Why are the Lib Dems falling in the polls?
The more that voters see of Jo Swinson the less they like her. That’s one of the more depressing statistics to come out of the General Election so far for the Liberal Democrats. What started with so much hope – a rise in the polls, a Remain coalition, maybe even the keys to Number 10 – is fizzing out. At the end of October, less than a month ago, the Lib Dems were on 23%. Now they’re on 15% and falling. We’re twenty days out from Election Day and the Lib Dems are tanking back to third party status.
Swinson’s increasing unpopularity meant the Conservatives had a perverse incentive to keep her away from the TV debates. Having her on could risk the Lib Dems shedding more votes to a Labour Party incrementally rising in the polls. Labour, on the other hand, couldn’t risk Swinson making a star turn a la Clegg in 2010. So she’s sitting them out.
According to popular media logic, though, this should have been the Lib Dem election, the moment where a party politics stretched to the extremes found its sensible centre once again. But that hasn’t happened. Earlier this year Change UK exploded cataclysmically soon after launch, with the survivors – including Anna Soubry, Chris Leslie, and Mike Gapes – scrabbling around for a few hundred votes on December 12th.
What explains this? The most informed commentators conclude that what used to be the ‘political centre’ has simply run out of ideas. As the philosopher John Gray wrote in the New Statesman earlier this year, “liberal democracies everywhere face mounting popular insurgencies, which centrist establishments have not begun to understand.” These insurgencies, in the form of both Brexit and a Corbyn-led Labour Party, have confused those for whom social and economic liberalism was the obvious and unimprovable consensus and their solutions are nowhere to be found. The headlines from the Lib Dem manifesto were, to be blunt, a bit boring. A tinkering around the edges with an awkwardly radical revocation of Article 50 squatting on top.
The details, a penny income tax rise here, a 20% wage rise for zero hours workers there, and a bit of free childcare thrown in, felt a bit (dare we say it) coalition-y. None of this will grab the headlines like Tory commitments to Brexit and the Towns Fund or Labour’s nationalisation of major utilities.
That’s because at the heart of the Conservative and Labour promises is a fundamental, and very radical, rethink of their identities as parties. The Conservatives, far from becoming a radical fringe movement, have managed to build a culturally conservative Brexit coalition, hoovering up former UKIP and Brexit Party voters. And Labour, over the past four years, have developed a national economic vision whose statism is complemented by regionally and locally-oriented economic strategies.
The Lib Dems, caught in the middle of all this, are struggling to find their voice. Arguably, once Brexit has finished, the party can recapture those voters who are economically pro-market and socially liberal. But these voters, increasingly, coalesce in cities, rubbing alongside more radical poorer and graduate voters priced out of the housing market. The realignment which is currently underway, replacing left and right with divides based around support or opposition to key liberal values, threatens to squeeze the traditional parties of the centre who have apparently given up on serious economic thinking.
The Lib Dems will gain seats in this election, that’s certain. But to what end? If they can enter into a coalition with Labour then they could secure the second referendum they’re so desperate for. But that is now the maximal extent of Lib Dem aspirations. They have given up the pretence that they can become a viable party of majority Government. Jo Swinson isn’t going to be the next Prime Minister.
The future of the liberal centre depends on truly coming to grips with our populist moment and developing a coherent policy platform to match. But this is, somewhat bizarrely, the one outcome they have apparently disavowed. Unless they can manage that, the Lib Dems will forever be consigned to third party status.