A Liberal Democrat Fightback perhaps, but where is the yellow surge?

As Lib Dems talk up their results in Witney and a string of local election successes, as well as their potential in Richmond Park, the news for the party can’t be seen as entirely rosey.

By Sam Shenton | 21st November 2016

In the aftermath of the Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference in Brighton, I wrote a piece about how the Lib Dems can (and, probably, will) take advantage of the situation regarding the decision to leave the EU to their electoral benefit. Since then, the party has continued to gain local council seats in by-elections, and came second to the Conservatives in the Witney by-election following former Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to resign as an MP. In that piece, I was positive about their future. The intention of this piece, however, is to act as a counter-argument, to take off the Rose-tinted (or yellow-tinted?) glasses and to look deeper at the Lib Dems’ future prospects.

The polls are of course the first measure of where a party’s support lies. Since the General Election, the party has struggled to register beyond single digits in most polls, and while their former coalition partners enjoy a ‘honeymoon’ high period with new Prime Minister Theresa May, Tim Farron’s party is stagnant at approximately 8% in national polls, still behind Labour and UKIP, despite both Labour and UKIP being in what is seemingly perpetual meltdown. Tim Farron also scores low recognition rates as leader of what many now see as Britain’s fifth – not third or fourth – party, behind the Scottish Nationalists and UKIP. With that in mind, it’s hard to see where a possible Lib Dem surge is happening, at least in the national context.

Which leads us to the issue of the two by-elections, one of which we have seen and the other to be held on December 1st. The Party highlights their successful second place finish in the Witney by-election, as well as the potential for an actual victory in the Richmond Park by-election following Zac Goldmsith’s decision to quit the Tory Party and stand for election as an anti-Heathrow Airport Expansion independent candidate. The recourses and money they ploughed into Witney obviously would have resulted in the strong finish here for any party, and had it been in another, less Tory seat, could have pulled a victory in.

However, Witney remains that: a safe Conservative seat with a new Tory MP to follow on from David Cameron. The Lib Dems’ supposed success there wasn’t any surprise – and indeed, it’s quite worrying that the Labour Party’s vote share hardly dropped at all, particularly with the unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn and the poor poll performance of Labour nationally. What that probably shows is that Lib Dems were simply unable to bite into Labour’s support in the seat, which is, again, worrying considering Corbyn’s supposed weakness on the issue of Brexit and the Lib Dems’ focus on preventing it. Although credit is due for the initially good performance statistic in Witney, the deeper troubles are shown after a first glance.

Meanwhile, Richmond Park is to host a by-election after the constituency’s Conservative MP Zak Goldsmith left the Conservative Party over Theresa May’s plans to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport in London. Liberal Democrats held this seat up until 2010, and in 2015 Goldsmith won the seat for the Tories with a majority of 23,015 votes (38.9%). A good performance here could show that the Lib Dems are back on the map, however, it is once again unlikely they will take the seat.

The campaign has seen a candidate that has consistently flip-flopped over her position of whether parliament should vote to trigger Article 50 to leave the European Union, which is an issue the party has made the cornerstone of their campaign in the overwhelmingly Remain-voting constituency. With some statements saying she will vote down Brexit, while at the same time saying “Britain is leaving the European Union, end of,” the Lib Dems’ reputation has been damaged. But what if the Lib Dems actually do, do well? The prospect of a party utilising the EU referendum result to their advantage in a pro-remain constituency wouldn’t be any political earthquake beyond the immediate parliamentary impact of losing a pro-Brexit Member of Parliament. But besides this, they’re likely to still lose the seat to Goldsmith who is projected to retain the seat with a similar majority in percentage terms.

But just why are the Lib Dems still doing so badly? When the alignment of how Brexit referendum giving them a liberal cause once more to fight for, and their record as junior coalition government now over in many political terms, shouldn’t they be doing better? The issue for the party is of course that Tim Farron, their new leader, is nowhere near as liked or even well-know as former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was during the height of ‘cleggmania,’ and lacks in charisma and appeal to many voters. It’s undoubtable that this has affected the party’s poll standing, while the dominance of the current Conservative Government has left all opposition parties neutered in their influence. The failure of the Remain campaign may also have influenced some public opinion, with more voters believing the party will fade away than those who believe that the party will continue to be a relevant political force (YouGov, 2014).

It’s clear therefore that the Liberal Democrats have much potential, particularly after the Brexit vote and their mildly successful Autumn Conference. However, the circumstances they have currently undergone have meant that the party has failed to mount itself as a resurgent voice in British politics thus far, and if the manner which the party conducts itself doesn’t change soon, it’s possible that the belief of some voters in that the party will simply fade from existence could come to fruition in the near future. It’s entirely possible at despite an upsurge in local councillors and membership, the party is on a course to failure and another reinvention of the liberal, third-party tradition.