Over the past 18 months the Lib Dems have increasingly positioned themselves as “the Party of the 48%”, of Remain and as “the real Opposition” to the Tories hard Brexit.
On the face of it this seems a sensible strategy – trying to do what the SNP did in Scotland after IndyRef – coral the defeated side behind one Party whilst the ‘victors’ remained divided.
Amongst the 48% were large numbers of previous LD voters, some moderate Tories and about two-thirds of Labour voters.
It seemed to be working – in Richmond they overturned a 23,000 Tory majority and defeated Zac Goldsmith using this approach.
But did they get carried away with this initial success and inadvertently limit their own chances, and, probably more significantly, undermined the campaign of resistance to Brexit?
By trying to focus anti-Brexit sentiment on themselves as a political party they faced a couple of big obstacles:
- firstly they were starting from a very low base of support. As Martin Kettle has pointed out in today’s Guardian their “2015 result was shattering: just eight Lib Dem MPs left from the 2010 total of 57. Votes down from 6.8m to 2.4m. The party’s 8% share was the lowest since 1970.”. This was a very poor platform to launch a national challenge to Brexit by themselves.
- secondly, they were carry huge baggage from their period in Coalition with the Tories from 2010-2015. It meant that a substantial number of ‘Remainers’ – especially Labour voters – would be naturally sceptical about the Lib gems however important they felt Brexit was as an issue. There is evidence some Labour supporters and activists have deserted Corbyn’s Brexit-collaborating Labour for the Lib Dems but judging from today’s local election results not many voters have followed them.
Could they have done anything else? Well, yes they probably could have.
The former LD leader Paddy Ashdown launched a movement called ‘Better Together’ (after the slogan of the murdered Labour MP Jo Cox).
This could have been a platform for a broad anti-Brexit movement in which the LDs could have played an important role whilst avoiding dominating it. There are many, many, potential activists for such a movement – both from other Parties and none – but ‘More United’ has largely failed to organise them into an active campaigning movement. It has not set up local groups or organised much outside its on-line presence.
There are other groups that could have been mobilised behind such a movement – the readers of the highly successful New European newspaper or the various groups like Scientists for the EU. A non-Party movement would also be find it easier to attract funding from the many businesses and other interests threatened by Brexit, especially a hard Brexit.
Instead of this the Lib Dems have rather opportunistically tried to focus opposition into themselves. It looks like it has had only very limited success for them. Rather more significant it may have missed an opportunity to mobilise a broad movement against Brexit, or at least for a much softer version of it?