Ways forward for the Liberal Democrats? Why winning power is overrated

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A couple of articles I read before Christmas have been swirling round my head.

Firstly, a perspective from Vince Cable, in which he calls for centre-left parties to work more closely together.

Cards on the table here: I’m not the biggest fan of Vince Cable, and I didn’t find him particularly inspiring as a leader. I was relieved when he stepped down and made way for the bolder Jo Swinson. But since the general election, I have found myself wondering if the Liberal Democrats performed better in the parallel universe where Vince Cable remained leader.

In his piece for the Guardian, Vince Cable points out that the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Green party have distinct histories. Their ideologies feel almost as far apart from each other as from the Conservatives.

Liberalism (put crudely) is fundamentally about limiting power — particularly the power of government. This is in fact completely at odds with left-wing ideologies like socialism, which is fundamentally about increasing the power of the state.

Most centre-left people who are drawn to the Liberal Democrats probably do so because they find the Labour party unpalatable in some way. Indeed, most Lib Dems (myself included) would get rather irritated at the suggestion that the party should exist as some sort of appendage of Labour.

Vince Cable goes on to make the case for centre-left parties to work more closely together.

The uncomfortable truth is that Labour, Lib Dems and Greens tend to do well — or poorly — in national elections at the same time, riding or being swept away by the same tides.

I’m not sure how well this holds up.

Chart by Visualizer

The Lib Dems’ vote share went down in 1997 when Labour won a landslide (though this was disguised somewhat by the fact that they won many more seats in our perverse electoral system). Meanwhile, the Lib Dems’ highest-ever (post-merger) vote share came in 2010, when Labour finally lost power. If anything, the Lib Dems’ performance is a mirror-image of Labour’s.

However, something about Vince Cable’s point rings true. I had felt like it was a bit of a paradox that the Lib Dems had their most successful period during Labour governments, not Conservative ones. This election, where both Labour and the Lib Dems fell far short of their expectations, provided further evidence that their fates are intertwined — to some degree, at least.

It’s easy to blame the electoral system. But it does seem as though many voters may have been scared off from voting for the Lib Dems for fear of letting Jeremy Corbyn in. If the Lib Dems were going to have any influence following this election, it was always going to be via the Labour party.

For all that I said about the ideologies of the Lib Dems and Labour being so fundamentally different, experience shows us that the wider electorate does not understand or care about this. Many people were clearly surprised by the Lib Dems’ decision to enter a coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. The party has never come close to recovering since then.

There is a clue as well in the fate of Labour in Scotland since the Scottish independence referendum. Support for Labour collapsed in the aftermath of their successful campaign to remain in the UK. One argument is that the Labour brand was tainted by the fact that they were on the same side in this debate as the Conservatives. Indeed, unionism is one of the Scottish Conservatives’ key stances, and Labour are aligned with it.

The Conservatives are a popular party. But people who are not Conservative supporters tend to despise them. They despise them to such an extent that they do not even like other parties to co-operate with them at all, even if it’s the right thing to do.

Labour were right to join the Conservatives in the independence referendum. And I did think the Lib Dems were right to go into coalition in 2010. But neither party has been forgiven by voters who see things in more black-and-white terms.

So what’s the way forward?

A thought entered my head when reading this piece by Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian. This column is a postmortem on Labour’s performance under Jeremy Corbyn. But there was one section in particular I disagreed with:

That’s what a political party is for. It’s not a hobby; it’s not a pressure group that exists to open the Overton window a little wider; it’s not an association for making friends or hosting stimulating conversations and seminars; it’s not “a 30-year project”. Its purpose is to win and exercise power in the here and now. It is either a plausible vehicle for government or it is nothing.

Up until about five years ago, I would have agreed with this statement. But think about the last five years in politics. If there is one person who has got almost everything he wanted, it is Nigel Farage. And he has done so without ever coming remotely close to being “a plausible vehicle for government”.

Ukip only ever had two MPs, and even they were defections! Ukip have never won an MP in a general election.

Brexit has been achieved. It was not the policy of any major party, let alone a party with power.

Sure, Nigel Farage has gone through the motions and campaigned in elections. But he did this only to legitimise his cause. The bulk of his work has been done through loitering outside radio studios and plonking his backside on any chair that had a TV camera pointing at it. Broadcast producers are only too happy to oblige, because they are drawn towards extreme viewpoints. After all, they wouldn’t want to bore the viewers, would they?

The Brexit Party didn’t even bother pretending to be a credible party of government this time round. They dutifully stood down in seats that the Conservatives could win, while retaining just enough candidates to legitimise their continued presence on TV and spread their message. Nigel Farage himself failed to stand as an MP, which gave him more time to host his radio show and appear on TV.

As a result, the Conservative party is no longer the Conservative party. You only have to see how figures like Ken Clarke, Michael Heseltine and John Major have increasingly distanced themselves from the party’s current direction.

The Conservative party has essentially been infected by Faragism, like a parasitic virus. It still has the shape and appearance of the Conservative party, but it has lost control of its faculties, which are now in the hands of Brexiters.

Nigel Farage and the Brexiters didn’t have to win power. They barely even had to pretend they wanted to win power.

They merely had to work out how to set the agenda, how to shift that Overton window wider and wider, and ultimately how to control the governing party by stealth.

Brexit has shown us that gaining power is overrated. The Lib Dems won power in 2010, got little of what they wanted, and never recovered from it. Brexiters have never even tried to win power — but got everything they wanted.

Could the Liberal Democrats hold Labour’s feet to the fire in the way that Nigel Farage does to the Conservatives? If you can describe that as centre-left parties working more closely together, perhaps Vince Cable was right after all.

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