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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Featured Image: Liberal Democrats @Flickr
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3 thoughts on “The Liberal Democrats have just found a way to remain relevant”
You seem to be under a misunderstanding of the events surrounding a possible Corbyn lead coalition government.
Even with Lib Dem support, Corbyn would have needed the Independents and Change UK to give him a majority, and they would not give him such a thing. They were ex-tories and ex-labour rightists after all.
Swinson’s own proposals for Ken Clark or Harriet Harman leading a GNU being refused by Corbyn are almost never discussed, yet that would have convinced Independents and Change UK to back such a plan. Curiously, why Corbyn felt the need that stopping Brexit meant he needed to be in number 10 is never brought up.
You also forgot that every single Labour leader the Liberal/Lib Dem party has supported as part of a pact have been on the labour right, from Macdonald to Callaghan to Blair (even Wilson if you include a few voting agreements he made with Grimond in 1964-1966 due to his weak majority). If working with the Labour left was acceptable to the party leadership, then they’d be no need for them to be in a Liberal/Alliance/Lib Dem party.
For all the smears levied against the Liberal Democrats for being “Yellow Tories”, by Corbyn, Mcdonnell and their allies, it is surprising that they are *shocked* that the party doesn’t want to put one of their own in Downing Street. Its almost as if they don’t even believe their own rhetoric.