Can the Liberal Democrats really save us from a Tory government?

Fool me once….

This weekend the once formidable political force in British politics known as the Liberal Democrats held their annual party conference, and attempted to make the most of the now exceedingly rare chance they had to make some headlines and address the country with their latest pitch as to why the Lib Dems really should be Winning Here near you at the next election.

Taking advantage of the annual conference season, over the coming week, I will be publishing 4 reflective essays on the position of the four major parties in English (I’m not excluding the SNP or Plaid, I just don’t have the in depth knowledge of Scottish or Welsh politics to do either justice) politics as of 2021, and how their performance across the UK is likely to change over the next year… starting, of course, with:

THE LIBERAL DEMOCRATS

Once the UK’s third largest party, and the kingmakers of the 2010 Parliament, resulting in Liberal Democrat government ministers, the Liberal Democrats used to be a fighting force in British politics. For years they cultivated support at a local level as a third option when both Labour and Tory seemed unappealing to middle England, finding a unique localist appeal by delivering for constituents and acting as political ninjas, changing positions depending on what by-election or region of the country they were speaking to, and hammering that message with swathes of door knockers and leaflets. This was combined with a string of compelling, unique, and eccentric national leaders, giving the party an energy and a character that pulled the somewhat contradictory strategy behind the party at its founding (a combination of social-democratic idealism and hyper-liberal individualism) into a coherent and compelling cocktail that won more and more votes as both Labour and the Tories merged into near identical parties of instinctively small c conservative, neoliberal warmongers in the 2000s.

Nowadays the Liberal Democrats face a mortal struggle for their very political survival in our body politick. In the aftermath of the 2019 election to many an observer it seemed they had staked their last claim to relevance on an issue which was now settled, and not in the way they’d wanted it to be; this leading to many commentators and observers of British politics to begin to write the obituaries of the Liberal Democrats, with their odd political formation looking increasingly beyond salvation, and doomed to an increasingly rapid tailspin into irrelevance, with nothing to say and no new arguments to make heading into a turbulent political era in the 2020s. Well, the party went back to its roots in Chesham and Amersham, winning a large majority in a true blue Tory shire seat off the back of the votes of disgruntled, wealthy Tory Remainers finding the current PM too much to swallow, bringing the party back into the political spotlight, with a key question being raised about the Liberal Democrats in the wake of their 2021 party conference: have they been holding the keys to locking Boris Johnson out of Downing Street this whole time? And if the route to getting the Tories out of government is by handing kingmaker power to a nimby party defined by its worship of the European project, condemnation of house building, and commitment to a market economy with no analysis of class or link to trade unions, is it really worth setting such a path in motion? In other words, is a liberal-tinged government going to be much better than a Johnson-tinged government, and is it even remotely likely?

Introduction

The defining image of the Liberal Democrats that has got anywhere near the public consciousness this year is the above image of their latest in a long string of leaders, Ed Davey, smashing through a ceremonial blue brick wall with a comically small yellow hammer. In more ways than one, this image tells us a whole lot about what the Liberal Democrats think they need to do going forward, and what they need to stand for heading into the next election. Chesham and Amersham will be discussed plenty later on here, but above all else, it was a shot in the arm, a lifesaving shot in the arm, for the party. You couldn’t call the Lib Dems a dying party in the aftermath and the glow of that massive Tory defeat in their heartlands, and whether a blip or not, it borrowed the party time to begin to pick itself back together. Just like that, the conversation about the Liberal Democrat’s shifted, shifted to the position it’s in right now. In an alternate timeline where the Tories comfortably held that headland seat, the Lib Dems would have virtually nothing to say about their future position in British politics – but as a result of that fateful by-election column after column and comment after comment in the British media ecosphere has reflected a growing seriousness to the consideration of whether the Liberal Democrats are all talk, or whether they really do hold sway in the newly dubbed Blue Wall of Tory safe seats. The realities on the ground matter less for the party than the fact they’re being talked about in this way, because this brings them airtime and it brings them donations, two things they’re in dire need of.

The perspective of the left with regards to the Liberal Democrats is one of betrayal; they are, at core, after all, a centre-right political party of shape shifting technocrats that occasionally cosplays as a centre-left party of melts. In decades gone by the likes of Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy arguably at times positioned themselves sincerely to the left of both the Conservative opposition and the New Labour government, opposing the Iraq war (and winning 60+ parliamentary seats for their troubles) alongside proposing distinct solutions on the issues of the day, emphasising education, all while taking a very compelling and progressive stand on issues of civil liberties when both major parties felt like throwing them in the toilet, and broadly did in a legislative sense. In this period the Liberal Democrats argued from an almost social-democratic position, tapping into those historical roots that began with the SDP, and embracing the more leftward looking end of their political instincts, at least at a national level. This shifted dramatically with the arrival of Nick Clegg and his disciples, with their economic bible, The Orange Book, an economically liberal manifesto of ideas that dragged the Liberal Democrats strictly to the centre-right, with a dollop of social progressivism here and there. It was this iteration of the Liberal Democrats, that, while initially a hit with voters, sewed the seeds for the doom of the enterprise. Faced with the choice of a minority Labour government that promised to enact many of the reforms his party had long sought in exchange for the support of Lib Dem MPs to remain in office – or the option of joining coalition with David Cameron and George Osborne, and to be Deputy PM in an ideological government of the radical right, Clegg chose the latter and doomed his party’s prospects with the electorate going forwards, by acting as a rubber stamp for one of the worst governments (domestically) of our lifetimes, taking various reforms even further and crueller than Thatcher originally dared to, and carrying the never ending torch of her ideological crusade to dismantle the state and empower the ruling class yet further.

Brexit was meant to be the Liberal Democrat salvation, like manna from heaven for a party without a cause or a compelling post-coalition message, now reduced to a rump in Parliament. The Lib Dems pushed the debate further and further on the Remain side, antagonising and motivating the propertied middle classes and well meaning progressive minded graduates to believe their fantasies of overturning the largest democratic vote in the history of this country without any sort of blowback, even dragging Labour under Jeremy Corbyn to a point where it faced internal mutiny from the membership if it didn’t concede the argument in favour of a Second Referendum – at which point the Lib Dems refused to back Corbyn as PM (even though he’d accepted the only thing they’d been banging on about since the fateful 2016 referendum) and defining it was Revoke Article 50 or bust. Well, the eventual blowback did manifest, and it manifested in the form of an 80 seat Tory majority, with the Liberal Democrats and their allies in the corporate bankrolled People’s Vote campaign the delivery nurses for that disastrous Johnson government taking power on the eve of a global pandemic.

Now, the Liberal Democrats claim to have a new pitch, a new purpose, a new driving mission. In the guise of Paddy Ashdown in the 90s, they are claiming to be an anti-Tory force electorally, best placed to help decapitate a Tory majority and delivering a reforming government. We never saw how Ashdown would have behaved in a hung Parliament; the outcome Blair and his allies expected at the time, even though they had a large lead in the polls – but the idea was an unspoken acknowledgement that both Labour and Liberals should lay off each other in key areas and focus on fighting the Tories, even though they don’t stand down for each other or make any sort of formal pact. Now, Keir Starmer is no Tony Blair, and Ed Davey is most certainly no Paddy Ashdown, but the pitch has new merit in an era where the Johnson government is at risk of alienating some of the propertied middle classes living in Tory shires, mainly those with a more socially liberal outlook, who voted to Remain, and resent the culture warring tone of the current government. Chesham and Amersham proves there is a degree of seriousness to this idea, more seriousness than the proposition of STOP BREXIT or Revoke Article 50 ever were, and the Blue Wall analysis is a serious analysis with some merit when you look at the empirical evidence; it can be very easily overblown, but there are a handful of seats that could tip Lib Dem – the difference between what they say and what the case is, is that it’s nowhere nearly as many as they claim, and even then it would be a massive uphill climb for them in a national environment with everything under heavy scrutiny and the battle being about whether you want to wake up to a Tory or a Labour government on election morning.

The Liberal Democrats have earned the right to be taken seriously again, at least for now. But they grossly overestimate their centrality to the coming political battles at their peril, as 2019 and “Jo Swinson can be the next PM” showed us all in very vivid colour.

Chapter 1: Bollocks To Brexit?

We all know the main image of the Lib Dems this half decade has been of a party opposed to UK withdrawal from the EU – how does Europe impact the future course of the party, electorally and in terms of campaigning approach?

Stop Brexit. Bollocks to Brexit. Revoke Article 50. The Lib Dems have spend over 5 years on the loosing side of one of the most brutal and seismic battles British politics has ever endured, throwing everyone and the kitchen sink at preventing Brexit from coming to pass. It increasingly felt like they were shouting into the wind, increasingly weak and desperate, throwing the reputation of leaders, the integrity of the party, and the fate of the whole ideology underpinning it all onto the table, laying everything on the line for the off chance that the stars may align and that Brexit could be stopped.

The 17.4 million vote to Leave was by no means a stunning margin over Remain, but it was decisive, and it was the largest number of votes for any one thing in the history of electoral politics in this country. That, to most observers, would indicate a pretty solid desire for Brexit among the British voting public, or at the very least extreme antipathy to the proposition of Remain and its proponents. This is compounded by the fact the Liberal Democrat strategy to “Stop Brexit” seemed tailored to both undermine the prospect of a radical Labour government coming to power, and to maximise electoral gain by the Lib Dems at the expense of both major parties, much more than it was ever designed to maximise the prospects of staying in the EU. In other words, with the issue of Europe, the Lib Dems stuck to one position and hammered it, day after day, taking an increasingly marginalised and extreme position that culminated in a terrific act of self delusion, campaigning in 2019 pledging to both “Stop Brexit”, make their leader Prime Minister, and refusing to prop up a hypothetical Labour government committed to that second referendum they’d been chasing for years. A bizarre tail of a self defeating political tailspin that ended with the unfortunate leader of it all, Jo Swinson, rightfully loosing her seat.

So, as of now, what are the Liberal Democrats saying on Europe? Well, I unsurprisingly, they’ve rowed back on their 2019 position and it’s prominence very considerably. They’ve calved out a niche, by saying they’re Britain’s most “pro-European” political party, and unashamedly critiquing the perceived consequences (some overblown, some less so) of the Johnsonian Brexit deal in and out of Parliament, with a vague commitment to work towards building public consent to rejoin the trading bloc. After all this time, it really does feel like a fatigue with the issue is beginning to set in amongst some at the top of the party, as they attempt to steer their fellow travellers away from the most fervent of Rejoining fever amongst a very small segment of the electorate, but a very large segment of their membership. They know as well as we all do, that the public, be they Remain or Leave in 2016, are still sick to the back teeth of hearing about the issue, and that a Liberal Democrat campaign in 2023/4 focused on Rejoin would tank outside a small base of core support; with Leavers openly hostile, and soft Remainers apathetic. One of the strange things about those who so often position themselves as the “sensible centre” be they in Labour or the Lib Dems, is they’re the most likely to take a position on Europe clearly way out of the mainstream and electorally disastrous. A vague commitment to being pro-European and a very vague whispered ambition to Rejoin would harm Labour, but it won’t harm the Lib Dems (unless they talk about it constantly) considering they don’t really need to win Leave seats, and are targeting folks that were originally sympathetic to Remain and a People’s Vote; the circles they want to win over won’t be turned off by the idea of a pro-EU party, even if they would be by a single issue Rejoin-or-bust outfit, a big pitfall the party must not fall into at its own peril.

The Liberal Democrat strategy is to target Tory Remainers, or liberal Tories, or soft Tories, or whatever other adage you want to use – these are people who are generally pretty affluent, live in Tory heartland seats, hold a strong apathy to the prospect of anyone redistributing their wealth or messing with their elite communities – but who hold more socially liberal values than the current iteration of the Conservative party. The Lib Dem strategy to win them over may or may not work (this is a debate for a later Chapter), but the Europe position will either be neutral or help in some seats, however, there is an issue. There is a big underestimation from the party about how many of these Tory heartland seats carried Leave over the line – two thirds of the Leave vote were Tories, often affluent shire Tories prepared to take a risk that wouldn’t hurt them either way. So yes, there are seats that the Lib Dems, as a pro European force, can contradict that position with the party of Boris and Brexit, but it’s not merely as many as they seem to be projecting, and there are plenty of voters in these areas who actually quite like Brexit, considering it’s their votes that make up the bulk of the votes Leave received. The seats or areas the Lib Dems have a hope in are clearly Remain seats, any Tory safe seat that voted Leave is beyond their reach, without a shadow of a doubt – a big limiting factor but a factor they brought upon themselves; reversing on Brexit now would both be inauthentic, and cause their existing support to fully collapse; in other words, a total and complete disaster in ever sense for them.

The Liberal Democrats will sink or swim in the Blue Wall as a pro-EU force, and will take that to the table in any future negotiations over a minority or coalition government of the centre-left. This is their cross to bare; they think this could be a deciding factor and contrast that will win over “soft Tories”, it remains to be seen if affluent Tory voters outside by-election fever in Chesham and Amersham are prepared to do so.

Chapter 2: Lib-Lab in the age of Starmer and the naive dream of a pact

The centre-left has long dreamt of close collaboration between Labour and Liberals, with little consideration of some core ideological differences. Are the parties any closer to this supposed dream under Davey and Starmer in 2021?

The Liberal Democrats are quite a contradictory party in many ways: they’ve spent a good deal of time under Thatcher, Major, Johnson and May cosplaying as an anti-Tory electoral force, but then wedded themselves to one of the most fervently, cruelly rightwing governments of the last few decades under David Cameron, even though they’d spend much of the preceding years attacking New Labour from the left. Now, under Ed Davey, we hear that the positioning of the party is once again iron clad as an anti-Tory force; this may or may not be true, considering these are the people who were murmuring about a minority Tory government in the event of a hung Parliament in 2019, since Lib Dem MPs would take that over voting to make Jeremy Corbyn Prime Minister – Boris Johnson was Tory PM then, so we see these people are broadly willing to accept or at least not actively fight a Tory government under Johnson if the alternative poses any sort of threat to the established order of things. The big difference now, is of course, as we keep hearing, Labour is under “new management” of the distinctly corporate kind.

Ed Davey has repeatedly said his goal as leader of the Liberal Democrats is to stop Boris Johnson as Prime Minister – now he hasn’t explicitly said it, but the implication there is absolutely that you have to make the Labour leader Prime Minister otherwise – the Labour leader, be it Corbyn, Starmer, or a basset hound, is the only alternative leader of a British government, so if Ed Davey says he wants Boris Johnson out of government, he means he wants to make Keir Starmer Prime Minister, presumably in his ideal world as a minority Labour government where a beefed up showing of Liberal Democrat MPs hold sway. Unfortunately for him, it’s more likely than not in the event of a hung Parliament where the Tories are unable to stitch together a government, SNP votes will secure a Labour government, not Lib Dem votes; so unless something big changes the influence they hold may be minimal in that situation.

The main dream of the centre-left in this country for a while has been the so-called “progressive alliance” of a united front between the opposition parties. There are pitfalls here; firstly, it would massive curtail the ability of any hypothetical Labour government under the arrangement to implement any structural reforms to the British economy, which is surely the point of electing a Labour government. Secondly, it fails to account for a massive ideological chasm between Labour and the Lib Dems; Labour and Greens would complement each other, Labour and the SNP would clash on the constitution but would share support for a mildly social democratic programme nationally (albeit in Scotland the SNP have governed as soft neoliberals), but Labour and the Lib Dems have some big differences; Labour was a party made for and formed to represent the interests of working people, and of organised labour, in the political process – the Liberals were formed to represent the softer wing of capital to the Tories. There are massive distinctions on how they view the individual, society, and the economy, and all these things come to the fore when we once again remember how vociferously the Lib Dems fought the prospect of a Corbyn lead government, even when in theory it would do some things they claimed to want, and how they chose David Cameron over a reforming minority Labour government lead by a fresh face in 2010. Ed Davey can say he’s “always been anti-Tory” as much as he likes, but he was a minister in that awful, dreadful government of 2010–15.

And what do the leaders themselves say? Well, bizarrely, both Ed Davey and Keir Starmer have ruled out a formal pact. In once sense, this of course makes sense – Labour being tied to the Lib Dems ain’t gonna do them any favours in the Red Wall, but in many ways some sort of conditional alliance would probably be the most likely way of removing a Tory government, whatever the pitfalls; especially if it was tied to constitutional reform and a new voting system so such a contrived electoral alliance was never required again, and everyone could run on their own platform in future. But Starmer seems opposed to, or uninterested in, a new voting system, taking the same tired route of all his predecessors in refusing to accept PR or any sort of democratic expansion, and Davey absolutely not prioritising anything of the sort going by what he’s been saying, with no big noise from his conference about PR. So, whatever the dreams of Guardian columnists and soft left melts on Twitter about a Starmer-Davey alliance to bring the sensibles to power, neither man seems very interested in doing so, and both parties are back to the same old dance, with one change; Ed Davey nominally prefers a Starmer government to a Johnson government, whether you take him at his word on that is a personal judgment. I’ll hold my breath!

Chapter 3: The Blue Wall

Is the Blue Wall real? And if it is; is it really the savour for progressives that the Liberal Democrat’s claim it is?

The Blue Wall, that symbolic image of Ed Davey smashing through blue bricks with a yellow hammer, is absolutely central to the claim at Conference 2021 by Liberal Democrats that they hold they keys to kicking Boris Johnson and the Conservative party from power at the next election. We know from the Chesham and Amersham by-election that this isn’t a total fantasy, considering a massive Tory majority was overturned and replaced by a massive Liberal majority. The eternal caveat here is that the Lib Dems are the party of by-elections – when it comes to a protest vote or a single issue vote, they reap the proceeds and do extremely well, its what they’ve always excelled at most. What can we take from a result where the candidate shape shifted and took positions at odds with the Lib Dems nationally so as to give the voters in that seat exactly what they wanted to hear to make a protest vote; it’s hardly ground you can build long term electoral success off of is it? The short answer to the opening question here is yes, the Blue Wall exists, it exists as much as the Red Wall does, meaning it’s a concocted and oversimplified political shorthand, but it has its purpose when talking about a particular grouping of seats with a particular set of voters. The question is less of it exists, but if it really can fuel a progressive force for change at the next general election; on that, it’s much more doubtful.

These are seats that are extremely heavily Tory – it took years upon years (arguably beginning when New Labour won a landslide) for Labour support to erode in those Red Wall seats enough for the Tories to get over the line. There are only a handful of traditionally Tory seats that either the Lib Dems OR Labour could take at the next election going on trends, with a dose of optimism thrown in; it’s not enough for a non-Tory government to take power, or likely even to take out the Tory majority. And it bares remembering – no matter what the Liberal Democrats say, outside a small clump of seats, if you want the Tories to loose, you vote Labour. So many seats at the last election would have been Labour if not for the “Winning Here” Liberal Democrats knocking on doors and telling voters who wanted Johnson out that their best bet was to vote Lib Dem when the empirical evidence voted otherwise. Of course, this isn’t always the case, and of course there are a number of Tory-Lib Dem seats where for now Labour has little prospect of getting close to victory, but this shouldn’t distract from deep suspicion when Lib Dems say “we’re your best bet here”, because they said that previously in a whole lot of places where that absolutely, 100% wasn’t the case, and they knew that.

There is another concern about the Blue Wall seats the Lib Dems seem to be talking about winning next time, because even if we accept the premise that they can sweep these seats (a massive leap) we have to come to terms with what the political composition of these seats really is, and whether Lib Dem MPs capable of winning these seats would actually be a progressive force in parliament. They certainly weren’t in Chesham and Amersham, running a nimby campaign appealing to the worst instincts of suburban fears about new homes being built (the fact the specific proposal by the Tories is a developers charter is irrelevant, you still had a party campaigning against the prospect of new homes being built!). If you still want to defend that as progressive (as Ed Davey has tried to) and say it’s about the “right houses” and about giving local communities a say, let’s unpack that. What that is is a dog whistle to comfy and affluent homeowners that unless they say so, their nice green spaces won’t be ruined by people moving in and new homes being built. That ain’t progressive! How it plays out, whatever you say about it in theory, is the Lib Dems pandering to often classist fears about people moving into an affluent, the sort of “oh no, these aren’t our sort of people, not our kind” type of prejudiced nimbyism that motivates so much of the opposition to the prospect of new homes being built. The Tory plans on housing are dire and WON’T solve the housing crisis, however, do you think these voters would feel any different if the homes were council housing being built as a mass building programme undertaken by a Labour government? Would they balls. So on core issues such as this, the Liberal Democrats are mobilising and winning on issues in a reactionary and regressive manner; Davey was challenged on this by a young member at conference, speaking about the worrying connotations behind the language of “letting communities decide” and how it ignores that poorer or younger people are locked out of reaching those communities, Davey’s answer was stumbling and inadequate, amongst a host of well answered off the hoof questions from Liberal Democrat members. This tells me that as a young person, I shouldn’t vote for Liberal Democrats exacerbating the housing crisis or pandering to the fears of older affluent voters, keeping my generation locked out of the housing market. Frankly, that sort of nimbyism from a party claiming to be progressive, is, from the perspective of a young person, indefensible.

Moving beyond that, so much of the opposition to Johnson from Liberals campaigning in these seats isn’t that they’ve shredded the social safety net, nor that they’ve negatively impacted these people, it’s a promise for nothing fundamentally changing, and an assurance we’ll get the man who offends our delicate sensibilities out of office. Not substantial, quite a flimsy case. Much like plenty of the centrist liberal opposition to Trump in the US fell apart since it was devoid of principle and basically promised to take power and do very little to change the balance of things in a more progressive direction. So just because under Ed Davey the Liberal Democrats say they want Johnson out, it doesn’t mean (outside the more progressive side of their membership) that the leadership of the party actually has any intention of steering things in the direction of change, and it doesn’t actually mean they’re a progressive force, no matter how many times they say it. It just makes them an anti-regressive force, if you like. They can still be reactionary and still be a party you wouldn’t want driving the agenda of a potential social democratic government – again a government quite unlikely to form given the state of the major parties right now.

But beyond this, can they actually win in any of these seats, putting aside whether it’s a good thing if they do? Well, the evidence is mixed. As said above, most of these seats will take several election cycles of voters moving to heavily shift, and in a few it’s Labour thats beginning to gain in the south at the expense of the Tories on their turf. Chesham and Amersham as we all know shows it’s not impossible, but outside a by-election, where it’s a national campaign, and the Tories are scaremongering about a Labour government and saying “vote Lib Dem and Labour will do X” you’ll see it become a whole lot harder, maybe impossible, to take many, or any, of these seats. One factor has changed, which is that Keir Starmer’s very tepid brand of politics, while a disaster nationally, doesn’t scare Tory voters a whole lot, in the way Corbyn did, so that does mean they’ll be less likely to loyally vote Tory to stop a Labour government – but realistically it’s not going to make a massive difference to a massive number of voters, and the effect in terms of seats, when you take into account the lack of ground Labour will gain elsewhere as a result, and the fact they may go back in some of their core seats, means the net loss for the Tories on election night probably won’t be improved that much by Starmer not being as reviled by the other side, considering his own voters aren’t a fan of him.

The short answer to the question is that it’s too soon to tell what sort of impact Lib Dems can make, with a great ground campaign and a flagging Tory government anything is possible, but holding up Lib Dem gains in the Blue Wall as a way to deny Johnson a majority is one step away from total fantasy, and the absolute definition of ill thought through political naivety; with voting for Labour the best bet in almost every seat the Tories might loose next time around. Facts don’t care about your feelings!

Chapter 4: 2021 at the polls

2021’s local elections showed a resilient year for the Liberal Democrats, gaining ground overall, but with gains in some key and unexpected areas, but also falling back in plenty of places compared to the Brexit protest set of results in 2019.

The ground for Chesham and Amersham was in many ways paved all the way back in May, as the results came pouring in across the country for a bumper crop of local election results, combining the 2020 and 2021 elections into one jam packed night of results. Let’s look at some key metrics from the point of view of the Lib Dems first of all – their vote share fell but it didn’t collapse, holding onto 17% across the country, a very impressive metric considering the tail spin the party was in after the last GE, and the fact their leader was a non-entity with the public. Lib Dems have always done strongly in local elections, and this set of results didn’t buck that trend, with seats from both the Tories AND Labour flipping Lib Dem, with a new gain of 8 councillors, and a net gain of 1 council going into Liberal Democrat control.

The big story of the night was the historically poor showing by the Labour Party – the worst local elections result on record for a new leader of the opposition. But we shouldn’t take away from the really fascinating trends that occurred elsewhere. Stockport was the biggest win of the night for the increasingly irrelevant once third party of UK politics, with Stockport council tipping away from Labour, and the Lib Dems able to form a minority administration on the council with the support of Green and Tory councillors – considering the harrowing few months for the party, a result like that was galvanising for tired party activists asking if their party had any hope of doing well again. Cambridgeshire was another excellent symbolic triumph, with five Tory seats flipping to the Lib Dem’s, and the council falling into no overall control; this was a so called Blue Wall triumph, with a heavily Tory council tipping its momentum towards the Lib Dems thanks to disillusionment with the local and national Conservative parties. The results in Cambridgeshire were part of a trend on the night of the party regaining traditionally strong Liberal ground in areas that turned on them after they went into coalition with the Tories in 2010, obviously a positive trend to have from the perspective of a party that has been loosing ground overall in areas it used to dominate for years and years, and this has been happening basically since the coalition. But the most shocking result, and one brought about by long term frustration with the long suffering Labour council, was in heavily Leave voting Sunderland, where with the slogan “They’ve done nowt, kick ‘em out” locally placed campaigning Liberal Democrats were able to make gains at the expense of Labour and dent their majority on the council, a result that defied political gravity and accepted wisdom, and basically stemmed from Lib Dems fighting on the local issues for that area and cutting through Leave-Remain as an issue – there is no imminent prospect, however, of a Lib Dem surge in the Red Wall, more just an interesting anomaly that shows the strength a strong local campaign can have when the incumbent party is resented.

The Liberal Democrats held ground in 2021 nationally in a way you might not have expected given 2019 and the broader sense of purposeless at the top, but this was by no means a big endorsement of the leadership or direction of the party. It was much more than any of that, as we always say about the Lib Dems, the result of an incoherent shape shifter that says different things in different areas, and does really strong local campaigns to win over key areas, be it railing about a Tory council, or a Labour council. After the coalition, Lib Dems held their ground better at the local level than nationally, because certain local Lib Dem parties couldn’t be more separate from the national party, dealing with an entirely different agenda and making entirely different choices. Going by 2019’s General Election followed by 2021’s Local Elections, it is self evident that plenty of folks who haven’t thought about voting for a Lib Dem nationally to represent them in parliament, still vote out of protest or on key local issues for Lib Dem councillors. The problem for the party is that whatever the strengths of this, and there are some, it means there is a firm ceiling on their support and that plenty of it will do them no favours whatsoever in a general election – or we wouldn’t have seen such dire showings in 2017 and 2019, both elections where Lib Dems went in claiming to be riding a tide of protest and prepared to either surge into government or replace HM’s opposition in second place, both time’s this proved to be total fantasy and the party dramatically underperformed even their more realistic predictions of gains, showing themselves to have fully misjudged where the public was on issues yet again, be it about the popularity of Corbyn going into 2017, the degree of opposition to Brexit going into 2019, or their general tepid approach to the economy in both most recent general elections.

The question for the party going into 2022 and 2023, is if they gain maintain momentum at a local level, and gain at the expense of the Conservatives at the local level in Blue Walk type areas, and whether they can actually extrapolate that to the national level heading into the next general election, be that in 2023 or 2024 – I suspect they will hold their ground for now locally, mainly because the government is annoying soft Tory voters, and the opposition is so awfully weak, they a combination of Remainer Tories and progressive liberals will pass on their natural homes (Tories and Labour respectively) and cast a low risk vote for them in protest in various local contest, or maybe upcoming by-elections if any occur in the right areas. I however, don’t feel anywhere near as confident in their ability to actually gain many seats at the expense of the Tories at the next general election, primarily because it is such a tricky thing for any party that isn’t Labour to do, but also because the brand of the party is still too ambiguous, and their goals too mixed, for voters to really think “these people should get more national influence” – this could change, but Ed Davey doesn’t strike me as someone who will sell himself as a campaigning force through the campaign on TV and on the stump, in the guise of precious Lib Dem leaders like Paddy Ashdown or Charles Kennedy, who really were a political force to be reckoned with an who inspired folks to get out and vote Lib Dem for the sake of it, not out of protest. Time can only tell if this holds true.

Chapter 5: Britain in the world, the Liberal fairytale lives on

An often overlooked flaw with the Liberal Democrats is the deeply naive view they take of Britain (and the west)’s role in the world.

The story of the Liberal Democrats and UK foreign policy is a mixed one, littered with platitudes and myths, and quite a bit of historical amnesia about what stands were taken at what moment. The central claim to fame by the Lib Dems in the modern era on UK foreign policy is that they were the anti-war party going into the 2005 general election – they certainly won plaudits and votes for this, with the most ever seats for a third party and a great showing in the popular vote, eating into the war mongering Labour government’s majority as the Tories were self evidently missing in action as an opposition on the critical issue of Blair’s illegal war in Iraq. The Liberap Democrats often hark back to this era to demonstrate on that critical issue of the day they showed political courage and spoke truth to power; the only problem is, this isn’t strictly true. The Liberal Democrats didn’t oppose the war on principle, they said they would accept it on certain conditions, and then effectively backed it anyway, while cosplaying as being anti-war. In other words, given that degree of political weakness even when the public would be inclined to reward them for a brave stance in the long run, you can be assured had a a Liberal Democrat government lead by Charles Kennedy been in office at the time Bush was agitating for war, other than some minute nit picking, Britain’s involvement would likely have gone ahead anyway. This was a failing all three UK parties shared – Labour for backing the horror show and lying about it, Conservatives for cheerleading and falling in line, and the Liberal Democrats for taking a weak stance of half support, half opposition, with no real moral courage, just a desire for anti-war voters to flock to them as an alternative to both major parties, which, of course, is what happened.

The Liberal Democrats aren’t a radical party, they aren’t a socialist party, certain wings of the party may hold strong reformist instincts at home, but when it comes to foreign policy the party is united in subservience to western conventional wisdom, and this continues, strong than ever, to this day. One of the myths behind their opposition to Boris Johnson is that he is some sort of unseemly embarrassment to an otherwise great record of Britain behaving justly on the world stage. In other words, we’re more bothered that Johnson makes crap gaps and looks like a scarecrow than the fact both Tory governments prior cozied up to despots in Saudi Arabia, funded a brutal war on innocent people in Yemen, and in the case of David Cameron especially literally bombed the Middle East. Or the fact the Labour government prior was complicit in the destruction of civil liberties at home and brutal war and torture abroad, flaunting ever single tenant of the supposed rules based order we were meant to have always upheld pre-Johnson. Or how about Thatcher’s unilateral and violent rampages abroad, the funding of terrorism around the world hand in glove with Ronald Reagan, or the brutal empire we upheld, with the likes of Winston Churchill literally enacting policies designed to starve millions of people to death around the world because of a belief that the state shouldn’t look after the colonised subjects it forcibly ruled over. From that position, Johnson is literally business as usual, awful, yes, but no more awful than any of those prior. This shows the Liberal Democrats posturing at conference this year for what it is, posturing, based on lies and myths, because we’ve never been the country on the world stage they claim we have been pre-Johnson, under ANY shade of government, from Attlee to Thatcher to Brown. Their opposition to Johnson is shallow and aesthetic, with no basis in the real issues that affect millions around the world, millions who have often suffered at the hands of the British!

The same goes for their frantic campaigning on the foreign aid budget this conference season. Yes, absolutely, it shows depravity and inhumanity to say we’re going to balance the books by making minute cuts that will disproportionately impact programmes helping the world’s poorest, but it’s never as clean cut as it is claimed. For instance, much of our foreign aid budget has often been filtered into private profits on the ground, or to implement ineffective market based solutions, opening up developing economies to western profiteers all while claiming this will help the people there. Our so called humanitarian aid has often been a sham and a cruel joke played on the world’s poorest, a way of laundering our reputation while doing little substantive good, with minute exceptions at a micro level. In an ideal world, we’d spend way more helping the world’s poorest, but our model of foreign aid as it is right now, and as the Lib Dems wish to restore the status quo, isn’t the wholly good and worthy cause British liberals seem to be telling themselves it is, and while Conservative opposition to it smacks of jingoism and cruelty, the liberal idolisation of it is naive at best and dangerously ill informed about the reality of our impact on the wider world at worst. Time after time, we’ve seen the platitudes expressed at conference this year to betray a wilful ignorance and propagation of falsehoods about Britain on the world stage, and a denial of absolutely understood facts about how things work or what really goes on.

Europe demonstrates this perfectly – with Brexit portrayed as a uniquely xenophobic political project by the Lib Dems much more strongly than by any other party. This in of itself appears to stem from a good instinct – much of the rhetoric around the *official* Leave campaign centred on fostering an environment which made Europeans feel unwelcome in Britain, it is the right and politically courageous thing to speak out against this as forcefully as possible as much as necessary, no ifs and no buts. The problem is though, that they’ve gone too far here, portraying the EU and EU membership as a uniquely progressive thing, something that will remedy all the problems of a hostile environment for immigrants in Britain, with Brexit being something which triggered previously nonexistent bigotry. The problem is, the EU is only a progressive institution if you deny the existence of a world beyond Europe, or the marginalised communities within Europe. The supposedly golden and progressive freedom of movement within the EU is designed by and for capital, and is maintained by brutal border enforcement around the perimeters of Europe, unleashing something resembling Priti Patel’s Home Office, but on steroids, and many times the size, upon unwitting and desperate refugees and economic migrants around the borders of Europe, fleeing desperation, poverty and conflict. This isn’t the mark of a compassionate or progressive institution, this is a nationalistic and xenophobic institution, it’s just a European nationalism and a xenophobia towards non Europeans that’s present. The Liberal Democrat approach is one of our of the frying pan and into the fire when it comes to hostile environments for refugees and immigrants – neither a UK under rightwing government, nor a UK within the EU under Lib Dems, would ever be truly just in terms of its approach to asylum and immigration – high commissioners of the EU have been wielding the same despicable rhetoric as Nigel Farage and his ilk when it comes to migration for decades. The Liberal Democrat belief in a liberal, tolerant Britain, ignores the historical and present factors that mean we’ve never truly been this, and the solutions they provide aren’t the route to getting to such a place in any event.

Be it Afghanistan, be it China, the Liberal Democrats are making the wrong calls. With Afghanistan, and the withdrawal, leader party spokespeople leant heavily on the myths that have lead to the brutal western interventions into these places – talking about withdrawing as the unprogressive thing to do, and laundering the reputation of our actions in the region, even though often they’ve been anything but good for the people on the ground there. Western forces aligned themselves with warlords that had child sex slaves (don’t believe me, look at the New York Times, there was a piece on it in 2015). Outside key areas, very often the supposed progress enabled by western occupation was non existent for women and LGBT people still suffering on the ground. And what progress had been made onto ever stood a chance if civil society could nurture and maintain it on its own – you can’t have permanent and quite bloody occupation, a corrupt government misplacing money and squandering resources, and violent and brutal air strikes killing innocent Afghanis. The Liberal Democrats spoke at conference this year about the gains of this ill fated, illegitimate, and ugly occupation of a sovereign country, those words betray above all, how hideous a Lib Dem foreign policy would be, one to the right of Joe Biden and Boris Johnson on the matter of interventionism overseas – they haven’t learnt the lesson that intervention, humanitarian or otherwise, is a house of cards destined to fail, and almost always done for reasons kept from the public, with noise about women’s rights and progress amplified to manufacture public consent for the continuing mission among the domestic population at home in Britain. And on China, the Lib Dems seem more satisfied stoking up a new cold war than facilitating cooperation on issues such as climate change, which without China working with the west on, there won’t be a planet left to have these political debates on!

Chapter 6: Lib Dems and the domestic polity

In the wake of Conference 2021, how do the Lib Dems stack up when it comes to their domestic political agenda?

As good a place as any to start when discussing the bread and butter of what Lib Dems would like to do with our society and our economy, is, ironically, the Green Party. While local parties have cooperated at various points to field a united anti-Tory/anti-Brexit candidate in recent years, clear water was put between the two parties as conference, with various claims that the Lib Dems were the true “party of climate” who’d supposedly been doing what the Greens had been doing the whole time, making environmentalism and tackling climate change central to the party’s pitch to young voters, a demographic still feeling betrayed from the coalition years and the pack of lies Cleggmania turned out to be built on. So how substantively important are their climate proposals, would they be a positive force in parliament according to their proposals, or would they actually dampen the ambition. Well, we know the Tory record on climate is pitiful, they underpromise, but make a load of noise about whatever tiny commitment of money it is, and then proceed to underdeliver even on that! And of course, as of right now, after having the most credible and ambitious plans in the country going into 2019, Labour are offering £30bn investment, better than the Tories, but an absolute joke compared to either the scale of the challenge, or even sums proposed by other centre-left parties around the world when it comes to a green economic recovery. The Lib Dems are actually outflanking Labour on this right now, with a year old commitment to £150bn for a green economic recovery – this is much more up to the scale of something like the Biden plan in the US, a full throated effort that rightfully tosses aside worries about the deficit and economic orthodoxy of the neoliberal era in favour of big spending Keynesianism – there’s no class struggle, it would undoubtedly be too heavily reliant on the private sector, but if implemented, that degree of spending would at least not get you laughed out of the room, and would be a real effort at tackling the problem, even if it definitely could be argued as lacking in ambition compared to Green policy, or Labour’s 2019 plans. But hey, it outflanks Tory and Labour! New policies this year include carbon taxation on business flights and other high flying carbon intensive activities; a pretty common sense proposal, and not regressive in the sense that it’ll impact poorer consumers – this is hitting people who can afford the bother. Most of the other commitments this year, beyond the reaffirmation of the £150bn plan (was originally announced in June 2020) we’re pretty standard technocratic fixes, nothing radical, some stuff about carbon trading within the EU, and some warm words about international cooperation and aiding the poorest countries, all too obscure to sketch out into concrete policies. The Liberal Democrats may find the chance to calve themselves out as a green alternative to both Labour and the Tories for middle class voters afraid of hitting themselves in the pocket with the full throated class struggle within a real and equitable Green New Deal, but they have some cheek saying they’re more credible on the issue than the Green, who are rightfully making gains, including in the Red Wall if polling is correct!

We also heard at conference this year proposals on Europe, such as the fan favourites of rejoining Erasmus, and establishing more cultural and artistic collaboration with EU countries – who could disagree with that? Some good pushes for greater acceptance of Afghan refugees, something we absolutely DO have a moral responsibility on, and it’s nice to see that commitment in there. One of the odder proposals was a full throated attempt to fix the Israel-Palestine occupation which made it to the floor, and basically passed as a “radical new solution” (so called) to the occupation. The standard pitfall of moral equivalency, and the long dead two state solution, were naturally brought up, as was a commitment to trade greatly with both Israel and occupied Palestine – combined with a very welcome commitment not to allow goods made in the occupied territories into the country – but combined with a “peace fund” in the guise of Northern Ireland to “build trust” between communities in the region – once again assuming a moral equivalency, rather than the reality: illegal and brutal occupation by one side of another. Don’t expect Liberal Democrats to end war on our planet anytime soon! But it was a well meaning motion.

At core, the fatal flaw with the Liberal Democrat view of the economy is the fatal flaw of liberalism; there is no class struggle, or analysis of power structures in society. However, given the lack of ambition from Labour, there’s been a shift – going into 2019 the party had spending plans arguably more austere than both Labour AND the Tories, beyond some select areas, this time there was talk of higher taxes on business and various ideas that, while technocratic and devoid of populism, were very much to the left of the current iteration of the Labour Party. Does this mean the party has reverted to being centre-left after a decade on the centre-right? Not particularly, at least, not enough for it to seem like anything other than posturing, but there has clearly been a shift, even if it’s just a rhetorical one, away from the orange book and back towards a better political positioning, priming to attempt to work with other anti-Tory parties. The main issue is that this is all packaged within a reactionary set of ideas on house building, and an aversion to many measures voters want and need, like HS2, and like publicly owned utilities. A really smart centre-left third party (as the Lib Dems nominally once were pre-Clegg) could, in this day and age, as the neoliberal consensus collapse make the case for certain areas of the economy not being part of a market, while still doing all the standard tenants of liberalism, but alas, old dogmas still capture this party, and now all major parties.

Conclusions

The Liberal Democrats aren’t a dead party, and the bleeding has been stemmed. As of right now their leader has practically zero public recognition. The speech delivered to conference was solid, but the fatal flaw of Ed Davey is he’ll never be a political teacher, nor a leader who excites, leaving him in the quadrant of political leaders who will be forgotten by history, whether they have some nominal success or not – because if the party does well, it won’t be because of this leader. This conference was very much an anti-Tory affair, again, a shift from Jo “neither Corbyn nor Johnson” Swinson’s pitiful affair in 2019 where it was claimed Liberal Democrats were on the cusp of seizing government. No clear mark was set out for political terrain in the coming years, but the party did assert itself to the extent it is a part of the political conversation, in the wake of Chesham and Amersham and those May 2021 gains. The next big test will be local elections 2022, and if the party will make more gains – as of right now, it remains a mixed picture, neither collapse nor a triumphant return, with the party still light years behind where they were pre-coalition, and with no imminent prospect of that really substantively changing anytime soon.

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Insightful and innovative UK journalism and commentary, from Toby Lipatti-Mesme.

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Toby Lipatti-Mesme

Toby Lipatti-Mesme

Insightful and innovative UK journalism and commentary, from Toby Lipatti-Mesme.

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