With the hard left tightening its grip on Labour and the hard right dictating to a Conservative Prime Minister, there are millions of voters in the centre ground of British politics looking for a moderate, progressive party to call home. As Brexit reaches a crescendo this autumn, Atlas Director Vanessa Pine argues this should present a huge opportunity for the Lib Dems.
A little over a year into the job, the question for Vince Cable as he addresses the party’s annual gathering in Brighton is why those voters are not already flocking to the #libdemfightback? My erstwhile boss was the only person willing to put himself forward as leader after Tim Farron resigned in June 2017. Despite the coronation, Vince got a pretty poor inheritance from his predecessor. The party infrastructure was hollowed out, its volunteers and coffers drained by the defeat of the General Election. From when I first started volunteering in 2005, we’ve dropped from 62 to 12 MPs in Parliament. The party has spent the last seven years in single figures and endured a steady loss of council seats. To borrow a phrase from Sky’s Adam Boulton the “grassroots are parched.”
But this May, the Lib Dems secured their best local election results for 15 years. The current expectation is that 2019 will deliver more. The post-referendum membership surge continues to hold above 100,000. Two years ago, the Lib Dems ploughed a lonely furrow, calling for a people’s vote on the final Brexit deal. That call is now being embraced by people up and down the country and a growing number of politicians from other parties – most recently the Women’s Equality Party and Conservatives for a People’s vote.
It’s not clear why then, with things finally starting to move in the right direction, the Lib Dem Leader has chosen this moment to kick off a “going out in a blaze of glory” tour. His well-intentioned answer to the centre ground opportunity has been to suggest reforms to broaden the party into a movement, welcoming talent and support from outside. But a proposal to allow non-MPs to lead the party was read as implicit criticism of the talents of the current crop of MPs. There have been other needlessly self-inflicted wounds – not necessarily of his making – a no show at key Brexit vote, briefing a leadership speech weeks in advance that naturally gave rise to resignation speculation. This week even going as far as accepting the suggestion that the party could adopt a new name. It is to his credit that he has shown vision for the movement beyond his own tenure. But Vince has appeared a little too keen to embrace the idea of a “new” centrist party, to the detriment of his own.
Having announced his impending departure, the Lib Dem leader has made himself “an irrelevant lame duck” in the eyes of the lobby journalists. Those who are fed up with the Westminster Village soap opera may well say, who cares? Why do we pander to the myopic concerns of the dead tree media anyway? The practical answer is that harnessing their interest is vital if the party is to get the cut through it so desperately needs to support its campaigns. There is frustration at every level over the lack of the media coverage for Lib Dem stories, from the hard-working press team, to the activists and the armchair members.
Yet, the party has consistently underfunded its digital and social campaigning function, so it can’t match Corbyn’s efforts to bypass the so-called ‘MSM’ and speak directly to its base. Ten years ago, Facebook was a niche start-up, now over a quarter (26%) of the world’s population use it daily. YouTube gets more hits than Google. Video is king. And the Lib Dems are facing this digital age with an analogue leader. But this challenge goes far beyond the leadership. Lib Dems, always famed for their pavement bashing grassroots army, now need a digital one to match. We should recruit and train volunteers who can weave politics and policy into visual stories. A dramatic investment in digital campaigning capacity is needed to spread the party’s messages beyond Brexit.
This weekend, party members from across the UK descend on Brighton for their annual conference. They will discuss reforms and policies that should help generate the boldly liberal ideas that, just might, engage those centrist, progressive, moderate voters that we need to win. I will be there too, hoping something can yet be done to save the Lib Dems from themselves. But it could be worse, instead of heading to the beach at Brighton I could be arriving in Liverpool as members of the Labour Party will be next week, facing a far bigger crisis of confidence in the leadership and direction of my tribe.