Before the 2017 general election, the Liberal Democrats looked as though they might be about to make a resurgence. They were opposed to the hard Brexit favoured by Theresa May’s government and looked ready to bring the 48% who voted to remain into their camp. There were hopes that they could portray themselves as the party of the centre, thereby attracting those who felt alienated by Jeremy Corbyn’s radical left and the hard right of the Conservative Party. However, these hopes proved to be too high. At the end of polling the Liberal Democrats had won only twelve seats, a slight increase from 2015 but nothing compared to the fifty-seven seats won in 2010.
Much like in 2015, many reasons have been given for the Liberal Democrats’ failure to capitalise on what could have easily been a profitable election. In 2015 they were tainted by their association with the Conservative Party and the coalition government. They were hampered by the policies that the coalition implemented, such as the increase in tuition fees and the bedroom tax. The apparent willingness of the Liberal Democrats to get into bed with the Conservatives and support these policies publicly, even if it were for the good of the country, did them no favours. Not only were they seen as being no better than the Conservatives, but their inability to appear as a reasonable alternative to the feared Labour-SNP coalition meant that they lost out.
It now seems as though their focus on Brexit might well have done them more harm than good. Brexit is a consuming issue for many, but there is and was a strong sense amongst the electorate, regardless of how they voted, that the vote had happened and that it would be best for things to move forward. The Liberal Democrats campaigned almost exclusively on the basis of opposing a hard Brexit, to the extent that it appeared as if they were almost opposing a democratically granted mandate. This did them no favours, especially in areas that might well have once voted for the Liberal Democrats but had also voted for Brexit.
Consequently, it can be argued that their tunnel vision on Brexit did cost them during the election. When this was combined with their association with the coalition government, it was almost guaranteed that they would not perform as well as they might have hoped. Couple this with the focus on former leader Tim Farron’s religious views and there was always going to be a risk that they would not appeal to the type of voter who might once have stumped for them. The controversy surrounding Farron’s Christianity meant that many potential voters walked away before they had a chance to hear some of the party’s key policies.
Since the election there has been much soul searching amongst the Liberal Democrats as they aim to build themselves back up after yet another crushing blow to their electoral hopes. Whilst Vince Cable might not be gaining the traction needed to hold the government to account, he has highlighted the fact that, unlike UKIP, the Liberal Democrats cannot afford to be a single-issue party. At his party’s conference, Cable said, “I want our party to lead the fight against Brexit. But we should not be consumed by Brexit to the exclusion of everything else.”
Cable and the small cohort of Liberal Democrat MPs repeatedly state that there is a growing base of voters who feel let down by both the Conservatives and Labour. Cable wishes for the party to cater to these people, who include young first-time voters and business owners. This active approach is commendable and is sure to give Cable some traction with the party base. Whether or not it holds ground with the wider voting public is another thing entirely.
The Liberal Democrats must avoid falling into the trap of sticking to one issue for too long, as voters have shown time and again that they do not like detailed focus from opposition parties that are not Labour. If the Liberal Democrats wish to make a comeback in time for the next election, they must ensure they have a solid base of support and clear policies on a range of issues. Otherwise, their years in the wilderness will continue.