The main story of yesterday’s by-election for David Cameron’s former Parliamentary seat in Witney has been an apparent Liberal Democrat surge. It was a good result, but it is one that should suprise nobody – because in recent months there has been a consistent pattern of strong Liberal Democrat results in areas where they are organised, like Central Cardiff and Sheffield. It’s much patchier where there is no history of Liberal Democrat strength, but the Liberal Democrats have traditionally been strong in the city of Oxford itself (where they held the Oxford West and Abingdon seat from 1997-2010) and in the county of Oxfordshire.
Why should a party that appeared to be heading towards oblivion a little more than a year ago now be recovering so strikingly? And what does this mean for progressive politics in the UK?
There was little doubt that the coalition with the Tories from 2010 to 2015 was an electoral and ideological disaster for the Liberal Democrats. It represented both the acceptance of a subordinate position in Government where they took responsibility but apparently exercised little influence in Government; and the high-water mark of an economically hard-right tendency within the Liberal Democrat party, that had little or nothing in common with the social liberalism of many of the Party’s most active supporters.
How much has changed? In one sense, everything. The referendum vote in support of leaving the EU has replaced the economic crash of 2007-8 as Britian’s crucial political watershed. The Liberal Democrats were closely associated in the public mind with two main policy positions; electoral reform and strong support for the EU. With the Brexit position unravelling into (wholly predictable) incoherence, and with a Labour leadership that simply did not rise to the challenge of the EU referendum and, in any case, appears incapable of engaging in a meaningful conversation with anyone outside the closed ranks of the Corbynista fan-base, it’s hardly surprising that the Liberal Democrats want to offer themselves as the voice of the 48% of electors who voted Remain.
But if the referendum has replaced the crash as the reference-point of British political discourse, that brings opportunities for Labour too; it can only help to bury the lie that Labour overspent in office. All the signs are that austerity as an idea is dead – certainly in the Labour Party, and, with the abandonment of George Osborne’s defict reduction targets even the Tories are changing the rhetoric. Both main parties talk more of investment than cuts, even if the reality of Tory Government remains very different. The question for the Liberal Democrats is whether they can move on from the ideological fictions of the Orange Book and reposition themselves as a party that understands that markets do not work for the provision of public goods, and that you cannot cut your way out of economic recession.
But there is another big issue for the Liberal Democrats too. Britain is looking like an increasingly illiberal place just now; the rise of hate-crime after the Brexit vote, the rhetoric of the Tory Party conference, the horrifying reaction of the tabloid media to the arrival of a handful of child refugees from Calais. There is a long-standing liberal tradition in Britain – we talk a lot about our open and tolerant society. Who will speak for Liberal Britain now? Of course it ought to be the Labour Party, but its internal conduct – its inability to deal with anti-Semitism in its own ranks, and its capture by the illiberal politics of entryism – suggests otherwise. And it continues to take an equivocal and confused attitude to immigration – its failure to make the honest case that Britain benefits from immigration is damaging its liberal credentials. It continues to react to the Right’s rhetoric, and has yet to summon up the will to challenge it. And it’s important to remember the links between prosperity and liberal social policy – racism and nationalism are all too often the products of economic uncertainty. Credible economic policy is essential to a liberal agenda.
If the Liberal Democrats are surging – and the Witney vote reflects a wider trend, as I argued above – then Labour as well as the Tories have some serious soul-searching to do. If the Liberal Democrats can combine an appeal to the 48% who voted remain, can act as a voice for Liberal Britain, and can consign the Orange Book to the dustbin of history, there appears to be a real chance that they can win over Tory swing voters who will be crucial in 2020. Moreover, they have a leader who is young, articulate, credible and untainted by the Lib Dems’ disastrous time in Government. Labour remains hampered by its focus on internal debate and a leader whose appeal is entirely internal. Labour’s first and most important task is to set out a credible economic alternative, but it needs to reflect on the lessons from the Liberal Democrat surge and learn from them.