Leader: The hollow centre that the Liberal Democrats are failing to fill

With Labour and the Conservatives backing Brexit, these should be propitious times for the Lib Dems. But they are struggling to poll above ten per cent.

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Just over a decade ago, liberalism appeared hegemonic in British politics. Tony Blair, David Cameron and Nick Clegg shared a belief in free markets, personal freedom and liberal globalisation. Those outside this complacent consensus – the Labour left and the Tory right – were regarded as irrelevant and outmoded. Yet liberalism’s victory proved to be a false dawn. In Britain, its adherents have been cast to the margins, as they have elsewhere in Europe. The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in 2015 and the UK’s vote to leave the EU were, in different ways, repudiations of market liberalism. Mr Corbyn rejects the free movement of capital; the Brexiteers reject the free movement of people.

No party better exemplifies the retreat of liberalism than its chief exponents: the Liberal Democrats. Yet these should be propitious times for the party. Both Labour and the Conservatives support Brexit and have rejected demands for a second referendum. And millions of centrist voters complain of being unrepresented or “politically homeless”. This should create an opportunity for the Lib Dems, but under the leadership of Vince Cable, the party is struggling to poll above ten per cent.

Some of this reflects the enduring political damage of the coalition government and the Lib Dems’ association with austerity. A party that consistently pitched itself to the left of New Labour – opposing the Iraq War, university tuition fees and privatisation – has been punished for propping up a right-wing Conservative administration. In 2010, Mr Clegg and his allies enabled the very policies they campaigned against: deep public-spending cuts and higher tuition fees (which were tripled from £3,000 to £9,000 by the coalition). After 2015, Mr Clegg’s successor as leader, Tim Farron, struggled to redefine his party’s purpose and alienated liberal voters with his religious conservatism.

This alone does not account for the Lib Dems’ plight. Mr Cable, who secured the leadership unopposed in 2017, has failed to lead with energy, authority and imagination.

Beyond opposition to Brexit – a position that alienates some of the party’s lost voters in the south-west of England – the Lib Dems have not offered a compelling alternative. An exodus of long-serving advisers has led to avoidable blunders: Mr Cable and Mr Farron recently missed several crucial Brexit parliamentary votes (the former was reportedly attending talks on the creation of a new centrist party). The Lib Dems, who are seldom averse to regicide, have already begun to plot against their faltering leader.

The party should seek inspiration from across the Channel, where Emmanuel Macron, an unapologetic pro-EU liberal optimist, won the presidency after forming his own movement. A mere two years after its creation, La République En Marche! has 310 MPs and nearly 400,000 members. Mr Macron’s success demonstrates how, through charisma, force of personality and intellectual ambition, liberals can command attention and win. Leadership matters.

However, it is worth noting that Mr Macron won only 24 per cent of the vote in the first round of the French presidential election in 2017 and his approval rating has fallen. And in the UK, our first-past-the-post parliamentary system conspires against the creation of new, insurgent parties – Ukip won nearly four million votes at the 2015 general election but returned only one MP.

If there is an unoccupied space in British politics, it is not liberal centrism but leftist conservatism. There is widespread public support for Labour’s economic programme of nationalisation and redistribution, but also for reduced immigration and tougher crime policies. In the wake of a “Brexit betrayal”, a new populist party – call it “red Ukip” – could yet claim this territory.

At present, liberals too often exude an unwarranted sense of entitlement. Rather than denouncing voters for embracing Brexit and Corbynism, they would do better to understand the new forces at play. If liberals fail to do so, their death will be far from strange. 

This article appears in the 08 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise and fall of Islamic State

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