Oh what larks the Lib Dems are having at their “don’t mention Brexit conference”. Ed Davey has been merrily tipped out of a kayak, and they have rewritten Three Lions, the football anthem as a re-joining-the-EU song for their karaoke night. “Gold stars on the flag, four freedoms still gleaming, glory years of peace, kept us all campaigning.” If this kind of thing is your idea of fun then maybe you are a Lib Dem. Or simply confused, which is understandable. I cannot be the only person wondering what the Lib Dems are now for.
This is all a bit déjà vu for me. The first time I ever went to a Lib Dem gathering years ago, it seemed to me you could believe almost anything and be in the party so maybe I was a Lib Dem myself. By day two, I just found a lot of these men in jumpers frankly odd as the party encompassed such a huge range of views, some just bizarre. Or, to be polite, perhaps “liberal” in the good sense of the word. Women seemed to barely exist in the party or their policies.
Still, it seems to me there is no point in moaning about the clapped-out and adversarial two-party system if you are not prepared to entertain new ways of thinking about representative democracy. The Lib Dems do. Proportional representation is a worthy goal but where are we now I wonder? Tactical voting will be the name of the game at the next election. Yet even tactical voters have to be persuaded that the party they give their votes to is not divided and to understand some basic policies.
To say the Lib Dems are sending out mixed messages especially around Europe is an understatement. This is a Remain party but its leader has said that discussion of re-joining the EU is “off the table”. Their current positioning is all about taking seats off the Tories not Labour; of the 80 or so seats they are chasing, only two are Labour.
This explains why they are now extremely coy about who they really are. This never plays well in the polls. You don’t have to be a political anorak to intuit that they are not being entirely straight. They have become the anti-Tory outfit that is more to the Left on many issues than Starmer’s Labour. Their new tacking to the Right on taxing the wealthy in particular gives voters less of a choice than ever. Many of those who stuck with them will go to the Greens.
What they appear to be now is the “Don’t frighten the horses” party who think they can sweep up anti-Tory sentiment in places where Labour cannot win: the “Blue Wall” of the South. Timidity, however, is not inspiring.
Of course after the high point of Cleggbama – when everyone went a little mad over Nick Clegg – then the low point of being wiped out after a disastrous coalition deal with the Tories, they have tried to reinvent themselves as pragmatists. They do still believe in reforming the voting system but they will not talk about it on the doorstep. They are for things like fairness and the NHS and “family-friendly” policies. Well, who isn’t?
If the problem for the old style Lib Dems was that they engaged in largely abstract discussion because they would never get near power, the issue now is that, having been so badly burnt, it is hard to detect what their actual values are. In polls they are simply flatlining as a result despite some good by-election results.
Their ambition to be a bigger party in Parliament than the SNP looks unlikely, but could they once more be a decisive factor in a hung parliament? Starmer, don’t forget, has to win 123 seats to get a majority of just one.
Again there are mixed messages with some of the Lib Dems saying they would never go into coalition and others saying they would. Is this now their purpose, a kind of second-tier Labour party?
The problem is that in the age of identity politics, something they have embraced, they have no real identity.
Most people won’t know a lot about Ed Davey except he is the bloke that said women could “quite clearly” have a penis. They are hardcore on this stuff. Layla Moran is full of this ideological gobbledegook. When asked to define a woman she answered: “A woman is a gender. It is a way to self-identify and there are lots of genders.”
Their own canvassers are told how to neutralise any conversations about this. They take donations from the manufacturers of puberty blockers. This issue is one where they actually differ from Labour or some of Labour, so we shall see! As with the Greens, any dissent in their party about this is shoved away.
To vote Lib Dem even tactically though, there has to be a level of trust established. That is what the job of Conference is, but you cannot trust anyone who is deliberately ignoring the main issues. They are like children who think when they shut their eyes we cannot see them.
Older voters remember who they used to be; younger ones will have trouble working out who they are. Being the least worst option may persuade some wavering Tories but this is a politics of utter pessimism. We all deserve something more honest.