The Lib Dem Reality

by Jon Trickett

In the current chaotic swirl of UK political activity, focus has often been on the changes in Labour Leadership and more recently on the Tories following the election of Boris Johnson.

Much less analysis has been undertaken of the Lib Dems. In some scenarios, however, they may play a significant role in how the coming election turns out.

In the place of analysis, there is a view that the Libdems are kind of cuddly progressives who it is safe to vote for if you are someone who wishes to remain in the EU. Some have even suggested that they can and should be part of a ‘progressive alliance’. This view needs to be tested.

It is right that their politics too come under the same scrutiny as the two major parties. There are two questions which need to be posed: what is their election strategy and what does it tell us about their political orientation?

As it happens, we know quite a lot about both these matters. In previous times, the Lib Dems had a policy of rigorous equidistance between the two other parties. Some earlier leaders were genuine radicals who could not possibly have supported a Tory government.

The same is not true now. The strategy of attempting to be mid-way between Left and Right has been dropped, though Jo Swinson might hope that we haven’t noticed. The underlying reason for this is not hard to find.

The reason is their electoral base.

The first point to note is that their target seats consist very largely of Tory seats. A recent leak from Lib Dem headquarters revealed that of the top 100 seats which they are targeting, almost all are Tory seats. We will come later to the question of whether the loss of seats by the Tories to the Lib Dems is a good thing.

The second point is the striking fact that in the last election not a single Lib Dem seat was won where Labour is in second place.

It is important to understand the central demographic fact that Swinson’s winnable seats are largely conservative leaning.

The Guardian reported an internal Lib Dem strategy paper stating that ‘Of the first 100 seats we can target, most of them will come from the Conservatives’.

The website Electoral Calculus which plots possible seat changes showed that expectations of winning 100 seats were wide of the mark. Nonetheless, as of the end of September 2019, the current polling showed the Lib Dems picking up 33 seats. Though this may be an overstatement of what will be achieved in the heat of a full-blown election, the pattern of gains overwhelmingly from the Tories is confirmed (only 5 are Labour at present).

It is perhaps noteworthy that two of the most prominent Labour defectors - Chuka Umunna and Luciana Berger - are to stand as Liberal Democrats in Tory held seats with large remain majorities, both in London.

Now, we can understand this if we put ourselves in the mindset of Lib Dem strategists. Lets assume that you see your primary task as attracting disaffected Tory voters in target seats.

The first thing you would do is to identify Tory Remain voters who are alienated by the PM’s determination to leave the EU by any means. This requires you to be staunchly remain. But the second thing you need to do is reassure potential defecting Tory voters that by voting Lib Dem they will not somehow let Labour into government. This requires you to be staunchly anti-Corbyn.

Swinson meets both these criteria. On Brexit, she announced that they would simply vote in Parliament to revoke the decision of the electorate even though previously they had wanted a second referendum.

But it’s on the question of a radical Labour government that she has perhaps even more vehement. When it comes to a choice between preventing a no deal Brexit on the one hand or having Jeremy Corbyn as an interim Leader on the other, Swinson has chosen to reject Corbyn.

Of course, she has also said she could not go into coalition with a Boris Johnson led Tory Government after the election. But she did play a ministerial key role in the coalition under David Cameron. Right through the betrayal of middle-class families on the question of tuition fees and on to all the austerity, Swinson was there through to the bitter end.

Indeed to this day, she has not repudiated her voting record in office or the choice of austerity which the coalition agreed as their fiscal approach. Readers won’t forget that that the knife of austerity fell particularly on the poorest.

According to ‘They Vote For You’, in the Commons the Lib Dem leader:

  • Almost always voted for reducing housing benefit for social tenants deemed to have excess bedrooms ( the "bedroom tax")

  • Consistently voted against raising welfare benefits at least in line with prices

  • Consistently voted against paying higher benefits over longer periods for those unable to work due to illness or disability

  • Consistently voted for making local councils responsible for helping those in financial need afford their council tax and reducing the amount spent on such support

  • Almost always voted for a reduction in spending on welfare benefits

  • Almost always voted against spending public money to create guaranteed jobs for young people who have spent a long time unemployed

The same website records Swinson as having voted in Dec 2010 to increase the cap on tuition fees up to £9000. This vote only a few months after standing on an election manifesto which committed Lib Dems not to increase tuition fees.

And there you have it. The leadership of the Lib Dem party is instinctively right of centre in terms of their political orientation. The logic of their demographic base equally pulls them in the same direction, as we have seen.

Progressives who are considering how to vote in the coming election need to weigh things carefully. Vote Lib Dem and most likely you will get a Tory government with or without their support.

Jon Trickett is the Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, Shadow Lord President of the Council, and has been the MP for Hemsworth since 1996. @jon_trickett

File photo © Liberal Democrats. Licensing: Creative Commons.

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