What are the Liberal Democrats for? The 2010s gave them two big opportunities to challenge Tory-Labour political dominance – the coalition and the chaos of the last three years. This year they might have turned the defection of MPs from other parties to their advantage and reinvented themselves as a new force. Both crises have instead weakened them and left politics more polarised than ever.
The two-party system has emasculated the Lib Dems. In 2015 the close Cameron-Clegg coalition relationship led to the loss of dozens of seats, as left-of-centre voters blamed them for austerity and tuition fees, while the failure of the 2011 referendum closed the door on proportional representation for a generation. In 2019 they were squeezed between the pillars of “getting Brexit done” and Corbynism. They forced the election, hoping to benefit from Jeremy Corbyn’s unpopularity; they helped the Tory press to attack him, pretending that he was a sinister threat even though he could never have won the complete power needed to unleash his radicalism.
Instead of boasting that she could be prime minister, Jo Swinson should have promised that her MPs would neutralise Corbyn by scrutinising the incoherent, overambitious Labour manifesto and making something of the good parts. The party should have challenged the view that the last parliament was “broken”. It should have defended its slow, painful strategy of examining and moderating Brexit. It should have sold the achievements of the coalition more aggressively – including tuition fees – in comparison with the Conservatives’ policies since 2015.
The Lib Dems must now use their bloc of seats to make parliament work better. And they need to sell the benefits of parliamentary give-and-take. For the foreseeable future they will be fighting not to form a government but to influence a hung parliament – which will be a possibility at every election, as long as the SNP remains strong.
Liberal politics has always been about using the House of Commons to check abuses of power. The original function of the Liberal parliamentary party was to challenge the feudal, boorish rule of the crown, the church, and British and Irish landlordism. After 1945 it positioned itself against the two new overmighty powers: big business and bullying unions. Liberalism has worked best – as for most of the 19th century – when it grafted to assemble parliamentary majorities for compromise reforms, helped (but usually not overawed) by public pressure.
Lib Dems sometimes misunderstand this history. They have too reverential a view of their biggest heroes, William Gladstone and David Lloyd George. Both had their moments: they produced inspiring moral campaigns in opposition, and landmark economic and social measures in government. But each man turned the Liberal party into his personal plaything through egotism and executive arrogance, ruining its chances of an electoral majority for decades to come.
In the mid-20th century the party was kept alive only by the Celtic fringe: the west country, rural Wales and the Scottish highlands. That was not just a geographical peculiarity. It reflected those regions’ longstanding dissenting pride in the individual conscience, and suspicion of an illiberal, amoral state operating from London. Outside Scotland the party has now lost all those seats, perhaps for a long time, because first Welsh nationalism and now Brexit have supplied fresher vehicles for misgivings about distant executive government.
In terms of winnable seats, Lib Dems are now thrown back on their core vote: socially liberal, university-educated professionals, mostly in the home counties and disproportionately in the public sector. These voters tend to appreciate the party’s emphasis on civil liberties, the environment, international openness and community democracy, and its seriousness about policy-making. If resources and arguments are targeted appropriately, Guildford, Wimbledon, Hitchin and Cambridgeshire South can follow at the next election where Richmond Park and St Albans led last Thursday.
Focusing attention on these voters has several advantages for the Lib Dems. It will give the party a coherent identity once again. And this electoral constituency is a growing demographic. It will never be big enough to provide a majority, but for too long the deluded search for one has seduced Lib Dems into making discordant promises to different groups.
There’s no point in claiming that increasing their vote share last week was a great achievement, still less that it was a mandate for proportional representation. The only way to make the case for PR is to show how hung parliaments can produce real benefits through scrutiny and compromise. But the Lib Dems’ behaviour this decade suggests they haven’t always believed that themselves. Their rejection of the coalition and of Brexit has been too wilfully ideological. It is parliament itself, and pragmatic, strategic politics within it, that the party ought to defend. If they can’t win votes on a ticket of respect for political institutions, it won’t just be the Lib Dems whose prospects are gloomy.
• Jonathan Parry teaches modern history at Cambridge