Last Friday, I published an article on this site about why Lib Dem hopes of an alliance, formal or otherwise, with the Labour Party was complete fantasy. Near the close of the article, I added the following as an afterthought:
“I close with something I’ve said many times before, but worth repeating here: all of the Lib Dems’ target seats are Tory-held. In order to win them, they need to convince Tory voters to vote Lib Dem. Labour voters are never going to vote Lib Dem tactically in big enough numbers for lots of reasons. This means the space for the Lib Dems is very Orange Book shaped.”
Since I put the article out, many people have come back to me and disputed my claim, adding I hadn’t explained this very point well. It is true I hadn’t elaborated enough on what was a big thought – which I why I will now talk about where I think the political space lies for the Liberal Democrats, why it is Orange Book shaped – but also why the Lib Dems will not occupy this space, which calls into question the very basis for the ongoing life of the Lib Dem party.
2010 was the fork in the road for the Liberal Democrats. Once the Lib Dems went into coalition with the Conservatives, future electoral success was skewered in one direction. We could sit here and debate for days on end whether going into government with the Tories was a good idea or not; the point is, that is what actually happened. It cannot be undone. Once that government was formed, the Lib Dems’ fate was sealed in a way almost no one involved with the party understands.
With the Tories and Lib Dems in a government whose headline policy was cutting pubic services (although never even close to the level rhetoric suggested), all factions of the left united around the Labour Party. The Lib Dems had removed themselves from this grouping, probably for all time but at least a generation, by forming the coalition government. Part of this was how the left views issues of purity, but a bigger reason was that hating the Lib Dems just became an indelible part of wider leftist culture. The coalition government made left and right voters think differently about the Lib Dems from then on: no longer Labour’s little cousin, right of centre voters appreciated what the Lib Dems had done in forming the government as much as left of centre voters hated them for it.
Many Lib Dem activists like to point to 2015 as the ultimate failure of the Orange Book project. Yet there is another way of looking at the result. Having made their bed with the Tories, the Lib Dems needed to lie in it or be destroyed. They refused, running a campaign in which they told the public they might form a government with whomever of the two big parties got the most seats. With the left having abandoned the Lib Dems completely and now the party saying they might form a government with the Labour Party if that presented itself as an option, this left the party with almost no one on the political spectrum to appeal to. What I’m really say here is, had the Lib Dems ran a campaign in 2015 that said they would only form a government with the Tories and wouldn’t consider one with Labour, they probably could have held on to another 15 seats, making coalition Mark 2 possible.
Now, you might be saying, “Yeah, but that isn’t what the party is all about”. Which is fine, but a completely different point to the one I’m making. I’m simply saying that had the Lib Dems run on a “Coalition 2” ticket, I think they could have got it. Which doesn’t suggest the Orange Book strategy didn’t work – just that, in the end, the party didn’t want to follow it through to its bitter end.
After the near wipeout for the Lib Dems in 2015, the party retreated into a shell. It alienated most of those who had joined during and immediately after the coalition years, falling into a strategy that they have never fully abandoned since, which I would label “Please, lefties, forgive us all of our coalition sins”. This was reflected in 2019 by the torturous answers Jo Swinson gave whenever asked about the coalition years, when she would inevitably fall into a jeremiad about “all of the mistakes we made”. What has been tragic is that the Lib Dems combined this apologising for their time in government with lame attempts at centre-right rhetoric, like having a massive pop at Jeremy Corbyn, which has just confused everything further.
The Lib Dems were given a massive opportunity by the combination of Brexit and the 2017 general election resulting in a hung parliament – which they blew in impressive fashion. A big Orange Book shaped hole opened up in British politics, almost like magic, where those voters who were liberal, pro-European, yet had voted for the Tories in the last couple of elections suddenly felt politically homeless. The Lib Dems attempt to step into this hole that should have been tailor-made for them was cringe-worthy. To a business community that was largely anti-Brexit, the Lib Dems threw a whole bunch of left-wing anti-business policies, making them understand that even in a world where the leader of the Conservative party had said “fuck business” and with Jeremy Corbyn waiting in the wings, the Tories were the only party who would even be close to their interests. The Lib Dems spoke about being the sensible party of moderation that was pro-business, anti-Brexit, all while standing on a policy prospectus that ranged from centre-left to far-left. The party hoped that Brexit was enough to lure in Tory voters in key target seats; as we know, it was not.
Lib Dem MPs like Layla Moran point to how they have been able to rally enough of the left vote around them to beat the Tories. Yet this is like Rebecca Long-Bailey seeing how solid her vote was in Salford and assuming that Labour would do well nationwide; it is confusing the local for the way things are nationwide. The left will not return to the Lib Dems. I have said this many times before and it is more true now than ever. If you want evidence, look at the last three general election results.
Yet here’s the thing: I know the Lib Dems will not go down this path, or if they do for some weird reason, it will be done in a half-arsed, ramshackle manner that will only make the party’s electoral fortunes even worse. The reason for this is a simple one: it isn’t where the activist base is politically situated. The average Lib Dem activist is actually objective very left-wing, at least this is my experience of things, having been around the party for almost a decade and a half. Tim Farron, Vince Cable and Jo Swinson, the last three Lib Dem leaders, were all people who would fit comfortably into Labour’s soft-left faction if you stripped away party partisanship. I know sometimes they said things that didn’t sound like it, but if you looked at what they really believed in and where their manifestos ended up, this is what you must conclude. Jo may have said a whole bunch of things about being pro-business and anti-Corbyn, but they came across as hollow; the one time she sounded like she was talking about something she really cared about during the general election campaign was when she addressed trans-rights.
The problem for the Lib Dems is that the only space in politics available now is a centre-right alternative to the Tories. I don’t even think now that Brexit is going to happen that the space for this is that huge, but it exists; there is room for a party that is genuinely pro-business, fiscally responsible, socially liberal and can credibly say “I told you so” when Brexit bumps occur, particularly with a Tory government that is splashing public money around all over the place. Also, this party could threaten the Tories in many seats in the south of England, seats where the Lib Dems came second last time and have a base from which to push forward. Alternatively, there is no room at all on the centre-left for another party, least of all one that was in government with the Tories for five years within very recent memory. Whomever the next Labour leader is, they will not open up space on the centre-left for the Lib Dems. Long-Bailey as leader would simply offer up more space in the centre, which would fit an Orange Book type party; Starmer will make the party safe again for many on the left who didn’t like Corbyn, uniting the centre-left at least for a few years. If Labour goes too far right for some, the Greens are a more credible escape valve for lefties than the coalition-tainted Lib Dems.
But again, none of this matters; the Lib Dems will go where the activists want them to go, and that is seemingly to tread water in an overcrowded centre-left pool full of voters who hate them. Lib Dem eternal optimism will mean that the activists are convinced the left will come back to them, somehow, someday. Meanwhile, British politics goes on, mostly without the Liberal Democrats.