Vince Cable has been under heavy fire since the weekend, when he used his big speech to the Liberal Democrat party conference to claim that the Brexit vote was driven by “nostalgia for a world where faces were white [and] passports were blue”, for which one particularly irate complainant reported the party’s leader for hate crimes.
Is it a gaffe? That’s an interesting question and it speaks to the wider question of what the Liberal Democrat electoral strategy actually is. It is unimpeachably true to say that the Brexit vote was driven, not exclusively but primarily, both by people who believed that the United Kingdom had fallen from a state of grace and that the clock needed to be turned back, and by concern over immigration – although not solely immigration from the nations of the European Union either.
The problem, of course, is that just because something is unimpeachably true doesn’t mean it is politically wise or particularly useful to say so. As with the broader trend to describe politics as “open versus closed” – that is the liberal city dweller versus the communitarian small-town and village person, or “anywhere versus somewheres” – the difficulty with these dividing lines is they make a specific value judgement: in favour of the liberal “open” in the case of the “open versus closed” divide or the communtarian “somewhere” as far as the “anywhere versus somewhere” divide goes. If you are Sadiq Khan and most of your core vote and the swing vote is “Open”, it’s fantastic. If you are Jeremy Corbyn or Theresa May, it’s tricky to win a parliamentary majority solely with the votes of the open or the Anywheres, and calling the other lot “closed” or “citizens of nowhere” tends to irritate rather than win people over.
But of course, the Liberal Democrats aren’t aiming for a parliamentary majority or anything like that: they would, obviously, do a whole lot better if they were able to attract the voters of all of the “ultra-open”, or whatever you want to call them, behind their candidates. That would be enough for 15 per cent of the vote in a general election and considerably more in a low turnout local election (as the “open” or the “anywheres” tend to vote more reliably).
So actually, it makes a lot of sense for the Liberal Democrats to make a lot of noise and effectively to try to rebrand themselves as Ukip, but for socially liberal Remainers. However, this approach is currently running into two problems: the first is that socially liberal Remainers don’t seem to be particularly inclined to vote Liberal Democrat at the moment. The second is that when Nigel Farage said something that offended everyone outside of that hardcore Ukip vote of 10 to 15 per cent of the electorate, it was repeated regularly in broadcast, while Cable’s similar outbursts are not getting a similar airing.