By James Moules
IN recent years, the Liberal Democrats have become less of a political party and more of a political punchline.
Ten years ago, the UK’s main centrist liberal party seemed to be on the verge of a breakthrough. Then leader Nick Clegg stormed to popularity during the 2010 election leadership debates, sparking the now laughable ‘Cleggmania’ craze.
With Labour’s popularity nosediving in the wake of the financial crisis, many young first time voters latched onto the Liberal Democrats.
But from there, the Lib Dems’ fortunes rapidly dissolved.
Election day 2010 yielded the nation’s first hung parliament in decades, and after frantic coalition negotiations from all sides, the Liberal Democrats agreed to back a Conservative led government under David Cameron.
This coalition government would enact extensive austerity measures and triple university tuition fees – policies that saw the popularity of the Liberal Democrats plummet and their reputation in tatters.
Five years later at the 2015 election, the Liberal Democrats suffered humiliation and annihilation, sinking from 57 seats to a mere eight.
Since then, the Liberal Democrats sought to reclaim their relevance in British politics by unapologetically opposing Brexit, aiming to entice Labour remain voters disillusioned with Jeremy Corbyn’s apparent fence-sitting on the issue.
But in both the 2017 and 2019 elections, the Lib Dems barely improved their fortunes, scoring 12 and 11 seats respectively.
Even the party’s anti-Brexit credentials were tarnished in the latter half of last year when then leader Jo Swinson declined to back a Labour minority government that would call a second referendum if Boris Johnson’s government fell in a no-confidence motion.
Given how the nation seems to be inexorably hurtling towards a no-deal crashout, this decision ages ever more poorly by the day.
Between 2015 and 2020, the Liberal Democrats have seen four new leaders – a turnover of seemingly chaotic frequency.
The party’s identity has been intertwined with opposing Brexit for so long now that anyone could be forgiven for not knowing any of the party’s broader policy stances.
But under the leadership of Ed Davey, the Lib Dems have just voted to adopt a policy that could see their fortunes change.
As part of its ongoing party conference, they have committed to Universal Basic Income (UBI) – a system that would see an identical sum of money provided to every citizen on a regular basis as a right.
It was seen as a utopian fantasy not too long ago, but UBI has found its way into mainstream political discourse over the past couple of years.
Benoît Hamon and Andrew Yang ran for the presidencies of France and the USA respectively on a basic income platform.
In the age of Covid-19, and the grim forecasts of mass unemployment that accompany it, a policy of UBI could serve as a vital lifeline.
Indeed, a UBI trial was conducted in Finland in 2017 and 2018, which found that there was a significant boost to the mental health and sense of financial wellbeing among participants.
Transformative programmes such as basic income offer the Lib Dems a unique opportunity for revival – especially when Labour’s new leadership appears tentative on commitment to solid policy.
Even the laziest observer of British politics could name a policy from the Corbyn years – be it mass nationalisation, the foundation of a National Education Service or the expansion of broadband across the country.
But the policy direction of the self-branded ‘New Leadership’ very much remains to be seen.
While it’s still early days for Starmer, the Lib Dems could capitalise on this lack of clarity to set the agenda and frame the discussion for progressive change.
Obviously, the Liberal Democrats still have a long way to go to rehabilitate their image. Many – including the author of this piece – will find it hard to forgive their record in coalition.
But now the UK has left the EU – and the Liberal Democrats must adapt beyond their anti-Brexit raison d’être – the party’s move to adopt a basic income platform is a promising development.
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