Finding the Liberal tribe: some thoughts for Liberal Democrats

Since 2015, the Liberal Democrats have been on the political fringe. The gains made from the 1980s onwards were wiped out in the 2015 in the aftermath of Coalition: apart from a short-lived renaissance in the 2019 European Elections, they have never been recovered. Despite modest gains in the share of the vote in the 2019 General Election, there was no real recovery and the party remains on 5%-8% in the polls.

Where, now, is the basis of Liberal Democrat support? The party looks rather like, in marketing-speak, a niche offer. But successful political parties are not niche offers; they are political tribes, based in political movements. Where, after 2015, is the Liberal tribe?

To answer that question, it is worth looking at the recent electoral history of the party and the wider sociological contexts in which it has operated; and to consider that brief moment of glory in the European elections.

The best starting point is the important sociological analysis by Maria Sobolewska and Robert Ford in their study of the roots of the Brexit vote, Brexitland. In outline, Sobolewska and Ford argue that the politics of Brexit was shaped by two major social changes in the post-war era; the huge expansion of higher education and the phenomenon of mass immigration, both of which have resulted in profound changes in society within a single lifetime. They describe a political divide in which traditional class politics has been replaced by the emergence of a new, urban, highly-educated, affluent and liberal class and a socially-conservative, poorer, school-leaver class concentrated in left-behind towns, who see immigration as a threat. Although the latter group is older and declining, it is they who drove the Brexit vote and who form the so-called “red wall” voters who, traditionally allied with Labour, split with it over immigration (especially as the EU expanded eastwards and new Eastern European immigrants arrived in the New Labour years) powered the rise of UKIP and Boris Johnson’s 2019 election triumph. Labour’s support has become concentrated in an urban, educated segment of society comfortable with the change and diversity that immigration has brought. That is the reality that Keir Starmer struggles with now, as Labour seeks to find a political formula that appeals both to its newer supporters in the cities and those who, especially in the New Labour years, deserted it — not least for UKIP.

And what of the Liberal Democrats?

Sobolewska and Ford offer a fascinating description of how, between 2010 and 2015, the experience of coalition government destroyed the main pillars of Liberal Democrat support. They argue that Liberal Democrat supporters fell into three main categories; identity liberals — people who consciously identified as liberal; Left-leaning people living in areas where the Conservatives were the dominant party, and where Labour was politically irrelevant; and a third group made up of people who were simply political malcontents, voting for a third party in order to cast a plague on both the main groupings. Add to that the fact that many Muslim voters who would normally have identified with Labour were alienated by the Iraq War and attracted by Charles Kennedy’s wholehearted opposition to it; and students who both identified as liberal and were attracted by the Liberal Democrats’ opposition to tuition fees — and you have the pre-2010 Liberal Democrat tribe. Diverse, yes, and in many ways an uneasily coalition, but not necessarily more so than the other parties.

Sobolewska and Ford describe how that grouping was shattered by the experience of the coalition. The fact that the Liberal Democrats were now in government meant that the natural anti-Government element evaporated: many went straight to UKIP. Left-leaning people in Tory areas were horrified by the austerity measures promoted by the Coalition and deserted the Liberal Democrats too, as did many identity liberals. Students, of course, were quickly and decisively alienated by Nick Clegg’s abandonment of his position on tuition fees.

The Greens and Labour were the main beneficiaries; in 2015 Labour’s losses to UKIP were largely offset by defections from the Liberal Democrats, which is why their share of the vote held up; but the composition of Labour’s vote was fundamentally different. By as early as 2011, Liberal Democrat poll ratings had collapsed and in by the time of the 2015 General Election its vote had been hollowed out, and barely recovered in 2017 and 2019. Only a Parliamentary rump of a dozen MPs remained.

The exception of course was the 2019 European Election. Fought on the issue of Brexit, this election saw the Liberal Democrats make a remarkable comeback, polling a shade below 20% in contrast to Labour’s 13% and performing particularly strongly in London. What Sobolewska and Ford described as identity liberals appear to have turned in numbers to the party whose unequivocal opposition to Brexit — in start contrast to Labour’s internal turmoils — most closely matched their own position.

And that perhaps is the clue to where we find the Liberal Democrat tribe.

The campaign against Brexit resulted, paradoxically, in the creation of the largest pro-European movement in Europe; more than a million people twice taking to the streets of London, six million signing a petition for the revocation of Article 50. And these people were — are — natural liberals; internationalist, open, often educated and standing in stark contrast to the nationalist populism of Boris Johnson’s Conservatives and wholly unaccounted for in the rigid class assumptions of the Corbynists who controlled Labour at the time (and who could only respond by name-calling and sneering; “the world’s longest Waitrose queue”, “centrist dads” and all the rest of it)

And, most of all, when Brexit did happen — especially once the transition period was over — they were proved right. Brexit turned out to be absolutely the disaster they predicted, and even no more than a month into that process it is obvious that the border chaos and the economic impacts are not teething troubles, but inherent in the UK’s departure from the Customs Union and Single Market.

So — if it seems so clear that Europeanism is the glue that could hold together a new liberal coalition — why are Liberal Democrats still polling so poorly?

The obvious reason is that Covid continues to dominate British political discourse and will continue to do so for some time. But, also, the messaging around Europe is not especially clear. Liberal Democrat policy, as affirmed by the Party Conference last Autumn, is nuanced — and rightly so. It talks in terms of

…a longer term objective of UK membership of the EU at an appropriate future date to be determined by political circumstances, subject to public assent, market and trade conditions and acceptable negotiated terms.

It recognises that rejoining in the immediate future is not a runner (for a start, after the behaviour of Britain’s Conservative rulers, it is difficult to see the EU wanting us back). But it keeps the flame alive. Unfortunately, the party leadership has not always been quite so nuanced. Ed Davey’s recent declaration on the BBC’s Marr programme that “we are not a rejoin party” certainly belongs in the category of statements that could have been better phrased.

It sometimes seems as if non-Tory politicians — especially at Westminster — are, in the face of Brexit, sitting transfixed like a rabbit gazing into the car headlights. Certainly, the 2019 General Election was traumatic for both Liberal Democrats and Labour, in different ways.

But the pro-Europe grouping in UK politics — the former “remainers” — have not gone away. And it is curious that nobody seems willing to speak for them.

Labour has spent the years following the Referendum trying to play both sides of the argument. It was deeply traumatised by the loss of the so-called “red wall” in the 2019 General Election, and its electoral strategy seems to be to take the identity liberals that form its core vote in the big cities for granted in an attempt to win back the “red wall”. Keir Starmer himself appears to have surrounded himself with supporters of Labour’s Blue Labour faction, who like to express their politics in the populist hard-right language of family, work and flag. But in truth those red wall voters had been moving away from Labour for a decade and a half before 2019; Starmer has gained some support by the simple fact of not being Jeremy Corbyn, but his leadership is stalling in the face of the deep-seated contradictions in the party he leads.

All of this suggests a space for Liberal Democrats to move into — a space where we can once again speak for the left-leaning and liberal progressives who deserted us after the coalition. Moreover, at this stage, we have the advantage over Labour that we are not trying to build an election-winning coalition by bringing together two largely incompatible electorates. For a party on 7% in the polls, there is much to be said for giving voice and expression to values that will appeal to, perhaps, 30% of the electorate. As a party, we need a leadership that is less concerned with offering a Prime Minister in waiting and more with running a political insurgency. Just because UKIP stands for the opposite of everything that Liberals believe in does not mean we can’t learn lessons from their tactics.

None of this means campaigning for immediate rejoining. We need to be a lot more nuanced than the EU-flag waving some people seem to want; we need to link our Europeanism to our wider liberal values. But, with the Conservatives remaining on the far-right and their pet Brexit project falling around their ears, and with Labour still deeply divided and with many of their supporters profoundly uncomfortable with Starmer’s support in Parliament for Johnson’s Brexit deal, or his apparent ruling out of any renegotiation of that deal after 2024, there is a gap opening up which, with imaginative leadership, Liberal Democrats are strongly equipped to move into. Labour is letting down its core supporters, that growing demographic of people who value diversity, empiricism — the practical, grounded progressives — in pursuit of a demographic that it feels, historically, it ought to represent but no longer does. It is, in a very real sense, a prisoner of its history.

And in doing so, we will be back with our tribe. As I mentioned, Europeanism — and our shared experiences in that long, hard, ultimately futile but at times deeply exhilarating fight against Brexit — are the glue. It is in the political alliances, the friendships, the common cause of that movement that a reassertion of liberal values began.

We need to talk about far more than Europe. We need to be careful and nuanced in what we say about Europe. But Brexit was always about far more than Europe; it was a culture war, one in which Conservatives waged war on liberal values while successive Labour leaderships sat on the fence. And it is among the millions who fought to stop Brexit that the Liberal renaissance will be grounded.

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