Naked Politics Blogger
Yesterday, Prime Minister Theresa May announced that she intended to seek Parliament’s approval for a snap general election that would take place on 8th June. While much of the subsequent news has focused on the inevitable majority victory for the Conservatives and the potential obliteration of a disjointed Labour Party, it is perhaps the Liberal Democrats’ story that could be the most interesting of the all.
The Lib Dems go into June 8th with a marginal chance of becoming the official opposition, but a chance nonetheless. Although it might sound peculiar to even use the terms “Lib Dems” and “Opposition” in the same breath, it is important to note that in the 2010 elections, the Nick Clegg’s party received just over 6.8 million votes, only 1.8 million less than Labour. Furthermore, the Tories needed these votes in order to establish a coalition government. By 2015, the Lib Dems’ time in government with the Tories had damaged their support so much that they dropped to being the fourth biggest political party in the UK, tied with the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland and behind the Scottish National Party. The 2015 elections saw the Lib Dems receive only 2.4 million votes, a 65% drop since 2010. This appeared to signal the impending death of the party as a whole.
However, with yesterday’s announcement, Prime Minister May unknowingly offered the Lib Dems a chance at redemption. May justified the call for a snap election by arguing that the government needed a stronger mandate to pursue Brexit negotiations on behalf of the people.
“The country is coming together, but Westminster is not” stated PM May yesterday, her patience now eroded after constant threats from opposition parties to block the Tories’ hard Brexit.
Brexit is a particularly strong point for the Liberal Democrats and May’s singling out of the issue for the general election allows for Farron’s party to run a campaign on a single issue. The Lib Dems would almost certainly offer a second EU referendum should they win the elections on June 8th and are currently the only political party who are advocating for such.
At the end of last year, a survey by YouGov collected results for who people would vote for if the Lib Dems offered a second referendum as an electoral promise, whilst the other parties instead offered to progress negotiations for Brexit. The poll revealed that the Conservatives would maintain their majority and receive 39% of the vote, but that the Lib Dems would overtake Labour with 22%. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour came in at 19%.
The Lib Dem’s willingness to reverse Brexit is too radical a position to secure any sort of majority come June 8th, but it is potentially lucrative in two key areas. Firstly, the Lib Dems should target Scotland, where 62% of the electorate voted to remain in the European Union, higher than anywhere else in the UK. The bitter feeling towards a Tory-led Brexit has increased support for a Scottish independence referendum – which poses a more realistic threat to the Union than ever before. This threat could, however, be prevented by the Liberal Democrats. By offering a second EU referendum, the Lib Dems could appeal to many Scottish voters who historically are anti-Tory but also not convinced by a second independence referendum at even more uncertain times than in 2014. According to a poll conducted by What Scotland Thinks, 55% of Scots would reject independence if a vote was held this year.
It is also important to remember that the Lib Dems previously had a sizeable base in Scotland, winning 11 seats in both the 2005 and 2010 general elections. However, the rise of the SNP almost wiped out the Liberals, as the 2015 election only resulted in only one seat won by the latter. Scotland therefore represents an opportunity not to be missed – the electorate are generally dissatisfied with the Conservatives’ potential hard Brexit, uninspired by Corbyn’s leadership of Labour and unconvinced of another SNP pushed independence referendum.
The other avenue for the Lib Dems to exploit should be Labour. Corbyn’s time as leader has been plagued with botches, blunders and betrayal. Despite having won two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, dissent within the Parliamentary Labour Party is still high. Tensions reached boiling point in January when Corbyn ordered his MPs to vote in line with the party to support PM May’s “Brexit Bill”. The inner splintering of the Labour Party was so significant that MP Clive Lewis, then Shadow Secretary of Business, resigned and argued that he could not toe the party line and vote for the Brexit Bill when his constituency of Norwich South voted to remain. Lewis was supported by another 51 Labour MPs who voted against the Bill, in favour of voting in the same way their constituency did. This fractured support is not exclusive to the Parliamentary Labour Party but is also beginning to spread amongst the electorate. The historic defeat in Copeland to the Conservatives earlier this year could have been the loud alarm that the Corbyn ship is sinking. The Copeland seat has been dominated by Labour for the past 80 years and is comprised of a largely working class electorate. This Labour slip across working class areas could be capitalised on, quite fruitfully, by the Liberal Democrats come June 8th.
Farron needs to make the case that the Liberal Democrats can appeal to and advocate for the working class. Typically, the Lib Dems’ support comes from working professionals aged between 24 and 44, living in London or Southern England. For June 8th, the party needs to push two agendas to two different groups. It must first consolidate its base with liberals who are apprehensive of a Tory-led hard Brexit that has still not made a commitment to securing the rights and liberties of British nationals abroad in the EU and European citizens working in the UK. That’s the easy part – preaching to the converted. Secondly, and in order to grow the party, it must find a way to appeal to the working-class men and women of Northern England, to push the message that Brexit will hit them the hardest and that the only party willing to offer a mulligan is the Liberal Democrats. If Farron’s party can offer a clear, concise economic argument as to why British workers are better off remaining in the EU, then the Lib Dems can sweep up many ex-Labour voters who currently see no alternative to abstinence.
The key to the Lib Dem’s success in June will come down to whether or not they can appeal to the working class in industrial northern England and to the Scots who voted to remain in both the European and British Union. If Farron can manage the balancing act, he could put the final nails in Labour’s coffin.