Liberal Democrats phone home

Traditionally the Conservative party heartlands have been the‘Toryshires’ of the South East, the Labour party has its ‘red wall’ from Merseyside to West Yorkshire and the Lib Dems has its base in the South West. All three of these historical truths are coming undone at different paces. The South West has long been considered the heartlands of the Liberal democratic party, but recent electoral performances suggest this may no longer be the case. At the 2019 general election, the party won just a singular constituency in the region, Bath. Compare this result to nine years prior when the party won fifteen seats, a number that was likely met with disappointment. So how come the Lib Dems have decayed to their current predicament in their homeland where once orange banners proudly waved? And will Devon or Cornish voters ever return home like the prodigal son who is bored of his Tory excursions?

A recent history of the party over the past eleven years shows that it is much like the Grand old Duke of York, when they were up, they were up and when they were down, they were down. In 2010 Cleggmania swept the nation and the Lib Dems enjoyed a brief period at the top of the polls, quickly followed by a disappointing showing at the ballot box, winning a meagre fifty-seven seats, enough though to deny either major party the majority. Supporters on the left were furious with Nick Clegg’s willingness to join forces with David Cameron, many of whom had backed the party in response to the Iraq war and over the course of the Coalition years the party was ridiculed by both the press and polls. At the 2015 general election, the Lib Dems were almost annihilated, winning a total of eight seats, none of which were in the South West. Those on the left favoured Ed Miliband as the anti-austerity candidate and viewed a vote for the Lib Dems as a vote for the Tories while voters on the right considered Cameron and UKIP as tougher on immigration and Europe. Clegg’s resignation was followed by Tim Farron’s brief leadership which presided over the Brexit referendum and the ensuing chaos. It came to an end on the heels of the 2017 general election having done very little other than transform any Lib Dem/Labour marginals into Labour safe seats such as Leeds North West, Birmingham Yardley and Cambridge. After another embarrassment, the party turned to one of its few remaining heavyweights: Sir Vince Cable. Throughout the chaos of Theresa May’s minority government including the calamitous ‘meaningful votes’, the backbench rebellions and the first breakaway party since the SDP, Sir Vince remained a reliable constant. Following the emergence of the Brexit Party, the Liberal Democrats found themselves winning big at the European elections in 2019 and at the top of the polls with defectors joining them left, right and centre. Unfortunately, this short-term high coincided with Sir Vince’s retirement and Jo Swinson taking the reins of the party at the most critical moment in contemporary British history.

By the time, the 2019 general election was called Johnson had unified Brexiteers on his backbenches and both Jo Swinson and the Lib Dems poll numbers were in freefall. Despite expectations of a return to pre-coalition dominance in certain constituencies, the party failed to capitalise on its momentum. Swinson campaigned for disaffected Labour Remainers in London’s suburbs rather than traditional Lib Dem strongholds such as the South West. The result was minimal gains around London and the South East and significant losses everywhere else, particularly in Leave-voting areas. The party gained three seats and lost four including Swinson’s own constituency of Dunbartonshire East. Except for Bath, the South West once again returned a sea of Conservative MPs with bolstered majorities. The subsequent leadership election took many months and was fought between former Energy Secretary Sir Ed Davey, Education spokesperson Layla Moran and Bath MP Wera Hobhouse. The party ultimately choosing Sir Ed, an experienced Orange Booker over Moran a Europhile moderniser in a landslide win, the largest of any leader since Paddy Ashdown in 1988.[1]

Current polling suggests that a return to political significance seems unlikely for the Lib Dems any time soon. Most voters could not name the current leader of the party nor could they come up with any distinct policies.[2] This begs the question what do the Lib Dems stand for in Brexit Britain? The reality is that the party does have a series of policies that make them stand out from Labour and the Tories, the legalisation of marijuana, Universal Basic Income and a rise in the rate of income tax to name just a few. Yet the leadership prefers to side-line anything that makes him different from either candidate at the dispatch box in favour of highlighting general issues like child poverty and social care at PMQ’s. These questions make one wonder how Ed Davey seriously expects the prime minister to respond, as even the Conservative party hasn’t degraded into openly endorsing poverty. The Lib Dems would fare better if they highlighted issues that distinguished them as an alternative third party as well as those that appeal to Conservative voters who have control of almost all remaining Lib Dem marginals. The current political environment is full of opportunities for the Lib Dems, what they lack is the political will to seize them. Davey’s recent calling for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics next year was a rare example of his political abilities and hopefully a sign of his future approach to taking on the government.[3]

The beauty of languishing in obscurity is that the Lib Dems can raise important issues that more serious parties might find politically toxic. The party may not have the support to change legislation on drugs policy or UBI, yet they may still have the media attention to kickstart a national debate and force the government and opposition to respond. As well as shouting about individual policies, the party needs a wholistic rebranding and a long-term strategy if it is to wield any considerable power again. One strategy the party could adopt is to transform itself into something similar to the German Free Democratic Party, an unapologetically pro-business movement calling for further free trade and stricter fiscal discipline. This strategy along with a depiction of the Tories as the party of economically left-wing ‘Little Englanders’ might win over affluent small ‘c’ conservatives who dominate the electorate in Lib Dem marginals. Another possibility for the party is to appeal to rural communities by advocating conservationism and challenging the government’s relaxation of housing development regulations essentially adopting the policies of the CPRE (Campaign to Protect Rural England). Any of these strategies might lift the party from political irrelevance and give it purpose and power in modern Britain. Regardless of strategy, the electoral boundary changes are expected to benefit ‘Metropolitanland’ most, ensuring that the most critical seats at the next elections are those in the South East, South West and East of England, seats within commuting distance to the capital and rife with voters the Lib Dems can win over.[4] The party could make a real dent in Conservative support in these areas by approaching liberal conservatives and Cameronites throughout Middle England, where the party increased its foothold in 2019. This might even persuade enough voters in the South West where many constituencies had Leave votes north of sixty per cent. Although replacing rhetoric on Europe with talk of more salient issues will be a tough burden to bear, it will be for the long-term benefit of the party and could prevent the Liberal democrats decaying from a credible third party into an irrelevant fourth or fifth.

Despite the pathetically insignificant representation in Westminster the party still has a strong local base, especially in the South West. The Lib Dems performance in this May’s local elections will prove whether the party’s perceived national irrelevance is equally applicable on a local level. At the 2019 local elections the Lib dems successfully seized control of Somerset West and Taunton[5] and North Devon Council[6] as well as making significant gains in other parts of the region. Whether they can repeat past successes is unclear, though the party will be hoping to retain seats on Cornwall County Council and increase its numbers on both Exeter City Council and Devon County Council, however, a strong Labour party may harm those chances. Regardless of what happens on the 6th of May, the path back to political power for the Liberal democrats runs through the South West. The party ought to churn that strong local base into parliamentary support by listening to voters concerns in the region and establishing a long-term strategy to achieve electoral success.

[1] Sir Ed Davey wins Liberal Democrat leadership race – BBC News

[2] Ed Davey is leading the Lib Dems to extinction | The Spectator

[3] BBC iPlayer – Prime Ministers Questions – 24/02/2021

[4] Boundary review: England to gain more MPs as Wales loses out – BBC News

[5] Somerset West and Taunton Council – BBC News

[6] North Devon Council – BBC News

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