The Liberal Democrats are no stranger to a drastic change in image. The party itself formed from a need to stay current and in touch with the needs of the electorate, through the merging of the Liberal party and the Social Democrats in 1988. From the frenzy of what can only be described as the “Clegg-mania” of the 2010 election, to the need to rebuild as the champions of European integration under Farron’s stewardship, the Liberal Democrats are a party that understands the need to stay relevant in the eyes of the electorate.
Yet, in 2018, the Liberal Democrats have disappeared. Theresa May’s Conservatives lurching from one political blunder to another, and the Labour viewed by centrists as a tad radical, the political landscape at the beginning of a new year seems poised for the rise of a third-party option. Yet no challenger has emerged.
Instead, the Liberal Democrats, under the leadership of Vince Cable, have seemingly decided to dig in their heels in the past. Whilst Labour champion socio-economic revolution and the Conservatives espouse solidarity in the face of Brexit, Cable has dug his party into the trench of Brexit opposition, with numerous calls to reverse the referendum result and oppose British withdrawal from the EU. It is a message that does not resonate with the current political mood. According to ICM polling data, the approval ratings of the Liberal Democrats have fallen from 11% to a mere 7% since Vince Cable took control of the party, with the trend indicative of such a decline continuing.
In order to modernise and retain political legitimacy, there are three key areas that the party must address; the stagnant image of the party in the eyes of the electorate, their policy on the European question, and their electoral strategy in regards to attracting new support from swing electoral demographics.
The primary issue of the Liberal Democrats is their inability to shake the woes of the Cameron-Clegg coalition. The image of the party has been tarnished significantly since Clegg became Deputy PM in 2010, with large proportions of the electorate still unforgiving of Clegg – and in turn the party – for their failure to prevent the rise in tuition fees in 2012. Similarly, Tim Farron, though partially successful in rebuilding the image of the party prior to the 2017 election, was mired by allegations of Homophobia and intolerance that contributed towards his resignation following the election. Vince Cable himself, despite efforts to rebuild the party, has been unable to shake the image of the party as ineffectual and intolerant, created by the failures of Clegg and Farron.
By no means should this failure detract from Cable’s skill as a politician. He is a politician with a strong personal image, able to both convey the political message of the party and appeal to voters with skill, and his time as Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills demonstrated his ministerial capacity. However many may see his sell off of the Royal Mail as incompetent and unwise. Yet Cable can be seen as the epitome of the era of inefficacy for the Liberal Democrats; a key figure in a party that for years was both ineffective and unable to revitalise its image. To have Cable’s stewardship continue would be to continue to perpetuate the ineffective image of the party that has lead to both stagnation of action, and the gradual decline towards political irrelevancy that comprehensively characterises the party in the current political climate.
Instead, the party should seek to revitalise their image with an injection of youth and modernity. Rising stars of the party, notably figures such as Layla Moran and Jo Swinson, should be pushed to the forefront of the party, with emphasis placed on revitalising both the figures and image of the party. The change of logo to the rising phoenix prior to 2010 signified that the party was revitalised and ready to provide a third option at the time; now seems to be yet another instance the party must rise above the ashes they sink towards.
In the wake of public division following the referendum, the Liberal Democrats effectively capitalised on the Anti-Isolationist sentiments of the British electorate, carving themselves out as the champions of Europe and staunch opponents of Brexit. Indeed, popular support for the party rose from 7% to 11% by the time of the 2017 election; a figure that should not be understated, especially given the significant resurgence of the Labour party under Corbyn. Such a move capitalised significantly upon the going discontent for British withdrawal from the EU, and attacks on the incapacity of the Conservatives to organise their Brexit strategy compounded these political gains further. It was a political strategy perfect for the political climate at the time.
However, public sentiments in politics are constantly changing. There is now a growing consensus amongst the British people that Brexit, whether good or bad, really does mean Brexit. Yet the Liberal Democrats, rather than adapt their position on the question of European withdrawal, continue to espouse the same rhetoric as they did in the immediate aftermath of the referendum; a rhetoric that no longer resonates with the sentiments of the British people.
Brexit really does mean Brexit; but no party has truly carved out a position as the watchdogs of Brexit. Should the Liberal Democrats revise their message from the opponents of Brexit, to the critics of the government and seekers of the best deal for the nation, they can effectively re-engage with the Anti-isolationist sentiments that still linger in the British public, as well as appeal to voters wishing for the best deal for the future prosperity of Britain. Brexit is an unavoidable fact; it s also a great political opportunity for a party seeking resurgence.
Since the 2008 financial crash, politics in Britain has been characterised by a great polarisation. British political parties have operated under the assumption that increasing radicalism of political ideology will lead to electoral success, with the Labour party swinging far to the Left and the Conservatives continuing their move back to the right of the political spectrum. Such polarity has created a ‘no man’s land’ in the centre of British politics, where no party wishes to occupy the label of ‘centrism’
But does that mean that the centre ground of British politics is totally unoccupied? Unequivocally not. Instead, a large section of the electorate finds themselves without representation; unconvinced by the transformational promises of Corbyn, and just as sceptical of Theresa may’s capabilities and policies. Therefore, should a party occupy the centre ground of British politics, they would find themselves appealing to a large section of the electorate that is both unrepresented and highly underestimated.
This is where the Liberal Democrats must seek to regain support. In creating a robust and appealing centrist manifesto, the party can capitalise on both centrist voters that feel left out of the current British political climate, and sway swing voters uncertain of the growing radicalism of the major parties on both the left and right. Should the party manage to tap into such demographics, they would easily find themselves with enough political support to truly re-emerge as the third option in British politics once again.
However considering their shaky image and small majorities of their MPs, 2022 could see the end of the Liberal Democrats completely.