The Liberal Party was one the great historic political institutions of Britain. Asquith, Campbell-Bannerman and Gladstone are some of the most influential Prime Ministers of all time, and they dominated the late 1850’s till the early 1920’s, when the ascension of Labor rendered the party somewhat of apolitical irrelevancy, especially immediately following World War II. Now I’ve already gone through the modern history of its current iteration, the Liberal Democrats, discussed how the future of the party seemed uncertain as the party lacked identity. But with success in local elections, and by elections, the party appears to have a part time relevancy in public consciousness. The question on many in the Liberal Democrat supporters lips are, what happens next?
Labour-Lib Dem Agreement?
Currently there are debates surrounding both Labour and the Liberal Democrats over a coalition or the possibility of a deal over confidence and supply. Though my friend, who wrote an article on the relationship between Labour and the Lib Dems, talks about the importance of being anti-Conservative, it states that it’s important that there is a sense of ambiguity in the relationship with Labour. I believe this needs to go further than simply just being an anti-Conservative party, the Liberal Democrats needs to be a party that has a unique identity, and can challenge every party with a defined ideological inprint rather than simply just being an opposition to the Conservatives.
The Liberal Democrats were at one point a clear opposition party that people voted for because they did not believe the Conservatives were the best party to take government, but were also unsatisfied with Labour following the Iraq War. Charles Kennedy was an ardent critic of both Conservatives and Labour and was, in his own way, a character people would like and believe in. This enabled the Liberal Democrats to be viewed differently than just Labour-lite, which was something which could be seen with the 1970’s Lib-Lab pact, and Ashdown’s relationship and dealings with Tony Blair in 1997. This enabled the Liberal Democrats to progress, putting them at their peak of seats post-war. It also gave them the swing on other parties, with the largest increase of vote share in the country, creating an environment for the 2010 campaign hype afforded to the Liberal Democrats. This happened because the Liberal Democrats fought with their own identity, winning over disenfranchised voters who felt let down by their traditional party.
What is the Liberal Democrat Identity?
Nowadays though, the Liberal Democrats is something which reminds me of pre-Kennedy Liberal Democrats, with seemingly being the alternative to the Tories, but not the same with Labour. It could be argued that as Labour are not in power, there is less reason to critique them; it’s more important to not have a split opposition, and for sure there is a validation if the sole goal is to oust the Tories. However, if you’re a political party, you’re a party because you’re meant to believe in certain values, and if you have not supported another party, it is because there is enough of a distance between you and that party that you would have something different ideologically. Therefore, to blindly shelve your party’s identity and ideology is damaging. Green Zack Polanski said that if you’re telling someone to vote for someone else, then its harder to create a movement of people to vote for you.
That is the essential crisis at present for the Liberal Democrats: do they just get rid of the Tories and create general opposition in the Conservative areas, or do they do things differently, carve their own identity, and actually make a more widespread appeal and opposition? We know that it can work. In 2010, out of nowhere, they took Redcar and won seats such as Burnley and Birmingham Yardley which are areas that are deemed unimaginable by how people view the appeal of Liberal Democrats, and they did that through opposing Labour and creating their own sense of identity.
In modern times, the idea of the Liberal Democrats fighting Labour for a seat outside of Sheffield Hallam is inconceivable. Even Bermondsey and Old Southwark are really out of reach in an immediate general election, unless they spring a shocking result that goes against trends in the seat. Compare this to the SNP who have successfully taken on both Labour and the Conservatives and reaped the rewards of dominance, winning Scottish elections consecutively by opposing the traditional parties and creating an alternative. In 2015, people did not vote for the SNP because of independence, but because of the alternative they would give the people of Scotland. Comparatively, the Liberal Democrats have appeared scared, barely really taking on Labour leaders since Clegg in 2010. They have tried to batter the Conservatives, but look where that has got them: they are only a net three seats up on 2015. Though they are predicted to go up as a result of the Conservative Party’s bad polling, this is clearly not something which is a long-term strategy.
Going forward, it’s important for the Liberal Democrats to live up to its history, and carve its own way, or they will only be seen as a political pawn for Labour, rather than a party with any sense of distinction. Sir Ed Davey’s leadership is part of the issue. Though he has had very successful by-election and local election results, he’s also someone who disappears and brings no real sense of philosophy, ideas or any real simple policy plan other than opposing the Conservatives and his desire to get rid of Boris. The Liberal Democrats need someone with conviction, with ideals and with a unique identity who can show who the Liberal Democrats are outside of voting reform. Though the conference had votes on policies, there have been criticisms of the leadership that they have failed to follow through with them. A party cannot have a long-term strategy if there is no direction to what the policies are to be, or where you stand ideologically, and that is the issue facing the Liberal Democrats currently.
This upcoming election has a chance of being highly positive for the Liberal Democrats. Both of the major party leaders aren’t being positively looked at, and there’s a lack of someone really gripping the public with their policy. But at present, are the Liberal Democrats doing enough to make a dramatic change in the upcoming election? I can’t see much more than winning some Conservative-Lib Dem marginals that may go back once the Conservatives are in a position where they would look to go back to power. The Liberal Democrats must diversify or they risk history repeating itself. We know they do worse when they get involved with any given party, so it’s important they stand still on their own two feet and make a coherent noise.