Charlie Simon unsubscribed from the Liberal Democrats’ mailing list on Monday. A longtime supporter of the UK’s centrist party, he concluded it had produced no “memorable piece of political engagement” since the 2019 election. “My feeling is that they’re slow, sluggish, they’ve lost momentum. They feel rudderless,” he sighs.
A pro-EU 33-year-old public relations professional living in London, Mr Simon should be a top target for the Lib Dems. But he now feels at home in Keir Starmer’s Labour party — and he is not alone among his peers.
“What is the point of them?” Edward, another former Lib Dem voter who declined to give his surname, asks of the party. “Labour are now occupying the space for the ‘sensible voter who wishes to vote against the government’. I have no idea what I’d be actively voting for with the Lib Dems.”
The third party of British politics is in crisis. It has suffered the dual humiliations of seeing its previous leader, Jo Swinson, lose her seat and, with Brexit, the loss of its primary focus of remaining in the EU. According to recent polls, just 6 per cent of the electorate would vote for the Lib Dems, leaving them vying with the Greens for third place. It is a dramatic fall for a party that was in government just six years ago.
The pandemic is a challenge for all opposition parties. Labour is struggling to make headway and is often trapped supporting the government’s policies on Covid-19. But the Lib Dems have barely been heard on coronavirus.
The party succeeds when it has a charismatic leader who can make his or her mark on the issue of the day. In the 1990s, Paddy Ashdown had a strong voice in foreign policy as communist governments fell in Europe; his successor Charles Kennedy was outspoken during the Iraq war in the early 2000s. Nick Clegg led the party into coalition government and served as deputy prime minister, but was associated with the unpopular tuition fees that ultimately led to his downfall.
The current head, Ed Davey, has struggled to project himself as an insurgent third party leader. According to YouGov, just 43 per cent of Britons even know who he is, compared with 52 per cent for the Green party’s sole MP, Caroline Lucas.
The Lib Dems succeed best when both main parties are led by moderates, so a liberal vote feels safe. But Mr Starmer has taken over much of the centre ground. Leaked research confirms that most of Labour’s polling gains have come from the Lib Dems.
One route to regaining seats may be to focus on well-heeled southern England, which has traditionally had little cultural affinity with Labour. The Lib Dems — who now have 11 seats — came second in 91 at the 2019 election, most of them won by the Conservatives. A swing of less than 1 per cent could see them take six seats from Boris Johnson’s ruling Tories, significantly boosting their parliamentary standing.
The spa town of Cheltenham is one target: the Tories clung on there with a majority of just 981 votes in 2019. Max Wilkinson, the Lib Dem candidate, is up for re-election as a local councillor in May. While Mr Wilkinson’s campaign is concentrating on local issues and climate change, he believes the party needs a bigger rethink.
“We need to focus less on policy wonkery and figure out how to communicate what liberalism stands for in a post-EU membership world,” he says. “We are nice, well-meaning people who do a lot of good in our communities. But the party spends too much time on internal processes and internal policy debates.”
These lofty ambitions are part of the search for new purpose, but they also speak to the party’s existential dilemma. Its prominence in the coalition and in the Brexit debate has given it notions of power. But by trying to position itself equidistant between the Tories and Labour, it has entered an electoral dead end.
Instead of aspiring to Westminster prominence, the Lib Dems need to go local. The party should shed delusions of becoming the main national opposition and focus instead on specific places where they can beat the Tories with a liberal centrist platform. That is the only path to growth. And with growth comes relevance.