I haven’t written anything about the Lib Dems since the week following the general election. This is because I haven’t been able to think of anything positive to say and no one wants to read about how the Liberal Democrats are completely screwed. However, having turned this over in my mind during the past few weeks, I feel I have the following to say.
The Lib Dems have several big problems. One is that they managed to completely misuse what may turn out to be a once in a century opportunity, namely that MPs from both of the big two parties defected and joined the third party’s ranks. But there is no point dwelling on this; it is in the past and nothing can be done about it. I could point to the Lib Dems being too much of a bubble, something which leads the party to constantly run campaigns that are not in touch with the electorate. The party is badly structured, which is another big issue. It has incredibly complex architecture where this is counterproductive (policy creation, for instance) and has no organisation whatsoever in places where it desperately needs it (holding together a wide coalition of support in the media, public affairs and other areas). Yet all of these are sub-problems that ultimately stem from the Lib Dems single, overriding problem: what is the party for and what is it seeking to achieve by existing?
Just being something that isn’t Labour or the Tories is not enough. Being anti-Brexit isn’t enough either, no matter how Brexit plays out. The Lib Dems have to be something concrete to a sizeable group of voters to be truly electorally relevant. The party is nowhere near that at present.
After the Coalition, there was an opportunity to try and hang onto centre-rightish voters who were liberal and might have been convinced to vote Lib Dem, particularly after the Brexit vote. Weirdly enough, a lot of Lib Dem members seem to think that this strategy has been tried. This only demonstrates the bubble that is Lib Dem membership, combined with how far to the left most Lib Dem members appear to be. They desperately want to be “forgiven” for the Coalition years by the left – something which will clearly never happen. The party likes to say things like it is the “natural party for business”, without having one truly pro-business policy. It keeps going back to its left-wing comfort zone, again and again.
I’m not saying the Lib Dems have to ape the Tories – otherwise, what’s the point? – but the party has struggled to have any headline policies that are to the right of a Labour Party in thrall to the far left over the past three years. But then we come back to the core problem: saying the Lib Dems should move to the right in several key areas is just shouting into the wind. It isn’t what the bulk of the party members seem to want to do and that’s what counts here. Layla Moran, the likely next leader of the party, has publicly said that the Lib Dems and Labour need to “bury the hatchet” and work with each other. Which begs the question: why bother to have a Lib Dem party at all? Why not fold and let Labour get on with it? If you want to work with Labour in a real, structured way and want to see an end to a Tory government under any and all circumstances, aren’t you being counterproductive to your own stated aim just by continuing to exist?
There is all this talk about “progressive coalitions” again post-election; tactical voting pleas which have not worked for the past decade whatsoever. Yet no one knows what else to do. The Lib Dems look likely to float along for the next little while, not daring to resolve its internal contradictions, hoping for the next miracle to come along which they would no doubt muck up. Or perhaps they could finally come to grips with their internal problems and become a genuine force in British politics? Please, no one hold their breath.