Business seems to be going rather well for Jo Swinson and the Liberal Democrats at the moment. It seems like an MP defects to the party every day and membership has never been higher at over 120,000. Now even veteran Tory and one of the purged Conservatives, Ken Clarke is strongly considering voting for them at the next, ever imminent, general election. Like Ken Clarke, and unless something goes badly wrong for them, I too will board the Lib Dem bandwagon.
For full disclosure, I should note that I have changed my political leaning more times than Chuka Umunna (it’s 5-3 to me if anyone’s counting). It took me a while, but I eventually realised what a Marxist was. A Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell led Labour Party was not going to be for me. Then, whilst waiting for a ‘Blair 2.0’ to come along (without the war crimes this time), Change UK emerged only to self-destruct soon after.
The Green Party was next, and the location I scribbled my cross next to in the European Elections. It then turned out that the Tories were not as evil as attending school in the North had led me to believe. Who’d have thought, eh? However, the prospect of Rory Stewart in Number 10 didn’t last long.
This then led me to where I should probably have been all along: voting for the party that cataclysmically failed on their promises last time they were in government. I do not seem to be alone in taking such a winding and arduous journey that eventually led me to the Liberal Democrats.
Although Vince Cable’s Lib Dems found success in customising his party for the 48%, they could never truly be freed of the catastrophic coalition. The tarnish proved so great that instead of adopting the Lib Dem amber, centre-ground Tory and Labour MPs went to the effort of setting up an entirely new party, almost identical in policy. Post-‘exotic spresm’, Swinson has steered the party back to being taken seriously again.
A clear Remain message proved them in good stead during the local and European elections whilst Labour was sending mixed messages. Now the same can be said for their position in the polls.
Away from Brexit, the Lib Dem’s social and economic policy is gaining support. With Labour remaining glued to the far-left and Johnson and Cummings dragging a kicking and screaming Tory party along to the far-right, a relatively uncontested centre-ground has opened up. Coupled with a much more young and vibrant leader than that of her predecessor, this has allowed the Lib Dems to regain the youth vote that they had dramatically lost after entering into government.
There is, however, a great danger that Swinson and co. are simply becoming a life raft for disgruntled Remainers to cling to in the hope that their political career won’t drown. The likes of Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger and Sarah Wollaston undoubtedly benefit the party. They have strong liberal values and credentials that align with what the Liberal Democrats stand for. Dr Philip Lee and Angela Smith do not spark the same response.
Simply put, there is nothing liberal about Dr Philip Lee. With a voting record closer to that of a 1950s Conservative than that of a Liberal Democrat in 2019, it did not take long for a ruckus to brew in the party as soon as he trundled over to to the opposition bench whilst Johnson spluttered out a speech in the Commons.
Notably, Lee abstained from the historical Equal Marriage Act in 2013. This prompted the party’s LGBT+ chair to resign from her post, noting that Lee was “not a liberal” and that his views on gay rights and HIV migrants proved “problematic”. You would think this was a lesson the party had learnt from Tim Farron’s time at the helm. This saw the vote share decrease at the 2017 general election. Farron did at least generally use his vote to increase LGBT+ rights. Lee has not.
As for Smith, you might remember her from such hits as defecting to the Independent Group from Labour and then saying people from ethnic minorities had a “funny tinge”. Other than that she couldn’t be described as an environmentalist due to her support of fracking, I’m not sure much else needs to be said on the matter.
Understandably, the party sees preventing Brexit as the greatest issue standing before them. However, if the Liberal Democrats want to have a seat at the election table for the long-term, they need to stop taking the other party’s leftovers as this will risk undoing the work that has lead them to the position they are in today.
A Labour and Tory Party at opposite ends of the political spectrum has made way for the Lib Dems to make their voice heard where it has previously not. They must now maintain their liberal, centre-ground distinctiveness.
Jo Swinson will now address her party at their conference in Bournemouth on Saturday. She may not be able to explicitly tell them to prepare for government, but she can certainly tell them they have a stake in the race. A damn sight more than they’ve been able to say since the coalition days.