Following Lib Dem conference, a nagging thought that has been growing in the back of my mind is getting louder. The Lib Dems must stop banging on about Brexit.
I don’t mean they should not talk about it ever, but at the moment they are pushing “an exit from Brexit” to the exclusion of all else. The party has become dangerously myopic. As the applause in the conference hall and the proliferation of fetching blue berets with yellow felt stars demonstrates, an imaginary get out of jail free card and the idea of a People’s Vote is like catnip to activists and the new members who joined following the 2016 failure of Remain.
Two years ago, when I first had this debate with the party’s then Director of Comms, the Lib Dems were a lone voice calling for a referendum on the final deal. Since then the Electoral Commission has called the spending of the Leave campaign into question, senior Brexiteers admitted their campaign promises were false and politicians on all sides of Parliament have now lined up to say the so called “Chequers deal” is rubbish. And so, as Brexit reaches its crescendo over the next few months, the opportunity to win new centrist, pro-European supporters has become more acute.
In which case, it may seem counter-intuitive then to argue that it’s time for the Lib Dems to talk about other things. But there are two big reasons why, in my view. Firstly, because I do not think we can win a People’s Vote and secondly, because the party must not consign itself to becoming a reverse UKIP single-issue pressure group.
Be careful what you wish for
This week the official People’s Vote published thoughts on how a second European referendum – or a first referendum on the final deal – might be brought about. But they are focussed on process not persuasion. From the public messaging, it seems that little has been done within the Remain camps or the Lib Dems to address why we didn’t win the argument in June 2016. The message is still an uninspiring one of economic doom. The same project fear that failed to secure a win last time. Back then, only this Gordon Brown video sought to make the emotional case for remaining in the European Union. At best, People’s Vote are now saying “its ok to change your mind” which still implies “but we think you were wrong before”. The hope and the change, which uplifts and inspires voters, was and still is all on the Leave side.
More than 50% of the seats where Lib Dems are the main opposition (18 of 35) voted to Leave by a majority. Setting aside a People’s Vote, the party cannot win Westminster seats again without the support of at least some of the Brexit coalition. Yet too often it talks to those voters without empathy. We reject legitimate concerns by lumping them in with racism and ignorance. Even those from within the party struggled to get a hearing on a controversial new immigration policy debated on Sunday morning, which was explicitly amended to reserve the right to call Brexit voters racists.
This failure to meet people where they are, may be because only three of the current MPs represent Brexit majority constituencies. Partly because it gets so little media coverage, the Lib Dem narrative and policy offer fails to address legitimate concerns about standards of living, cuts to precious services and rising pressure on those services from immigration. Those on the doorsteps of St Ives, North Devon, Hazel Grove, Winchester, and Wells must “Demand Better” than that. Telling more than half your voters “you’re wrong” and – if there is ever a single moment in time when Brexit can be proven to be bad – “we told you so” – seems unlikely to change their minds. The polling evidence that voters on either side have changed their minds is patchy at best.
I believe this double failure of messaging and empathy means, even if the long shot comes off, the Lib Dems and other remainers would lose a People’s Vote. And by a wider margin. Leave would argue compellingly to people who have been left behind by austerity, that metropolitan liberal elites are still talking down to them, telling them they know best and blind to their concerns. “They are ignoring your wishes and trying to get off on a technicality, Go tell them again louder…” is far more likely to get voters off sofas and down to the polling station.
One trick pony
Losing a People’s Vote would take the issue of our European relationship off the table for a generation at least, if not for good. And as the AV referendum shows, the Lib Dems love a lost cause, in fact they revel in the nerdiness of technical merits over the practical feasibility. Post-Brexit, the Lib Dem leadership will face huge internal pressure to become the party of return. That identity crisis could consign the Lib Dems to perpetual political obscurity.
The party urgently needs to broaden the conversations it is having with voters. New liberal answers to people’s day to day problems are needed. Under Vince’s leadership foundations have been laid - the so called “ideas factory” is open, cranking out policy suggestions on taxation, health, housing, AI and tech. His attempts to make the party fit for purpose may yet bear fruit. And it is to his credit that he has shown vision for the movement beyond his own tenure. He is in politics to do something not be something. But having signalled his intention to step down, the party, the Westminster Village and the voters will have to look to the prospective candidates who might replace him to meet this challenge.