UK Politics

If the Liberal Democrats are to survive, they need to shut up about Brexit

BY Olivia Utley | OliviaBUtley   /  6 February 2018

On paper, the Liberal Democrats are the only British politicians getting anything right. Last year, while Labour and the Conservatives indulged in inter-party leadership wars, the Lib Dems sensibly and quietly replaced gently incompetent Tim Farron with heavyweight Vince Cable. This year, while the two main parties dig around desperately for a coherent position on Brexit, the Lib Dems have their line sorted: a second referendum with the aim of overturning the referendum result as quickly as possible.

They even seem to be on the right side of history. The 2010/15 Clegg-Cameron coalition is under review for the history books, and thanks to some rose tinted glasses (and two subsequent years of nasty political turmoil) it is coming off rather well. The Lib Dems of yesteryear, once dismissed as ineffective sell-outs, have been recast as heroic moderators of the Tory regime.

And yet somehow, Vince Cable’s party is nowhere to be found. In a recent YouGov poll, 35% percent of participants said that they “didn’t know” when asked to choose a Prime Minister between Jeremy Corbyn or Theresa May – a more popular answer than either of the two leaders. This generous third of the population should obviously be low hanging fruit for the Lib Dems, but current popularity polls – which have them on an abysmal 7% – suggest their harvesting skills need some work.

Why? Because the Westminster Liberal Democrats (and Nick Clegg) are putting all their might into fighting against Brexit in a very specific way which never had – and never will have – mass appeal.  Unlike the vast majority of remain voters, who voted to stay in for a variety of practical reasons, Clegg et al voted to remain because they feel a deep and visceral affiliation with the European project and the EU.

This is a valid position to have, but on the British Isles it is rare. Despite what Twitter (a platform dedicated to artificially curating an identity) would have us believe, most ordinary people don’t think too much about their cultural identity – and those who do are statistically far more likely to gravitate towards their nation state. Even among those who want the referendum result to be overturned, the Liberal Democrats impassioned speeches about Patriotic Europeanism are falling flat. Shockingly, they are only picking up 40% of this cohort.

The answer, paradoxical as it may seem, is for them to shut up about Brexit. The Lib Dems have always done disproportionately well in local elections, because they truly believe that politics should be about making the lives of local people better. Lib Dem MPs are more likely than any others to come up through the local councillor route, and it was liberal democrats who popularised the tradition of candidates having some sort of connection to the area they are trying to represent. While the main parties were preoccupied discussing ivory tower politics, the lure of the Liberal Dems was always that they were effective local MPs who would fight tooth and nail for their constituents in parliament.

But since Brexit, they have all but forgotten this noble tradition. Instead of taking up local issues and pressurising sitting councillors and MPs, they have spent the last 18 months swanning around the country preaching to a tiny group of British EUphiles, who would almost definitely be voting for them anyway.

It’s time they changed tack, and finally, it looks like some of them may be doing just that. In Sunderland last week, the party took the council seat of Millfield from Labour in a by-election that shook the Labour council to the core. In his winning speech,  councillor Niall Hodson explained: “This election had nothing to do with Brexit – it was about a sense the council are not doing well enough on things like housing, social services and the cleanliness of the city.”

The much-discussed gap in the centre of politics exists, but the EU won’t fill it. While the two main parties rip themselves apart over Brexit, the British people are crying out for politicians who will represent their local needs. If the Lib Dems are to save themselves from electoral oblivion, they need to take a leaf out of Niall Hodson’s book – and fast.