The Future of the Liberal Democrats: A Party in Free-fall
With politics at its most polarising state since the days of Margaret Thatcher, the Conservatives and Labour have overshadowed the other opposition parties. One such party is the Liberal Democrats, and their history, current problems and their future make for an interesting discussion. Where are they currently? Can the party even survive?
The Liberal Democrats formed in 1988 after a merger between the Liberal Democrats and the Social Democratic Party following a series of disappointing results. The Social Democratic Party itself formed in 1981 as a breakaway party from Labour following the election of Michael Foot and divisions in the party. It has been led by notable figures including Paddy Ashdown, Charles Kennedy and Nick Clegg. It is currently being led by Vince Cable following the resignation of Tim Farron after the 2017 General Election.
The Problems of Today
The Liberal Democrats are in a state of confusion and perhaps disarray at the moment. That might come across as misguided, given some of the signs of recovery. Party membership has increased from around 78,000 in December of 2016 to nearly 100,000 by August of 2018. They have made gains in terms of seats in Parliament, from eight seats in 2015 to twelve in 2017. And in the most recent local elections, the party made reasonable gains, winning four councils.
While there have been improvements, it is not the #LibDemFightback that supporters have been hoping for. Resentment towards Brexit has not been enough for the majority of the 48% to pledge their loyalties to the party. Their leader, Vince Cable, is a symbol of the past and the problems that existed within it. The fact of the matter is that politics is more polarised than ever, engulfed in an ongoing war between Corbyn’s Labour and May’s Conservatives, thus leaving the centre ground wide open. And not even the Liberal Democrats are powerful enough to unite those taking the middle of the road. This is reflective in the polls, which have recently shown the party to hover between seven and eleven percent. This is poor compared to previous electoral results, where at its height in 2010, the party achieved 23% of the vote.
It could indeed be argued that their problems at the moment are not completely through their failings. Indeed, their electoral misfortunes can also be attributed to the two-party system as effectively created by First Past The Post. First Past the Post is an electoral system that involves voters casting their ballot for local MPs as opposed to voting for the party nationwide. The primary problem with the system is that a party can win the election in terms of seats but not win a majority of votes. This has been the case historically in 1951 where the Conservatives won the election but only received 48% of the vote, and in February of 1974 where Labour won the election but the Conservatives gained the most votes.
So, the issue may not just be isolated within the failings of the party, but also within the shortcomings of the system itself. That makes it difficult for floating voters to consider voting for the Liberal Democrats, as it causes a conflict between voting for ideas you support and voting for a party that you may not agree with, but ultimately prefer over the other major party. But even so, the Liberal Democrats, in the state they are in, would not make a significant impact on the election. The Electoral Reform Society published a series of projected results under different voting systems, including Alternative Voting and the Additional Member System. In these results, the Liberal Democrats achieve no more than forty seats. It is important to emphasise that they are estimates, and not guaranteed. But they still give an idea of just how unpopular this party is at the moment.
The Solutions of Tomorrow
There is an evident struggle within the party to find itself and set itself apart from the rest except on Brexit. I’ve talked about problems. Now it is time to talk solutions. Honestly, the future for the Liberal Democrats, in my opinion, is very bleak. The very name, Liberal Democrat, is tainted by the failings of the past during the coalition years. From losing the confidence of the young vote on tuition fees to failed bids for reform on issues like the House of Lords, the party crashed out of the 2015 General Election as a miserable excuse for what they once were. And that is quite sad to see, given some of the ideas, they now propose - garden cities, legalised and regulated cannabis distribution, votes for sixteen-year-olds and democratising the House of Lords. But that does not mean it is the end for the ideas, so much as it should be the end of the party itself. They need to rebrand themselves into a different party with a different structure, distancing themselves from the coalition years. That means also replacing Vince Cable with someone different, someone who is more dynamic and can appeal to the younger population in particular. Layla Moran is an interesting figure to consider, having recently been elected for the first time in 2017. She has an impressive educational background, reflective in her being the Party Spokesperson for Education, and is already gaining experience as an MP and being a member of the Public Accounts Committee. In the near future, she could become the ideal leader that can distance from the coalition sufficiently and unite the middle ground. Proposing electoral change, institutional reform, as well as other major reforms like legalising cannabis is important to advertise as much as on Brexit. It is important that this party stops acting like a pressure group on Europe and starts acting like a party with a manifesto beyond Brexit. Otherwise, they will likely descend even further, much like UKIP did on the other end of the spectrum after their goal of leaving the EU was achieved.
I am a Labour Party member, so my bias, if it is not visible already, is now clear. But I am trying to see the other side of the argument, especially since I briefly considered becoming a member of the Liberal Democrats shortly before the 2017 General Election. They had appeal, they had ideas, and they could regain my confidence as a young student looking for a party to turn to. But what let me down was their neglect for everything except Brexit, and the limited vision they had and still have. Single-issue parties will not survive for long, and while it is completely valid to argue that gains have been made and that the electoral system is ultimately the problem, the party mentality and attitude seems misguided. Vince Cable has already announced his intention to resign once Brexit “is resolved”, indicating the short-termed nature of him as a leader, and the over-sold pitch on Europe that is clouding the vision of the party. They need to rebrand, they need to remove the symbols of the past in the coalition government, and they need to start fresh. They cannot continue to build on their recent, albeit minimal, successes with the same approach. They need to change.