walk away from.

That means that Change UK are going to have to adjust to a new reality, one in which they have to work with the Liberal Democrats rather than against them, if they want to survive, let alone thrive. That new reality is part of why there are serious discussions underway about a joint Remain candidate in Peterborough.

But part of the problem for Change UK is that the Liberal Democrats have already selected candidates everywhere they might realistically hope to win next time. As it stands, any talk of an alliance between the two parties is going to be fairly one-sided.

That means Change UK now, realistically, has a different set of objectives for the European elections. That is to show that they can reach parts of the country that the Liberal Democrats cannot – that they bring more than just 11 homeless MPs to the table.

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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