If the Lib Dems fail to make a breakthrough this election, it’ll be because of their own mistakes

Representing a long-held Conservative seat that voted Remain in the referendum, I’m aware that my constituents have been the recipients of a significant amount of dodgy Lib Dem bar charts and fake newspapers advertising Jo Swinson as the next Prime Minister.

Yet having knocked on literally thousands of doors in my seat, and speaking to Conservative colleagues in similar places, I have been pondering why the Lib Dem campaign, which promised so much, hasn’t (yet) caught fire.

Now it won’t be a disaster. They will probably increase their vote share significantly, and may even double their seats (they won 12 in 2017), but they will almost certainly be a long way short of their ambitions of winning 80-100 seats.

Bearing in mind the wider political context, with the difficulties that the prime minister and Corbyn have with different parts of the electorate, and with Brexit still unresolved, this election should have been the sort of political opportunity that only comes around once in a generation.

The Lib Dems clearly understood this, hence their decision to push for an election this winter. Yet they have made three fundamental strategic errors.

Firstly, they repeated the big error the Conservatives made in 2017: they have built a campaign around somebody who does not have the political skill or personality to inspire faith or confidence in her leadership.

Speaking to my constituents during this campaign, exactly four people have expressed a view about Jo Swinson that was not rather negative (and that’s in the rare times she was mentioned). There is literally no enthusiasm for her. None.

An unpopular or unknown leader doesn’t necessarily have to be fatal for a campaign, but it’s hard if so much of the party’s branding and literature is centred around her.

Then there’s their policy of revoking Article 50. Now, I happen to object to this policy, as do many others, because I believe it is the wrong thing to do. But that’s not why it was a strategic error. There are clearly plenty of Remainers in the country, many of them highly geographically concentrated, and many of them agree with the policy. However, it looks polarising to most voters at a time when we need to bring the country together.

It doesn’t pass muster as being fair to cancel a referendum vote – and on the doorstep, my constituents say so.

“Revoke” has completely muddied the Lib Dems’ image as a party of the moderate centre, which is so important for potential voters who are those who regard themselves as moderate refugees from Labour or the Conservatives. The policy puts a ceiling on their support that is unlikely to be high enough for them to make a significant breakthrough – rather like what’s happened to the Brexit Party.

The party’s final error is on their relationship with Labour. Now, everyone knows that Jeremy Corbyn is, let’s say, ambiguous on Brexit. He is also deeply unpopular across the country. However, he is the only politician who can both become prime minister and deliver what the Lib Dems want, which is a way to stop Brexit.

Yet with Swinson’s aggressive attacks on him – presumably meant to keep former Tory voters on side – the Lib Dems have fundamentally undermined their claim to be the unambiguously “Remain” party.

More than that, claiming that they are better placed than Labour to win certain seats where that is clearly not true has provoked an angry fightback from Labour. That means much of the “Remain” vote will stay with Labour – thereby damaging both parties, and putting the “Remain” cause on life support.

This is not lost on the electorate. I know from my own constituency that most Conservative “Remain” voters know Corbyn is a much bigger threat to them than Brexit – and they know that by voting Lib Dem they are putting Corbyn into power.

It would have been much wiser for the Lib Dems to cooperate much more strongly with Labour, admit this possibility head on, and develop a political strategy with that future Labour-led “Remain” government in mind after the election.

There is still some three weeks to go, and a lot can happen in that time. But if the Lib Dems don’t make their much hoped-for breakthrough with this election, these will be some of the reasons why.


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